Turkey disagrees with UN report on legality of Israeli naval blockade of Gaza

Özdem Sanberk, described as “one of Turkey’s most experienced diplomats”, said in an interview published in Turkey on Monday that his government does not agree with all of the still-unpublished conclusions in a 90-page report of a panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to look into the forceful Israeli interception of the Mavi Marmara on the high seas in the Eastern Mediterranean on 31 May 2010, during which 8 Turkish men and one Turkish American high school student were killed by Israeli forces.

An AFP story that appeared in the first week of July said that the UN report considered these deaths “unacceptable”.

And, Sanberk said today: “obviously we cannot be expected to accept nine deaths”.

The Turkish passenger ship, chartered by the Turkish humanitarian aid organization IHH, was carrying about 600 passengers and crew, and was sailing towards Gaza as part of a “Freedom Flotilla” with a number of other boats carrying international activists and cargoes of humanitarian aid.

The stated aim of the Freedom Flotilla was to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel declared a formal naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space on 3-4 January 2009, as the IDF began the ground phase in its Operation Cast Lead against Hamas.

Sanberk is Turkey’s representative to the panel, which was assembled by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and headed by fFormer New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer. He spoke to the English-language Turkish newspaper, Today’s Zaman, in Istanbul, the paper said, after a week of closed-door negotiations in New York that started at the beginning of July. The paper added that “The report’s publication has been further delayed until the end of July in a [further] attempt to give Turkey and Israel a chance to resolve their differences”.

Sanberk noted that “it is probably the first time in Israel’s history that it is voluntarily taking part in a UN investigation”, and said that Israel seems to have “an attitude of making a diplomatic gesture by accepting the UN investigation. They have repeatedly expressed their demand for understanding in the face of their serious security problems, and expect the same understanding from Turkey, which they see as a friend”.

In the interview, Sanberk said that “The report clearly indicates the responsibility of the Israeli soldiers, while also acknowledging that Israel has security concerns and the Gaza blockade is legal. However, we know that the Israeli blockade of Gaza amounts to collective punishment as it includes civilians, women and children who bear no responsibility for the perceived threat to Israel”.

According to Today’s Zaman, Sanberk “also said that even though these details are not clearly stated in the [UN] panel’s report, another UN body, the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission in Geneva, had said last October that Israel’s military violated international law during the raid”.

“It is interesting to note that two bodies, both under the UN, have conflicting results in their reports”, Sanberk said.

He then added: “I should stress that the [UN’s] report’s reference to the legality of the Gaza blockade is unacceptable to us … as other UN bodies challenge this view. As a maritime power with the longest coast in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is obviously unacceptable to us that a country be allowed to intercept ships according to its own interpretation of the law. The overarching rule of international law is freedom of navigation on the high seas. It’s [a] pillar of international law.”.

Sanberk explained that “the Israeli side has told the world that the act of the Israeli marines was a legitimate act of self defense, but the world has not taken this rationale seriously as the attack occurred in open seas, 72 miles from Israel, and 64 miles from the so-called blockaded area. The attack, which included frigates, submarines, planes, helicopters, speed boats and heavy weapons, was promulgated against a vessel carrying humanitarian aid and unarmed activists who had to protect their lives with no firearms. It resulted in nine deaths and several injuries. The notion of self defense comes with restrictions established by international law, similar to those in criminal law, stemming from the idea of a sense of proportionate response. The military attack on the humanitarian convoy inflicted disproportionate casualties upon the civilians. Besides, it is prohibited to attack vessels carrying humanitarian cargo under any circumstances. Israel is trying to mitigate its responsibility. It is trying to say that it had no intention to kill people and that operational mistakes occurred. But even if I spill some coffee on you, I would apologize and offer to pay the cost of your dry cleaning; this is expected. Israel fears that the marines and their commanders would be exposed to prosecution abroad because an apology would be seen as an admission of culpability”.

But, he noted, “the report also highlights the responsibility of the Israeli soldiers for the deaths and injuries. Therefore, if Israel is ready for an apology and compensation, we are ready to leave the unfortunate event behind”.

Sanberk, who currently heads the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/ USAK), also said in the interview that “We would like Israel to demonstrate its capacity to act in a rational way. Israel expects an understanding that it has a security problem, but the Palestinians also have a security problem and they are entitled to enjoy the blessings of peace and prosperity just as Israelis are. Yes, we respect our heritage with the Israelis. We have a unique relationship with Israel, but we stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, too”.

This interview can be read in full here.

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