By Richard Lightbown
The report of the UN Panel of Inquiry on the Gaza Flotilla Incident which was finally released on 2 September is an example of how dangerous thing ‘a little learning’ can be.
Put into an ivory tower in New York far away from the scene of the crime and restricted to what information the Turkish and Israeli governments fed it, the Panel has exhibited a naïve understanding of the situation in Gaza. In a large part this was the result of the Panel’s implicit belief in the Turkel Report. This report by Israel’s commission of inquiry on the incident was the central part of the Israeli submission. While it boasts an impressive pedigree the report is actually a false witness that is intended to deceive. Despite hearing evidence on the adverse impacts of the closure from doctors who worked in Gaza the report ignored or rejected their evidence in favour of an undisclosed late submission from the military coordinator. Testimony by Israeli passengers on the Mavi Marmara of mistreatment of passengers and the honourable treatment of captured Israeli soldiers was ignored; as was testimony relating to the on-going occupation.
An explanation on the application of the Geneva Conventions to the blockade was rejected in favour of an opinion by Prof Rosenne that was written in 1946, three years before the Geneva Conventions were adopted. Testimony that all commercial sea traffic to Gaza has been prohibited since the beginning of the occupation in 1967 seems to have fallen on deaf ears or empty heads. Much of Turkel is based on written testimony, hearsay evidence and evidence from secret sources that cannot be verified.
It is also self-contradictory, as on a number of points relating to allegations of the use of firearms by passengers, which is a major theme of the report for which no dependable evidence has ever been produced. This report is a major work of misinformation yet it was accepted by the UN Panel without question.
Regrettably the Panel also exhibited its own bias towards Israel. (But after all the vice-chair Alvaro Ulribe was a major purchaser of Israeli arms while President of Columbia, and he is a recipient of the American Jewish Committee’s ‘Light Unto The Nations’ award. The conflict of interest was never explained.) When asserting that Israel has a need to defend itself by imposing the blockade the Panel made a number of references to the firing of rockets from Gaza. While these terror attacks against civilians are very real they do not occur in a vacuum. Yet the report contains no mention of the everyday shooting attacks against Palestinian farmers and fishermen, no mention of the routine bulldozing of crops and buildings and no censure of the widespread attacks on medical facilities and personnel during the war of 2008/9. In fact Gazans get very little mention in this report at all, despite being central to possibly the most important contemporary human rights struggle on the planet and an essential consideration for understanding what the struggle to defeat the blockade is all about.
In condemning flotilla organizers for indulging in a “dangerous and reckless act” the report refers to the offer to transfer all the cargos to Ashdod for onward transport to Gaza. Admittedly this was subsequently done with much fanfare for some of the goods taken from the flotilla. What is not clear is whether the prefabricated buildings and construction materials, amounting to more than half of the total cargos, was ever transferred to Gaza. What has been reported is that at least one truckload of goods was dumped in landfill in the Negev, that new computers intended for educational use in Gaza were stolen as were substantial amounts of cash intended for charitable causes, while mobility scooters were delivered without their batteries. Previous cargoes from the Spirit of Humanity and the Tali have similarly been lost. The Panel was naïve to put its faith in the goodwill of the Israeli authorities while rushing to condemn the flotilla organizers for recklessness.
It is on such unsafe assumptions and false points that the Panel’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the blockade is based. In expressing his dissenting opinion at the end of the report Mr Özdem Sanberk declared that “common sense and conscience dictate that the blockade is unlawful”. Common sense however is not always a very common commodity.
In considering the composition of the flotilla the panel is critical of the number of passengers travelling with such a humanitarian flotilla; seemingly unaware of the importance of publicity to humanitarian activity. This complaint also overlooks the importance of solidarity to the people of Gaza in their enclosure, and fails to acknowledge that many of the passengers were carrying large sums of money for charitable causes along with personal presents and good wishes for orphans and individuals. The importance of this psychological assistance should not be undervalued or belittled.
Although the authors of the report seem to be poorly informed on some matters of the raid, such as the change of course by the Mavi Marmara after the attack began (when the ship turned to go due west at full speed and might reasonably have been allowed to depart the area without capture) they are generally more accurate with their descriptions and assumptions in this section. One might reasonably ask why they did not question the fact that Israel has never released infrared footage taken at the time when the first helicopter arrived over the ship (when commandos are accused of firing on passengers from the helicopter before rappelling onto the ship), but they have at least faced up to the evidence they have seen. Thus the criticism of the level of violence used by the commandos is robust, and this is an unimportant point. Israel had been forced to gamble its public image on this report and it will not be pleased with comments such as “The loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces […] was unacceptable.” Later the report adds “There was significant mistreatment of passengers by Israeli authorities […]. This included physical mistreatment, harassment and intimidation, unjustified confiscation of belongings and the denial of timely consular assistance.” The US and Israel had tried to get the UN Human Rights Council to pull its excellent investigation in favour of the UN Panel. This report was seen as a safer option than the thorough professional body that was assembled in Geneva. In that assessment they have been correct, but even so the perpetrators have been strongly criticised. Despite this being the work of amateurs (and in places incompetent bunglers) it is not a whitewash. Israel cannot hide behind this report and it cannot proudly show it off to the world community. For that minor piece of justice we should be grateful.
For the authors of this report there is little to be pleased about. Their ultimate goal has been described as “positively affect[ing] the relationship between Turkey and Israel, as well as the overall situation in the Middle East”. This was always a difficult call. Nevertheless some amelioration of the diplomatic situation might have been hoped for. The immediate aftermath to the release of this report has seen a strong reaction in Turkey to the refusal of the Israeli Government to apologise for the deaths and injuries to Turkish citizens. Turkey will now downgrade its diplomatic and economic relations with Israel and seems intent on dramatically upgrading its support for the people of Gaza. From its declarations so far it would seem that Mr Erdoðan’s government has little time for the recommendations of the Panel that the blockade should be respected and that humanitarian missions should follow established procedures in consultation with the Government of Israel. Maybe he is right given that respect for these procedures has only seen a long term decline in conditions in Gaza. Perhaps a little more common sense from the Panel may have helped the realpolitik of confronting harsh realities in Gaza as a means to aiding prospects for peace in the region.
– Richard Lightbown is a writer and researcher. He has previously written reviews on the UN Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission report and the Turkel Commission Report Part 1. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.