Sun January 23, 2011
Middle East

Israeli Panel Finds Flotilla Raid Legal

The Israeli commission investigating the circumstances around the deadly raid on a Turkish vessel last year has determined that the Israel Defense Forces acted in self-defense.

"The actions carried out by Israel on May 31, 2010, to enforce the naval blockade had the regrettable consequences of the loss of human life and physical injuries," read the Turkel Commission report, which was released Sunday. Nonetheless, "the actions taken were found to be legal pursuant to the rules of international law."

The commission, headed by a retired supreme court justice, included four Israeli members and two international observers: David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, Canada's former chief military prosecutor. All signed off on the conclusions. A fifth Israeli participant, 93-year-old international law expert Shabtai Rosenne, passed away during the deliberations. Two other international experts, one German and one American, advised the commission.

Last year the Mavi Mamara ship, along with several other boats, tried to break Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip. The commission determined that the IDF acted correctly during the raid and the nine deaths that were caused when commandos raided the Turkish ship in international waters were not their fault.

The commission also determined that the Gaza blockade itself adhered to international law. The findings did offer some criticism of the way the takeover was planned, but those were unlikely to put to rest the international controversy over Israel's actions, which badly damaged its relations with Turkey and led to the formation of a U.N. investigation.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the report hours after its release.

"To my judgment there is no value or credibility to this report," he said.

The condemnation that followed the bloodshed forced Israel to ease the blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. It lifted virtually all restrictions on foods and consumer goods entering Gaza. But restrictions on exports, and the import of badly needed construction goods, remain in place.

Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of Israel's parliament who was on board the Marmara, called the commission "a broad and open platform for Israeli propaganda."

The Gaza flotilla was dominated by an Islamic aid group from Turkey known by the acronym IHH. The group has ties to Turkey's Islamic-rooted government and was banned by Israel in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas.

The flotilla aimed to bring attention to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier in 2006 and tightened after Hamas seized control of the territory the following year.

Soldiers were sent to commandeer the ships before dawn on May 31 after the flotilla ignored radio warnings to turn back and refused an offer to dock at an Israeli port and transfer humanitarian aid into Gaza overland. One of the ships radioed to the Israelis to "go back to Auschwitz," according to a military recording cited in the report.

Five small ships were commandeered without incident, but soldiers rappelling from helicopters onto the deck of the Marmara, with some 600 passengers on board, were mobbed by several dozen activists armed with bars, slingshots and knives as they landed on deck one by one, according to video footage released by the military.

The Israelis, who seemed not to have expected violent resistance, were beaten and some were thrown onto a lower deck. According to Sunday's report, two of the soldiers were shot, apparently with weapons wrested from the Israelis themselves. Both soldiers and activists have said they acted in self-defense.

The commission faulted the military planners for not taking into account the possibility of serious violence, saying "the soldiers were placed in a situation they were not completely prepared for and had not anticipated." Previous protest flotillas had surrendered without violence.

However, looking at 133 individual cases in which soldiers used force, 16 of them involving shooting to kill, the commission found soldiers had acted properly and that their lives had been in danger. The soldiers, the report said, "acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence."

The commission said its report was based on the testimony of Israeli officials, including the prime minister and defense minister, and military officers, as well as testimony from the soldiers themselves and 1,000 hours of video footage taken from the military, the Marmara and its passengers.

The commission said activists on board the ship refused invitations to testify.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.