Israel has been condemned, yet again, by the United Nations for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws. A UN report released last week has confirmed that there is "clear evidence to support prosecutions" against the Israeli authorities for the crimes of "wilful killing; torture or inhumane treatment; and wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health." These are just some of the damning conclusions reached by the United Nations Human Rights Council report which investigated the circumstances of the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza in which nine of the humanitarians on board the Mavi Marmara were killed, dozens were injured, and hundreds of the civilian passengers were abused, detained illegally and transferred to Israel by Israeli commandos. This report has been awaited anxiously by many who have been seeking clarification of the events that took place on 31st May this year.
The conclusion of the report has vindicated all the international humanitarians on board the ships while condemning Israel's behaviour in the strongest possible terms. "The conduct of the Israeli military… towards the flotilla passengers was not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality. Such conduct cannot be justified or condoned on security or any other grounds. It constituted grave violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law." (Emphases added)
The starting point of the UN report – is the siege on Gaza legal or illegal?
The report begins by posing some very simple questions to put the issue into context. First, is the siege on Gaza legal or illegal? Second, was the Israeli assault on the flotilla legal or illegal?
With regards to the first question, the report confirms yet again that the siege on Gaza is entirely illegal: "The Mission has come to the firm conclusion that a humanitarian crisis existed on the 31 May 2010 in Gaza. The preponderance of evidence from impeccable sources is far too overwhelming to come to a contrary opinion. Any denial that this is so cannot be supported on any rational grounds… the blockade is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law."
You cannot get much clearer than that! The UN team bolsters this position by reference to the blockade amounting to "collective punishment", a serious crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The resultant attack on the Turkish-registered Mavi Marmara, the report concludes, was also "clearly unlawful".
Israeli lies exposed
Not only does the report make it clear that Israel acted illegally and in violation of international law but it also reveals clearly that many of Israel's claims are actually unabashed lies and blatant attempts to mislead the public and cover up its own crimes. For example:
1- Israeli claim: The flotilla members had weapons on board and were therefore a threat to Israeli soldiers.
UN Report: "The Mission has found no evidence to suggest that any of the passengers used firearms or that any firearms were taken on board the ship… Further, the Mission finds the Israeli accounts so inconsistent and contradictory with regard to evidence of alleged firearms injuries to Israeli soldiers that it has to reject it." (116)
2- Israeli claim: Lethal force was necessary to protect the lives of the Israeli soldiers.
UN Report: "None of the four passengers who were killed [during a particular phase of the assault], including a photographer who at the time of being shot was engaged in taking photographs and was shot by an Israeli soldier positioned on the top deck above, posed any threat to the Israeli forces." (120) Furthermore, the report finds that "there was no imminent threat to soldiers". (167) Nine people had been killed by the Israeli commandos by the end of the attack.
In contrast, those on board the boat gave medical assistance to three Israeli soldiers who were injured and then those soldiers were also released.
Examples of UN-documented Israeli brutality against the humanitarians on board
The report highlights a few very troubling acts that were perpetrated by the Israeli forces against the civilian flotilla members including inter alia:
- "Widespread misuse of the handcuffs by the Israeli soldiers… Forensic reports confirm that at least fifty-four passengers had received injuries, transversal abrasions and bruises, as a result of handcuffing on board the Mavi Marmara." This included the cuffing of seriously wounded passengers for hours. Three months later many people still have related medical complaints.
- Many civilians were stripped naked and forced to wait hours before receiving medical treatment.
- Medical treatment was denied for hours to some of the wounded.
- Many passengers "exposed on open decks received serious sun-burn to their skin as a result of many hours exposure: medical reports show that at least thirteen passengers received first degree burns as a consequence."
- "There was physical abuse of passengers by the Israeli forces, including kicking and punching and being hit with the butts of rifles."
- Frequent instances of verbal abuse, including derogatory sexual remarks about the female passengers.
- "Passengers were denied access to toilet facilities or made to wait for lengthy periods before being escorted to the toilet and then forced to use the toilet with Israeli soldiers watching and while handcuffed. Some passengers were in serious discomfort as a result, while others used makeshift receptacles, such as plastic bottles and others still were forced to urinate on themselves."
- Some passengers received dog bite wounds.
- Some passengers who suffer from chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart conditions were not allowed to take their medication.
- A white flag was waved by the Head of the IHH (the Turkish charity which helped to organise the flotilla) and yet the Israelis continued to fire.
