Flotilla report: So how did the activists die?

Why does Israel still refuse to show us the full footage from the Mavi Marmara? Perhaps because it knows what we’ll see

Last weekend saw the release of the Palmer Report (which can be read here – a PDF file) dealing the Flotilla incident and the assault on the Mavi Marmara last year. To make a simplistic summary, the report reaches two conclusions: That Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal, which means is entitled (in fact, required) to enforce it; and that the assault on the Mavi Marmara was wild and lacked proportion.

The Israeli government, naturally, quickly adopted the first part and did its best to keep the second out of sight. Netanyahu even had the gall to announce Israel accepts the first and rejects the second. I’ll be dealing with the first part, but – as I think the death of nine human beings and the wounding of dozens more is more important than questions of legality – will spend most of my time dealing with the second part.

To begin with, the Palmer Report is a strange animal. The committee investigated nothing on its own and it only relies on the reports delivered by Israel and Turkey. The committee had to ascertain whether the naval blockade of Gaza is legal, and this posed some problems. The first one is that for a blockade to take place, there have to be two belligerent sides – and Israel never recognized Hamas as such. The committee solved the problem by recognizing Hamas as a belligerent (article 73). In the same article, the committee notes it is aware that “under the law of armed conflict, a State can hardly rely on some of its provisions but not pay heed to others.” Yours truly is not an expert on international law, but it looks as if the Palmer Committee recognizes the Hamas gunmen as warriors, enjoying all the rights accorded them in international law. This means Israel can no longer treat them as criminals and try them in its kangaroo courts; it must treat them as prisoners of war. This is something Israel fought against for decades. Since Netanyahu was so happy to adopt the parts of the report dealing with the blockade, one assumes he agrees to this, as well.

The report bypasses another mine on its path to legalizing the blockade, this time the demand that its enforcement be “effective and impartial”, by saying it began in January 2009 (art. 76), and ignoring the fact Olmert allowed several flotillas to reach Gaza. Article 77 shows the committee at its naïve best, when it says the policy of land siege of Gaza is unconnected to the naval blockade, and by saying the blockade is only intended to prevent the smuggling of arms. The committee ignores the fact that equipment which reaches Gaza by sea also has to pass through the Israeli checkpoints – and that Israel’s siege is not at all limited to arms. For instance, it refuses to allow the import of construction material, under the pretense Hamas may use it to build bunkers. Hamas, which controls the tunnels, has all the construction material it needs, thank you for asking; it’s the common Gazan who wants to build a house, or who wants to rebuild the school Israel destroyed, who is harmed by this policy.

The committee also says the Mavi Marmara could not have landed in Gaza, since there are no adequate port facilities (art. 78), while tacitly ignoring the fact that the port does not exist because Israel bombed it, and it is not rebuilt because Israel refuses to assure the donating countries it won’t bomb it again.  Furthermore, Israel’s policy regarding Gaza has been expressed publicly in the past. It is not military, per se. It is a policy of economic pressure against the population for its support of Hamas. An American communiqué leaked by Wikileaks said that “Israeli officials have confirmed to econoffs on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.”

The Gisha Center, which focuses on the siege on Gaza and its effect on Gazans and Israelis, noted in its response to the report that international law – which, as the report says, A State can hardly rely on some of its provisions but not pay heed to others” – requires Israel “Israel to allow freedom of movement for people and civilian goods to and from the Strip, subject only to individual security inspections. The Palmer Commission did not review Israel’s overall closure of the Gaza Strip, still in place today”. Needless to say, Israel does not abide by these standards.

And now for the really interesting part: What happened on the Marmara. The report strongly rebukes Israel for carrying the attack a long distance away from Gaza, for carrying it out at dawn and without the warnings common in international law – such as warnings, firing across the bow, and so on. No such warnings were given even though the IDF’s battle order said they ought to be, as well as informing the vessels prior to the assault that the navy “was obliged to take all necessary measures” (art. 110-111). The committee found that the decision to attack at dawn without prior warning derived as much from Israel’s wish to avoid publicity as from operational reasons (112). It further finds the assault, as carried out, treated the flotilla as if it was an immediate military threat, which it certainly was not (114), and reached the conclusion that the attack without warning on the ship was a major factor in the deterioration into violence (115). It says that had the IDF bothered to supply a warning – for instance, a shot across the bow – this may well have calmed tempers, and the incident may have been prevented. It also criticizes the IDF for not using non-lethal weapons.

