An Israeli commission that examined the deadly raid on a flotilla off Gaza last May concluded today that Israel had acted in accordance with international law when its military enforced its naval blockade by intercepting the ships in international waters.The commission alluded to what it called “the regrettable consequences of the loss of human life and physical injuries,” – nine pro-Palestinian campaigners were killed and more than 50 were wounded during clashes on a Turkish vessel that was attempting to breach the blockade. But the commission found that Israeli soldiers had acted “professionally and in a measured manner in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence.”
The first part of the commission’s report, published on Sunday, dealt with the legality of the imposition of the naval blockade and its enforcement. It was to be presented to a United Nations panel formed to look into the raid and led by a former New Zealand prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer.
A second part, dealing with the mechanism in Israel for investigating complaints and claims regarding violations of the laws of armed conflict, will be published at a later date.
The raid stirred international outrage and condemnation of Israel and its blockade of Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Under intense pressure, Israel eased the restrictions on many goods going into Gaza through land crossings last summer.
Israeli officials expressed hopes that the conclusions of the panel, led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, Jacob Turkel, and including two international observers, Lord David Trimble, a Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Kenneth Watkin, former judge advocate general of the Canadian forces, would vindicate Israel and win it at least some foreign support.
“In stark contrast to the rush to judgment from certain quarters eight months ago,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “the findings of the special Public Commission are clear: Israel acted in justifiable self defense. Our soldiers acted to protect themselves and to protect their country.”
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, issued a statement saying that the report’s conclusions “prove that Israel is a law-abiding country that is capable of examining itself and that respects the norms and rules of the international system.”
Some analysts were more skeptical about Israel’s chances of convincing the world, arguing that the commission’s findings were a foregone conclusion and that the panel members were picked by the Israeli government.
“This committee was suspect from the beginning,” said Moshe Negbi, the legal commentator for Israel Radio, “because it was appointed by the government, because this was not a state commission of inquiry.”
Apparently anticipating such criticism, Lord Trimble and Gen. Watkin wrote a letter accompanying the detailed, 300-page report in which they stated: “We have no doubt that the Commission is independent. This part of the report is evidence of its rigor.”
Whatever the case, the commission’s report was unlikely to go any way toward repairing Israel’s relations with Turkey.
Eight Turks and an American-Turkish youth were killed aboard the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, part of a six-vessel flotilla, on May 31.
Turkey holds Israel fully responsible for the deaths and has demanded an apology.
Israel imposed a maritime blockade on Gaza in January 2009 during its military offensive against Hamas. The commission justified the naval blockade on military-security grounds, because of a need “to prevent weapons, terrorists and money from entering the Gaza Strip, and the need to prevent the departure of terrorists” by sea.
The commission rejected arguments that the blockade, together with the restrictions on movement through the overland crossings, constituted collective punishment of Gaza’s population, saying that Israel allowed in goods “essential for the survival of the civilian population.”
Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group promoting freedom of movement for Palestinians, notes that “a primary goal of the restrictions, as declared by Israel, was to paralyze the economy in Gaza and prevent its residents from leading normal lives.”
But the commission, citing a sharp decrease in rocket attacks from Gaza against southern Israel by 2010, argued that the military advantage of the blockade to Israel was proportional to the harm it caused the civilian population.
In analyzing the outcome of the raid, the commission said that the passengers on board the Mavi Marmara were divided into two groups, the largest one made up of “peace activists” and a second group including a “hard core of approximately 40 activists” from the Turkish Islamic charity, Insani Yardim Vakfi, known by its Turkish initials, I.H.H.
The commission characterized the I.H.H. as a humanitarian organization that “also assists terrorist organizations with a radical-Islamic and anti-Western orientation” and said that its activists were equipped with clubs, iron rods, chains, slingshots and ball bearings. Some 200 knives were also found on board.
Video footage released at the time showed Israeli naval commandoes being set upon as they rappelled from helicopters onto the ship’s deck. Some soldiers had their equipment seized, and the commission found that two were shot during the melee, but it said it was unable to determine whether the I.H.H. activists brought their own firearms on board.
The commission said that four of those killed belonged to the I.H.H., that another four appeared to have been active in other Turkish Islamic organizations and that the Turkish-American, who was 19, was not known to have belonged to any organization.