Shortly after the infamous Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May of last year, the UN appointed a committee to find out what happened and why and to make recommendations. Their report was published in July of this year (2011) and we have obtained a copy, which you can download in full here.
The panel was composed of a British Chair, and Italian Vice-Chair and members from Israel and Turkey so both sides in the incident were represented. Below are the summary findings of the panel, followed by a statement by the Israeli member of the panel (the Turkish member rejected much of the report and accused it of being biased in favour of Israel). Read for yourself!
i. The events of 31 May 2010 should never have taken place as they did and strenuous efforts should be made to prevent the occurrence of such incidents in the future.
ii. The fundamental principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas is subject to only certain limited exceptions under international law. 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.
iii. The flotilla was a non-governmental endeavour, involving vessels and participants from a number of countries.
iv. Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. The majority of the flotilla participants had no violent intentions, but there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH. The actions of the flotilla needlessly carried the potential for escalation.
v. The incident and its outcomes were not intended by either Turkey or Israel. Both States took steps in an attempt to ensure that events did not occur in a manner that endangered individuals’’ lives and international peace and security. Turkish officials also approached the organizers of the flotilla with the intention of persuading them to change course if necessary and avoid an encounter with Israeli forces. But more could have been done to warn the flotilla participants of the potential risks involved and to dissuade them from their actions.
vi. Israel’’s decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable:
a. Non-violent options should have been used in the first instance. In particular, clear prior warning that the vessels were to be boarded and a demonstration of dissuading force should have been given to avoid the type of confrontation that occurred;
b. The operation should have reassessed its options when the resistance to the initial boarding attempt became apparent.
vii. Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection. Three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded.
viii. The loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces during the take-over of the Mavi Marmara was unacceptable. Nine passengers were killed and many others seriously wounded by Israeli forces. No satisfactory explanation has been provided to the Panel by Israel for any
of the nine deaths. Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel.
ix. 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.
Statement by Mr Mr. Ciechanover
As the Representative of Israel to this Panel, I join the Chairman and Vice Chairman in adopting this report. Israel appreciates the important work of the Panel and thanks Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Mr. Alvaro Uribe for their leadership. Their efforts should send a message to the international community about the need to engage with all sides to a dispute and to avoid prejudging an incident before all of the facts are known.
Israel has reservations to a few aspects of the report, which are expressed below, but appreciates that the report concurs with Israel’’s view that the ""naval blockade was legal,”” that it "was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea,” that the blockade’’s implementation "complied with the requirements of international law,” and that Israel had a "right to visit and search the vessel and to capture it if found in breach of a blockade”, including in international waters.
The Report rightly finding serious questions about "the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH,” notes that they planned "in advance to violently resist any boarding attempt” and classifies the decision to breach the blockade of Gaza as a "dangerous and reckless act,” which "needlessly carried the potential for escalation.” Israel also notes the importance of the Panel’’s support for Israel’’s long-standing position that "all humanitarian missions wishing to assist the Gaza population should do so through established procedures and designated land crossings in consultation with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
At the same time, Israel does not concur with the Panel’’s characterization of Israel’’s decision to board the vessels in the manner it did as ""excessive and unreasonable.”” The Panel was provided evidence of the repeated warnings it gave the vessels regarding its intent to board them. Israel feels that the Panel gave insufficient consideration to the operational limitations which determined the manner and timing of the boarding of the vessels and to the operational need for a covert takeover in order to minimize the chances for resistance on board.
As to the actions of Israel’’s soldiers, given the panel’’s conclusions regarding the resistance that they encountered when boarding the Mavi Marmara, it is clear that the soldier’’s lives were in immediate danger. For example, the Panel notes that "Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara.” The Panel confirmed that video footage showed that passengers were wearing "bullet proof vests, and carrying metal bars, slingshots, chains and staves” and that this information "supports the accounts of violence given by IDF personnel to the Israeli investigation.” The Panel further confirms that "two soldiers received gunshot wounds,” "three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk” and that ""seven soldiers were wounded by passengers, some seriously.”
Given these circumstances, Israel’’s soldiers clearly acted in self-defense and responded reasonably, proportionally and with restraint, including the use of less-lethal weapons where feasible. The Panel's characterization of the circumstances which led to the nine deaths on board the Mavi Marmara does not adequately take into account the complexities of what was clearly a chaotic combat situation. In such a situation, reconstructing the exact chains of events is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Given the close range combat that clearly took place aboard the vessel, wounds sustained at close range do not in themselves suggest wrongdoing by Israeli soldiers.
Israel’’s treatment of the hundreds of participants following the takeover of the ships was reasonable and compatible with international standards. Reliance on some passenger statements presented in the Turkish National Report as evidence of wrongdoing was particularly problematic. Israel raised serious concerns regarding the veracity and credibility of some of these statements.
Still, Israel cherishes the shared history and centuries old ties of strong friendship and cooperation between the Jewish and Turkish peoples and hopes that the Panel's work over the past few months will assist Israel and Turkey in finding a path back to cooperation.