Turkey & Israel: What the United Nations' flotilla report means
Turkey & Israel: What the United Nations' flotilla report means
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Turkey & Israel: What the United Nations' flotilla report means

A critical obstacle to restoring a healthy and working relationship between Turkey and Israel is both sides' mutual distrust and lack of information about the events surrounding the Mavi Marmara flotilla disaster at the end of May. The world is still waiting for an authoritative account based on full access to Israeli, Turkish and other actors. Israel has published only small parts of Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland's probe, which approved of the Israeli military's conduct during the operation. A civilian investigation under retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel may produce a comprehensive report, but key hearings have been held in secret and it is unclear how far it will go beyond an initial focus on the underlying legality of Israeli actions.
Turkey's lengthy official account remains under wraps with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's panel of inquiry, which has no mandate to probe deeply or establish criminal responsibility.

In the meantime, one benefit of the Ban Ki-moon probe is that it has given time and political cover to all to seek new information and think calmly about what actually happened. And - despite all that has been said - one unexpected place to look is the report adopted on September 27 by the UN Human Rights Council.

It is true that the HRC's generally disproportionate focus on Israel, and its disregard for the actions of many of the world's worst human rights abusers, not least among its 47 members, has greatly damaged the body's credibility.

Even the council's chosen rapporteurs on the flotilla rejected their original mandate because of "justified criticism" of its "bias." But the 56-page document deserves careful study. Even the United States, explaining its lone vote against the council's report, did not criticize its contents.

Based on interviews with 112 passengers from 20 countries, the account is thorough, measured and consistent with publicly known facts. And it does not leave the flotilla activists blameless.

For instance, the report notes tension between the political and humanitarian objectives of the organizers. It points out that organizers were aware of Israel's intention to use force, casting more doubt on their decision to actively resist, especially after Israel offered to send the goods to Gaza under neutral supervision. The account details differences between the contract crew of the Mavi Marmara and some organizers, including the Turkish NGO that owned the ship, who were determined to resist the soldiers.

At the same time, the report challenges the lethality and sustained use of force by Israeli commandos against civilians in international waters. In the seizure of the Mavi Marmara, it asserts that Israel used live fire from a helicopter to clear the top deck of hostile activists before any soldiers landed. It finds no evidence of firearms brought on board by the activists or used by them, as some Israeli officials have claimed. It shows that force used in Israel's takeovers of three other of the flotilla's six vessels was also disproportionate.

The rapporteurs list abuses by Israeli troops and officials, during several subsequent stages, including failure to tend properly to several injured people, degrading treatment of handcuffed prisoners during the long sea voyage to Ashdod, the parading of the detained activists in front of jeering Israeli onlookers at the port, attempts to force activists to sign self-incriminating documents, cases of unaccountable Israeli seizure of activists' cameras, computers, cell phones, cash and property, and individual beatings of at least 30 activists at Ben-Gurion International Airport at the time of their deportation.

The legal analysis of the rapporteurs - Trinidad's retired International Criminal Court judge Karl T. Hudson-Phillips, British former UN war crimes prosecutor Desmond de Silva, and Malaysian women's rights activist Mary Shanthi Dairiam - argues that Israel's blockade of Gaza is illegal because it is "collective punishment - inflicting disproportionate damage on the civilian population."

In the absence of evidence of weaponry on board, or of an overwhelming military threat, the report also sees the interception of the flotilla as illegal and "motivated by concerns about the possible propaganda victory that might be claimed by the organizers."

The report concludes that "the conduct of the Israeli military ... demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence." It finds "clear evidence to support prosecutions" in eight areas of international law ranging from murder to restricting freedom of expression.

The rapporteurs thank Jordan and Turkey for their assistance. They note their "profound regret that, notwithstanding a most cordial meeting" with the Israeli ambassador to the UN, they were informed of an Israeli position of "non-recognition and non-cooperation."

Toward the end of their mission, the rapporteurs sent a list of questions to Israel, but these went unanswered. The Israeli Foreign Ministry dismissed the resulting account as "extremist," but promised to study it. One would hope that many others, also in Turkey, will take into account the detailed and comprehensive material now available in this report.

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