U.N. and Israel Sharply Differ on Flotilla Violence

Dueling Reports Spark Earthquake in Relations With Turkey

Flotilla Rift: The 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, shown here off the coast of Israel, is still roiling Turkey and Israel nearly 18 months later.
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Flotilla Rift: The 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, shown here off the coast of Israel, is still roiling Turkey and Israel nearly 18 months later.

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 15, 2011, issue of September 23, 2011.

“Overall, the [Israeli] personnel acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence.” This is the verdict of Israel’s inquiry into the May 31, 2010, raid on the Mavi Marmara, part of the flotilla seeking to bring aid to Gaza.

And this is what the international panel appointed by the United Nations had to say about the same set of events, in its report released September 2: “It seems to us to have been too heavy a response too quickly. It was an excessive reaction to the situation.”

So, which report got it right? Did the Israeli report look at all the facts?

The unfolding downward spiral in relations between Israel and Turkey has many causes. But the catalyst for the explosion of open threats the two are now exchanging erupted with the release of the U.N. report, which recommended that Israel express “regret” for the episode and offer compensation to those victimized or their families.

Turkey has demanded an “apology.” But Jerusalem, after long negotiations with Ankara to try to find a mutually acceptable formulation, has declined to offer either, not to mention compensation.

A close look at the Israeli and U.N. reports reveals some unbridgeable differences that Israel faces in trying to square the actions asked of it — and then justify them to its own public — in the face of the findings of its own independent commission; and this is despite substantial areas of agreement the two reports share.

Both inquiry panels seemed to agree on the key legal questions surrounding the debate over Israel’s takeover of the Turkish flotilla. The blockade imposed on Gaza, as well as actions taken by Israel to enforce it, was lawful, both committees agreed.

Several major commissions investigated the flotilla incident. The Israeli public commission was led by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel; a separate Turkish national committee was staffed by senior government officials, and the U.N. inquiry panel was chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. The U.N. panel examined the two other reports and reached its own conclusions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, each committee’s findings reinforced the narrative of those who established it: Turkey’s report argued that Israel’s blockade was illegal and that its actions on board the Mavi Marmara breached human rights laws. The Israeli commission vindicated Israel from any wrongdoing. The U.N. committee took a middle road, agreeing with Israel on the legality of its action while adopting Turkey’s view in regard to the actual events at sea.

Still, those U.N. panel differences with Israel’s version are crucial.

Turkel’s and Palmer’s reports differ in scope, in tone and in some of their conclusions. The Israeli report, published in January and spread over nearly 300 pages, exhibits sympathy to the Israel Defense Forces commandos who carried out the operation and stresses the difficulties they encountered. “What they experienced on the Mavi Marmara were levels of violence that they associated with combat,” the report stated.

Palmer’s approach was more detached. His committee’s report attempted to go beyond each nation’s rhetoric and focus on verifiable facts. This could explain the divergence between his findings regarding the events on board the ship and those of the Israeli committee. After Turkel listened to first-person testimonies of the soldiers that participated in the raid, he regarded their accounts as credible. Palmer, on the other hand, focused more on evidence than on testimonies from either side, and gave more weight to the forensic reports detailing the wounds suffered by the nine participants killed during the raid.

“The Panel is struck by the level of violence that took place during the take-over operation,” Palmer’s report stated as it moved to debunk an Israeli claim that boarding the ship before dawn from helicopters was the safest way to stop it. According to Palmer, Israel should have delivered specific warnings before boarding the ship and should have considered firing warning shots to make its intentions clear.

Turkel, on the other hand, accepts the view of the IDF that all other options were impractical given the size of the ship and the large number of passengers it carried. The Israeli commission, however, did indicate in its report that a second thought could have been given to the idea of pausing for further warning before having commandos drop onto the ship.

“Clear warnings and the controlled and isolated use of force may have helped avoid a wider and more violent confrontation such as the one that occurred,” Turkel wrote in one of only two passages in the report that questioned the decisions and operations of the Israeli forces.

The Israeli report examined 133 cases in which soldiers used force against participants in the flotilla, and it found that 127 of them met the requirements set by international laws. Six other cases could not be determined, because of lack of information. It was unclear whether those six included those killed, wounded or unharmed.

The Turkel report doesn’t talk specifically about the types of wounds found on the victims. It gives a list of each body and what kinds of wounds were found on it, but it does not offer any specific explanation.

Palmer, on the other hand, looked at the Turkish report of autopsies performed on the nine bodies of citizens killed on board the Mavi Marmara. Among those killed were five people shot from behind, and one who suffered multiple bullet wounds, including some from “extremely close range.”

Israel, Palmer noted, did not supply adequate explanations on this issue. The report suggests that the Israeli soldiers acted improperly by using deadly force when other options might have been available.

“The loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces during the take-over of the Mavi Marmara was unacceptable,” he concluded.

The U.N. report also rejected Israel’s conclusion that all passengers were treated appropriately when taken into custody in Israel, and argued that there was “significant mistreatment” in the way Israel interrogated and transported them.

But while the accounts of events on board the Mavi Marmara were diametrically opposed, both reports concurred on many of the other key issues: Palmer accepted the Israeli view that IHH, the Turkish group participating in the flotilla, had prepared to attack Israeli soldiers and that its members cannot be considered uninvolved civilians. The U.N. panel also endorsed Israel’s main legal claim that Gaza was involved in an armed conflict with Israel and therefore the blockade imposed on it was legal and did not cause a humanitarian crisis.

“The report validates Israel’s investigation and gives it a U.N. stamp of approval,” said Alan Baker, former legal counsel to the Israeli foreign ministry. “Palmer made clear that the blockade was legal.” Baker, now director of Jerusalem’s Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem, attached only little significance to Palmer’s criticism of Israel’s conduct during the raid. “You can’t expect to get a carte blanche from the U.N.,” he said. “Palmer needed somehow to give a hard time both to Israel and to Turkey.”

While Israelis celebrated the Palmer Report as proving the legality of its policy, critics focused on the portions dealing with Israel’s wrongdoing. Amnesty International, a human rights organization that has been highlighting the charges against Israel, said that Palmer’s report confirms its own conclusion that Israel used excessive force. And while accepting Palmer’s finding that Israel’s blockade is lawful, the group suggested that this conclusion “should not be interpreted to mean that the entire closure regime imposed on Gaza is legal.”

Attempting to look forward and prevent further tension, the Palmer committee recommended that Israel and Turkey resume diplomatic ties and establish a “political roundtable as a forum for exchanging views.” But events on the ground seem to be slipping in the opposite direction. As the war of words between Jerusalem and Ankara intensified, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened that Israel would support the Kurdistan Workers Party, otherwise known as the PKK. The group is Turkey’s sworn enemy and is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, NATO and the European Union.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, warned, during a September 13 speech in Cairo, that his country would use “all means” to ensure freedom of sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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