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UN Palmer Report into Freedom Flotilla assault condemned as a whitewash

The long-awaited UN Palmer Report into the Israeli attack on the humanitarian “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza in May 2010 finally came out last week. However, from the moment it became public – when it was mysteriously leaked to the New York Times – it was met by exclamations of disbelief and disappointment from human rights defenders and humanitarians worldwide. The report has been described variously as a “whitewash”, “flawed” and “biased”. It has been rejected out of hand by the Turkish authorities and other leading figures and groups around the world; Amnesty International, The Organisation of Islamic Co-Operation (OIC); the Arab League, and other bodies have been very critical. Not surprisingly, the Hamas-led government in Gaza has also decried and rejected the report.


While the Palmer Report did criticise Israel’s “excessive and unreasonable” attack on the Mavi Marmara, during which Israeli soldiers killed nine passengers and subjected others to “physical mistreatment, harassment and intimidation”, it declared controversially that Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza is legitimate: “The naval blockade was imposed [by Israel]as a legitimate security measure” and “the Panel therefore concludes that Israel’s naval blockade was legal.” This is an astounding finding as the blockade has been almost universally declared to be illegal by legal experts and human rights bodies. Even to a layperson it is evident that the siege on Gaza by land, air and sea amounts to “collective punishment” of a civilian population and is therefore in breach of the Geneva Conventions and contrary to international law.

Former CIA analyst Kathleen Christison was unambiguous in her response to the report when MEMO contacted her this morning. “Most egregious,” she said, “is the Palmer Report’s gratuitous assertion that Israel’s naval blockade is ‘a legitimate security measure’ necessary to prevent the introduction of weapons into Gaza and that Israel’s enforcement of the blockade ‘complied with the requirements of international law’. This position is automatically biased toward Israel because it presumes that as an occupying power Israel has security needs that trump any security requirements of Gaza’s occupied population. It justifies a blockade that in fact violates international law by imposing collective punishment on Gaza’s imprisoned 1.6 million people.”

In any event it seems that the commission went far beyond its mandate when declaring Israel’s naval blockade to be legal. When asked to comment on the legal validity of the Palmer Report, London based Barrister Professor Bill Bowring pointed out to MEMO that “according to its own Report, the Panel was ‘not a court. It was not asked to make determinations of the legal issues or to adjudicate on liability’. It would therefore appear to have gone beyond its own terms of reference when it purported to make findings on the legality of the blockade. That issue will now have to be determined by the ICJ if indeed Turkey lodges an application.” Furthermore, said Professor Bowring, “findings were made against Israel thus: ‘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’.”

He then went on to explain that the remit of the panel was in fact to:

(a) examine and identify the facts, circumstances and context of the incident; and
(b) consider and recommend ways of avoiding similar incidents in the future.

“So I repeat,” added Prof. Bowring, “that in making findings on the legality of the blockade [the Palmer Commission] went far beyond its terms of reference. Its findings are in no way binding, and in the event of very dubious legitimacy.”

Why is the Palmer Report so skewed in favour of Israel and so heavily against common sense? The composition of the panel should have been enough to set alarm bells ringing from the start. Established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon more than a year ago, the panel was chaired by former prime minister of New Zealand Sir Geoffrey Palmer; former president of Colombia Alvaro Uribe was the vice chair. Kathleen Christison pointed out that the composition of the group casts a shadow on the report’s objectivity and credibility: “Although Turkey and Israel each chose one of the four members, the other two were chosen from a list provided by Israel and included Alvaro Uribe, a notorious human rights violator himself who forged a close military alliance with Israel when he led Colombia.”

According to blogger/journalist Ali Abunimah, “Uribe has a long and notorious history of violating human rights on a massive scale, attacking human rights defenders and organisation, and expressing contempt for any notion of law that restrains states from engaging in almost any kind of violence they desire.” Indeed, “Israel has become Colombia’s number one weapons supplier, with arms worth tens of millions of dollars, including Kfir aircraft, drones, weapons and intelligence systems”, all of which have been used against those who oppose the Colombian regime. Uribe is therefore hardly an unbiased and objective third party and his position on the Palmer Report panel brings the entire document into disrepute.

