A United Nations independent commission of inquiry has held a second series of public hearings as part of its mandate to investigate human rights violations in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The five-day hearings in Geneva, which ended on Friday, focused on the shrinking space for civil society and on attacks against human rights defenders, activists, lawyers and journalists.
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Among those who gave their testimonies to the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, were the colleagues and relatives of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
The 51-year-old veteran TV reporter was killed by Israeli forces on May 11, 2022, while covering a military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.
“Independent investigations have concluded that the gunfire aimed at Abu Akleh and other reporters came from Israeli soldiers and that the journalists were deliberately targeted despite wearing distinctive press signs on their vests,” Walid Omary, Al Jazeera Arabic’s Jerusalem bureau chief, told the commission in his deposition.
“The deliberate attack targeting journalists during conflict constitutes a war crime,” he said.
Miloon Kothari, one of the three members appointed to serve in the commission of inquiry, told Al Jazeera that the evidence presented during the hearings was “very disturbing”.
“There has been an escalation in the closure of the civil society space both by the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian authorities and de facto authority in Gaza,” Kothari told Al Jazeera.
“We are in the process of compiling all this information, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June this year.”
The Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, was set up in the wake of the 11-day Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip in May 2021 that killed at least 250 Palestinians. At least 13 people were killed in Israel in rocket attacks from Gaza.
Through a resolution adopted in a May 27, 2021 session, the Human Rights Council decided to “urgently establish an ongoing, independent, international commission of inquiry” to investigate abuses in the occupied Palestinian territory as well as – for the first time – in Israel, from April 13, 2021, onwards.
The resolution further requested the commission of inquiry to “investigate all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity”.
The commission has an open-ended mandate to report to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly on an annual basis from June 2022 and September 2022, respectively.
It held a first series of public hearings from November 7 to 11, 2022, focusing on the closure orders and “terrorism” designation of a number of Palestinian human rights organisations, as well as the killing of Abu Akleh. At the time, Israel had called the hearings “sham trials” and accused the inquiry of an “anti-Israel” agenda.
The commission has previously said it regretted “the lack of cooperation on the part of Israel, along with its refusal to allow entry into Israel and to permit access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory”.
Kothari, an international law expert who served as the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing with the Human Rights Council, said the evidence collected by the commission would be made available “to all judicial bodies”. He added that last year it submitted a report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and that it was expecting a verdict on “the legality of occupation”.
“We also asked the ICJ to lay out what the responsibilities of third states are,” Kothari said.
Navi Pillay, chair of the commission, said on Tuesday that the occupation had been identified as the “root cause” of the human rights violations. She added that its nature was clearly “permanent” rather than temporary and that negotiations were “just a pretence”.
Issa Amro, a Palestinian human rights defender who testified in the hearings, said his work and that of others like him aimed to “show the world what is happening”.
“Palestinians deserve full rights; we deserve justice, equality and we will not compromise on our basic human rights,” he said.
“We will not give up, but we need the international community to give us support and protection,” he added.