Israeli panel says flotilla raid followed marine law
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JERUSALEM -- An Israeli commission that examined the deadly raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza last May concluded Sunday 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 "the regrettable consequences of the loss of human life and physical injuries" -- nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed and more than 50 were wounded during clashes on a Turkish vessel that was trying 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 raid stirred international outrage and condemnation of Israel and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, and Israeli officials were hoping that the investigation would win the country at least some foreign support. But critics argued that the findings were a foregone conclusion.
"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."
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dismissed the report, saying Sunday that it had "no value or credibility."
The panel is led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, Jacob Turkel, and includes two international observers, Lord David Trimble, a Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Kenneth Watkin, a retired brigadier general and former judge advocate general of the Canadian forces.
"I hope that all those who rushed to judgment against Israel and against its soldiers will read these reports and learn the truth about what happened," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday. "The truth is that our soldiers were defending our country and defending their very lives."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement saying 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."
The report, almost 300 pages long, was accompanied by a letter from Lord Trimble and Mr. Watkin stating: "We have no doubt that the commission is independent. This part of the report is evidence of its rigor."
The part of the report published Sunday dealt with the legality of the blockade and its enforcement. It is to be presented to a U.N. panel formed to look into the raid. A second part, dealing with Israel's mechanism for investigating complaints and claims regarding violations of the laws of armed conflict, will be published later.
Eight Turks and an American-Turkish youth were killed May 31 aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that was part of the six-vessel flotilla.
Israel imposed its maritime blockade on Gaza in January 2009 during its military offensive against Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza. The commission justified the blockade on security grounds, citing a need "to prevent weapons, terrorists and money from entering the Gaza Strip, and the need to prevent the departure of terrorists."
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 let in goods "essential for the survival of the civilian population."
Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group promoting freedom of movement for Palestinians, says 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."
Under intense pressure, Israel eased restrictions last summer on many goods going into Gaza through land crossings.
The commission said the Mavi Marmara's passengers were divided into two groups, the largest made up of "peace activists" and the other including a "hard core of approximately 40 activists" from the Turkish Islamic charity Insani Yardim Vakfi, known by its Turkish initials, IHH.
It characterized the IHH as a humanitarian organization that "also assists terrorist organizations with a radical-Islamic and anti-Western orientation" and said its members on the Mavi Marmara were equipped with clubs, iron rods, chains, slingshots and ball bearings. About 200 knives were also found on board, it said.
Video images released at the time showed Israeli commandos being set upon as they rappelled from helicopters onto the ship's deck. Some soldiers' equipment was seized, and the commission found that two were shot during the melee, but it said it was unable to determine whether the IHH activists had taken firearms on board.
First Published January 24, 2011 12:00 am