Another criticism of Palmer and his team is that they did not take all of the evidence into account. Unlike the original UN fact-finding mission’s report, for which over 100 witnesses were interviewed, Palmer interviewed none of the survivors of and witnesses to the Israeli assault. Much of the available evidence was withheld deliberately by the Israeli authorities.

“The assertion that Israel’s enforcement of the blockade complies with international law,” said Kathleen Christison, “presumes without evidence–in fact, in the face of evidence to the contrary   that the Mavi Marmara was carrying weapons and that Israel therefore had a right to intercept the ship.” The report ignores the critical reality that Israel’s action in intercepting and boarding the ship was a patently violent, unprovoked, aggressive action taken in the face of repeated statements by the flotilla organizers that the Mavi Marmara and other boats in the flotilla were carrying only humanitarian cargoes, she added. “In fact, the report’s assertion that Israel’s implementation of the blockade complied with international law also flies in the face of the reality that the Israeli attack occurred in international waters, where the blockade, legal or not, was not in force.”

Lawyers acting for the survivors of the attack, and the families of those killed by the Israeli commandos’ deadly force, issued a statement in the wake of the leaking of the Palmer Report: “If no consensus is reached among the members of the commission, the report can never become an official report, it becomes null and void. In this respect, since the Palmer Report has been rejected by Turkey, it has no legal validity, meaning that it is null and void.”

In recent months it has looked as though Turkey was softening its approach towards Israel; relations between the two former strong allies had been very cool following Israel’s killing of nine Turkish citizens on the flotilla. A second flotilla to Gaza was prevented from leaving a Turkish port as a result of strong lobbying by the Israeli government.

Although Turkey has been pushing the Israeli government to apologise for its action, had this UN report been more balanced it may have heralded a way forward for Israel and Turkey to resume normal relations. Instead, Turkey has expelled the Israeli ambassador (something it had threatened to do before the Palmer Report was leaked in any case), downgraded its own diplomatic representation in Tel Aviv and suspended military links. A surprise move was the stopping and questioning of forty Israelis who had flown to Istanbul this week, apparently in response to Israel’s similar treatment of Turks flying to Tel Aviv. Turkey has now also announced plans to take Israel to the International Court of Justice to resolve this matter. The survivors’ lawyers have announced that they are “filing criminal complaints against [the Israeli soldiers who attacked the flotilla] in local and international courts including the ICC” and “will exert the utmost effort to ensure that they receive the necessary punishment.” The lawyers’ statement pointed out that criminal complaints against Israeli officials were filed last year at the ICC citing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The UN’s Palmer Report has demonstrated to Turkey that in order to seek justice for its citizens it will need to go beyond the remit of the UN. In fact, this controversial report serves to remind the world of the role that the UN has played in the entire Palestine-Israel conflict, from 1947’s General Assembly Resolution 181 which proposed the partition of historic Palestine, through the dozens of resolutions which have been passed against Israel but never implemented. The UN remains a helpless observer admonishing Israel from the sidelines, although Palmer suggests that even that is now beyond the capabilities of the world body. By capitulating to Israeli pressure and claiming that an illegal act is suddenly legal, the Palmer Report makes a mockery of justice and the United Nations as a credibly international organisation.

While the contents of Palmer may be ominous for the Palestinians under siege in Gaza who have to watch as the occupying power gets the green light from the UN to keep them imprisoned indefinitely, it is in fact the UN which should be worried. Taking the side of the oppressor so blatantly isn’t going to endear the United Nations or its Secretary-General to anyone. Rather, it will simply confirm what many already believe, that the UN is an impotent body unable to make any real change or wield any influence in the Middle East if its decisions go against the Zionist state of Israel. The people of Palestine already suspected as much; now the Palmer Report has confirmed it for the rest of us.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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