Fallout from the flotilla attack
This UN report has laid the groundwork for a series of prosecutions against the Israeli authorities. In fact, the report specifically outlines some of the potential legal remedies that the victims are now at liberty to seek, including: "judicial remedies"; the "right to reparations"; "medical and psychological care" (for those victims of Israeli torture); "compensation"; and so on. The report states further that "as far as the grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention are concerned, these may give rise to individual criminal responsibility". It also lists a few of Israel's most serious violations, including, for example, the violation of the "right to life" and "torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment".
Prosecutions can be brought by individuals, families, the flag-bearing nation of the boats involved or the countries from whence the victims came, primarily Turkey (although one of the deceased, 19 year old Furkan Dogan, held Turkish-American dual citizenship).
One point the UN mission notes is that the Israeli authorities have refused, once again, to cooperate with a UN fact-finding mission (reminiscent of their refusal to cooperate with the Goldstone report team). However, given that some of the Israeli "perpetrators of the more serious crimes" were masked, the UN has urged Israel's government to "assist in their identification with a view to prosecuting the culpable."
Turkey's relations with Israel
This report will also have a great bearing on Turkey's already shaky relationship with Israel. The Turkish authorities are not going to let the murder of their citizens on the high seas by Israeli soldiers pass unnoticed. In an interview published on 28th September 2010 in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmad Dawud Oglu, said, "We will never forget that our citizens were killed by the army of a foreign country. This is a matter of principle for us; it is not a transitional or tactical issue. We demand an official apology because the incident is regarded as a crime."
This UN report will only bolster the Turkish sense of injustice. It confirms the many levels on which the incident breached international law and clearly paves the way for legal proceedings to follow. Turkey has essentially been vindicated by this report and it gives validity and support to the claims made by the Turkish passengers and Turkish authorities all along.
The Israelis need to do something substantial if they are to appease their erstwhile ally. As things stand at the moment all military cooperation between the two nations has essentially been suspended and political relations generally have become more or less frozen, with no significant efforts being made by any third party to mediate between the two countries. This situation is likely to get even worse over the coming months as legal battles begin to be waged. The battle is being taken from the high seas to the courtroom and this will no doubt be another PR disaster for Israel.
More bad PR for Israel
This report is a damning indictment of Israel's behaviour, casting as it does a very bad light on the Israeli government and armed forces. It also seriously calls into question the effectiveness of the Israel Defence Forces. The IDF is touted around the world as a stellar fighting force and yet its commandos could not do something as relatively simple as divert a boat load of civilians without it leading to absolute carnage. Either this exposes the IDF as an army of poorly trained, unprofessional youngsters with high velocity weapons; or, if they stand beside their reputation as a fearless fighting force, that they display callous inhumanity when pitted against civilians and have little regard for human life. This calls into question the way that the troops are trained as well as the military philosophy passed down by senior officers to their troops.
The authors of the UN report stated that "the mission is satisfied not only that the flotilla presented no imminent threat [to Israel] but that the interception was motivated by concerns about the possible propaganda victory that might be claimed by the organisers of the flotilla." If the Israelis intended to avoid a propaganda defeat, their plan certainly backfired and, once again, Israel's criminal antics have been laid bare for the world to see. Now the Zionist state faces an even bigger PR disaster when the inevitable prosecutions reach the courts and the details of the events that unfolded on board the Mavi Marmara and in the days immediately thereafter are given in open court.
More flotillas are planned in the wake of this attack. A British boat, the Irene, carrying Jewish peace activists, has already been intercepted by Israeli forces en-route to Gaza. An even larger "Freedom Flotilla 2" is also due to set sail in the next few months. Israel should learn its lessons from its disastrous experience. The world will not give up on the besieged people of Gaza. If governments are afraid of the political ramifications that come from challenging Israel and its allies then the citizens of the world will step forward and do it instead.
The attack on the Mavi Marmara was the beginning and not the end. This latest UN report clearly exonerates the flotilla mission both in its principles and in its practice, bolstering future efforts by peace activists to break the siege on Gaza. It also sends a warning to Israel that its illegal siege on the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza will not be allowed to continue unchallenged. The new leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, whose parents fled from Nazi Europe during the Second World War, has told his party's annual conference that "the attack on the Gaza Flotilla was so wrong… the Gaza blockade must be lifted and we must strain every sinew to work to make that happen". The UN report itself ends by saying that the "unsustainable" siege on Gaza "is totally intolerable and unacceptable in the 21st century", a fact that it would be wise for Israel to wake up to sooner rather than later.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.