Flotilla Report Leaks, Turkey Expels Israeli Ambassador

Elizabeth Whitman

HAVANA TIMES, Sep 2 (IPS) — A highly anticipated and controversial report on Israel’s May 2010 interception of an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip and subsequent killing of nine civilians and wounding of many others was finally leaked on Thursday, as diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey continued to deteriorate.

The report stated that Israel’s decision to board flotilla vessels was “excessive and unreasonable” and that Israel had provided “no satisfactory explanation” regarding the nine deaths resulting from that decision. It suggested that Israel offer financial compensation to injured victims and families of the deceased.

Turkey announced Friday that it was replacing its ambassador to Israel with a second secretary and expelling Israel’s ambassador to Turkey.

The New York Times obtained and published a copy of the report containing the conclusions of a panel commissioned by the secretary- general of the United Nations and led by Geoffrey Palmer, former prime minister of New Zealand, and Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia. One representative each from Turkey and Israel also sat on the panel.

In May 2010, a flotilla of six vessels carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip attempted to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.  When the flotilla refused to change course as per Israeli directions, Israeli soldiers resorted to force, boarding the Mavi Marmara and killing nine on board as well as wounding many others.

In contradiction to previous statements and findings of the United Nations, the Palmer report found Israel’s naval blockade to be a “legitimate security measure” and that “its implementation complied with the requirements of international law”. The U.N. position on the Gaza blockade has long been that it ought to be lifted but that those seeking to bring aid to Gaza should utilize established routes and procedures.

Both Israel and Turkey sought to use the report’s release as a political tool, with Turkey hoping that delaying it might force Israel to yield to diplomatic demands, such as Turkey’s request for Israel to apologies for its actions in May 2010. Meanwhile, Israel sought as late as this week to delay the report’s release by another six months, supposedly to buy the government time to better deal with the report’s consequences.

The report’s conclusions have been met with varying levels of skepticism and outrage, and its impact so far appears to lie mainly in diplomatic realms. In addition to downgrading relations with Israel, Turkey has said it will seek to bring the legality of the blockade to the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations which settles disputes between states.

A spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon refused to comment on whether the report represented the views of the U.N., insisting on awaiting Ban’s official comments and saying only, “It is the report of the commissioners who analyzed the situation.”

Contradictory conclusions

In September 2010, a fact-finding mission of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) unequivocally declared Israel’s interception of the flotilla illegal, saying “the flotilla presented no imminent threat” to Israel and that “the conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel towards the flotilla passengers constituted a grave violation of human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

But in April of this year Israel rejected those conclusions, and so the U.N. secretary-general commissioned a second panel – the Palmer commission – in August 2010 to re-examine the legality of Israeli intervention.

Even the report itself contains inconsistencies. Israel’s “implementation [of the blockade] complied with the requirements of international law” even as that very implementation involved “excessive” use of force and killings in a manner that resembled execution rather than self-defense.

Israel has imposed economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million inhabitants since 2006, after Hamas, a group Israel and the U.S. label as terrorist, won legislative elections there. In 2007, Israel heightened the already choking restrictions to a full closure, citing security concerns.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in June 2010 called the closure “devastating”, as it constituted “collective punishment” that violated international humanitarian law. The September UNHRC report noted that enforcement of a blockade may not continue “where it inflicts disproportionate damage on the civilian population”.

Problematic framework

Experts agreed that the structure of the panel was inherently faulty and thus compromised the reliability and objectivity of its conclusions. The report itself acknowledged that the sources the panel relied on were national investigative reports from Israel and Turkey, and it could neither compel witnesses to provide evidence nor conduct criminal investigations.

Richard Falk, former professor of international law at Princeton University and two-time U.N. special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, said that the panel operated under an “unacceptable framework” not only because it relied solely on reports from the two countries but also because panel members lacked the relevant experience to examine issues inherent in the flotilla event.

“I think there are really questionable elements connected with the U.N. procedure for assessing legal responsibilities and really dealing appropriately with an incident of this magnitude where people lost their lives unnecessarily,” Falk told IPS.

Similarly, “There are serious problems with the Panel’s composition, mandate and legal analysis,” said Audrey Bomse, legal adviser to the Free Gaza Movement, in a press statement.

Quoting the HRC’s Fact-Finding Mission, the statement noted that “public confidence in any investigative process … is not enhanced when the subject of the investigation either investigates himself or plays a pivotal role in the process.”

Falk suggested that the report focused on the wrong topics as well.  “There’s nothing in the Palmer report that separates the security issues which are fairly trivial from the humanitarian issues which are fundamental and central,” he pointed out.

The report paradoxically stated, “The Panel has searched for solutions that will allow Israel, Turkey and the international community to put the incident behind them.”

Yet with the plummeting of Turkish-Israeli relations and the continued disgust in much of the international community at Israel’s refusal to relent in its responses to its actions, the incident remains as prominent as ever.