The IDF, as you probably recall, claimed his men did not open fire until they were attacked by a raging mob. And while such a mob certainly was there, the committee finds the IDF’s claims to be reality-challenged. Bullet holes have been found in the upper decks of the Marmara, which clearly indicate being shot from above, and the committee assumes guns were fired at the ship from the helicopters. The committee also accepts the Turkish claim that the ship was also under fire from Israeli navy boats surrounding it, all of which denies the IDF’s claim of “using accurate fire”.

Another reason to dismiss this claim comes from the number of rounds fired. The IDF gunmen say (126) they fired 308 live bullets, 264 paintball bullets, and 87 beanbag bullets. Seven out of nine dead suffered a number of injuries to sensitive parts of the body. Five of them were shot from behind (at least three suffered a shot to the back of the head), two were each hit by one accurate bullet (one of them was hit between the eye, one in the throat), and at least one of them, Furkan Dogan, took a bullet to the back of the head at point-blank range after already taking bullets to the leg, face and back, and was likely lying down. The committee refrains from saying he was murdered execution style (128).

The Israeli representative failed to explain how each of the victims was harmed, and said (127) given the circumstances, Israel could not find out the circumstances of each wound – which says all needs to be said about the quality of IDF debriefings, which the army lauded. The IDF failed to provide the committee with any proof that and of the men he killed was armed (128), and one of the dead – who was shot from a passing boat – was holding at the time of his death a weapon of mass destruction cleverly disguised as a fire hose (ibid).

The committee also finds that the IDF used unnecessary violence – admittedly, non-lethal – towards people on the other ships of the flotilla, even though no resistance was offered to the boarders (132), and refers (135-145) to the abuse and looting which were suffered by the detainees by the heroes of the IDF.

If you please, may I point out an elephant in the middle of the room? During the takeover, the IDF confiscated all of the magnetic media found on the flotilla, including photos and videos documenting the assault itself. It released a few short videos it took itself, but so far – 15 months after the events – it won’t release neither its own full filming of the assault, nor the confiscated media.

After reading the report, one understands why: We would see an ecstasy of violence not just from the IHH goons, but from Israel’s finest gunmen, who fired 659 rounds of various sorts on the Marmara. Which is to say, more than one bullet per person on the ship, or – given the IDF’s claim that 30 activists resisted the boarding – more than 20 bullets per resister. This isn’t controlled fire; this is unbridled frenzy, which was possibly the result of three soldiers being taken captive by the people on the Marmara. The IDF had all the chances in the world to prove it is in the right: All it had to do was release the documentary data. It didn’t, and probably with good reason. The Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, later forbade the testimony of soldiers by the Israeli investigative committee. Again, he probably had a good reason for that.

The IDF not only assaulted the Marmara ignoring its own battle order (which said warning before the assault is required); not only did so in an unusually poor attempt to avoid publication of the attack (as if such a thing was remotely possible), and not only lost its senses when it was on board – it also ruined any chance of rebuilding our relations with Turkey. The army said time and time again that an apology would be a “humiliation of the Shayetet soldiers”, which made it impossible for Israel politicians to make such an apology.

The IDF is not alone here, of course: Binyamin Netanyahu, always willing to buy right-wing votes at the expense of Israel’s interests, refused to apologize. At first, Israeli pundits noted, he told the Obama administration he is afraid that Liberman will use the apology as a pretext for leaving the government. Once the Americans spoke with Liberman, who said he won’t resign, Netanyahu demanded he say so in public, which Liberman duly did. And then Netanyahu informed the Americans he can’t apologize, not with a social justice protest movement on his hands.

Naturally, other politicians are riding this horse – Erdogan prominent among them; he certainly could use any drop of patriotic fervor as he chucks his military leadership in prison – but it is jaw-dropping to see, once more, how a military screw-up at company level causes most of Israel to defend the military, despite the staggering diplomatic and political price.

Which, one fears, is just the appetizer before the main dish, to be served in about three weeks.