Inside the factually challenged UN Report on Israel’s flotilla massacre

Related: The Mavi Marmara Massacre

The much anticipated United Nations Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident was published today. The investigative committee that produced the report, known as the Palmer commission, had no power to subpoena documents or witnesses — it relied mostly on the public record and had to contend with Israeli intransigence. Thus the report, which faulted Israel but was marred by factual inaccuracies, was not factually or legally binding.

Headed by New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, an expert in international law, the commission also included an Israeli and a Turkish member. The Vice Chairman of the commission, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, was an aggressive pro-Israel partisan who has received awards from numerous Zionist organizations including B’nai Brith’s “Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism.” The title of that award is ironic considering Uribe’s propensity for demonizing human rights activists as terrorist sympathizers and praising military units accused of massacring Colombian civilians while he served as prime minister. Uribe’s legacy as prime minister also included striking up record level arms deals with Israel. Over a year ago, writers Jose Antonio Gutierrez and David Landy predicted that “there will be no objectivity whatsoever with regard to Uribe’s role in the commission.” And it appears they were right. As the New York Times reported yesterday, “Israel considers the report to be a rare vindication for it in the United Nations.”

The report did criticize Israel for essentially assassinating nine activists on board the Mavi Marmara. In one section, the report detailed the killing of Furkan Dogan, a 19 year old American citizen of Turkish descent: “Furkan Doğan received five gunshot wounds in the back of his head, nose, left leg, left ankle and in the back, all from close range. A citizen of the United States, Mr. Doğan was a 19-year-old high school student with ambitions of becoming a medical doctor. Mr. Doğan’s motionless, wounded body was kicked and shot upon, execution-style by two Israeli soldiers.” The report goes on: “At least one of those killed, Furkan Doğan, was shot at extremely close range. Mr. Doğan sustained wounds to the face, back of the skull, back and left leg. That suggests he may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered, as suggested by witness accounts to that effect. No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

What’s more, the commission found that, “There was significant mistreatment of passengers by Israeli authorities after the take-over of the vessels had been completed through until their deportation. This included physical mistreatment, harassment and intimidation, unjustified confiscation of belongings and the denial of timely consular assistance.” On Page 52 of the report, the commission went on to question the very necessity of Israel’s boarding of the flotilla vessels in international waters without warning. “The vessels were never asked to stop or to permit a boarding party to come on board. No efforts were made to fire warning shells or blanks in an effort to change the conduct of the captains,” the commissioners wrote. This finding contradicted Israel’s claims to have attempted to peacefully halt the flotilla before attacking it with waves of commando assaults.

There is a lot that Israel might find objectionable within the report, but the commissioners’ most consequential assertion — and their most baseless one — will undoubtedly be celebrated by the Israeli government. According to the commissioners, Israel’s blockade of Gaza is not only legal under international law but necessary for the country’s security concerns.

Pro-Israel partisans like to say that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is legal according to the rules of the San Remo Manual, which lays out the basis for establishing a legal naval blockade during wartime. They hope that no one bothers reading the details of the manual, however, because if they did, they would find nothing to support Israeli claims. For instance. Part V Section II of the manual states that blockades must be “effective” and cannot let some ships in while forbidding others from entering. The Palmer commission based much of its argument on the notion that the Israeli blockade complied with this provision. “There is nothing before the Panel that would suggest that Israel did not maintain an effective and impartial blockade. Ever since its imposition on 3 January 2009, Israeli authorities have stopped any vessel attempting to enter the blockaded area,” the commissioners wrote.

But as the blogger Richard Silverstein demonstrated in his excellent analysis of the UN report, that statement is completely false. There was a naval siege on Gaza well before January 3, 2009. Further, Israel allowed a boat affiliated with the Free Gaza organization to penetrate the siege and enter Gaza on August 24, 2008. According the international law, these facts demonstrate the blockade’s illegitimacy.

The commission continued with its flights of fancy, writing, “Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.” But how did the commissioners know that the blockade was imposed for that reason? Did they bother to research anything Israeli officials have said on the record about their motivations for imposing the siege? Apparently not.

In April 2006, the Guardian reported: “Israel’s policy [of blockading Gaza] was summed up by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, earlier this year. ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,’ he said. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.”

Weisglass’s remarks sound like a political justification for the siege that has nothing to do with security. But the commissioners overlooked inconvenient statements like his. Even more damning was the 2007 Israeli military document obtained by the Israeli human rights group Gisha which declared that the siege of Gaza was “economic warfare,” and not part of any security strategy. “A country has the right to decide that it chooses not to engage in economic relations or to give economic assistance to the other party to the conflict, or that it wishes to operate using ‘economic warfare,'” the government document stated. This too was studiously ignored by the commissioners.

In the end, the Palmer commission essentially conceded that it was not as concerned with factual legal analysis as it was with patching things up between Israel and Turkey. “Too much legal analysis threatens to produce political paralysis. Whether what occurred here was legally defensible is important but in diplomatic terms it is not dispositive of what has become an important irritant not only in the relationship between two important nations but also in the Middle East generally…The legal issues, while a necessary element of the Panel’s analysis, alone are not sufficient.”

By the Palmer commission’s own admission, its investigation into Israel’s flotilla massacre was not as much a matter of determining right and wrong based on international legal conventions as it was about determining the best path for repairing Israel’s damaged relations with its only Muslim ally. This may help explain the commission’s sloppiness, but it will not do anything to resolve the unconscionable situation of those living inside Gaza. And as long as their torment persists, Israel’s crisis of legitimacy will deepen.


In Pictures

Album | The Mavi Marmara Massacre

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