Former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz [Haloutz] said today: “We are sorry people were killed during the operation, very sorry“. He was speaking about the Israeli naval interception of the Mavi Marmara on the high seas in the eastern Mediterranean on 30 May 2012, at a briefing for journalists organized at rather short notice today at the Mishkenot Shaananim center in Jerusalem.
Is that an unofficial/official apology?
Halutz added: “I believe there were some innocent ones among those nine, but…that mission was not so innocent”.
Halutz told the journalists at the press briefing that the “The word apology is too strong…because Israel was doing a legal action to prevent [a violation] of the siege we imposed”. And, Haloutz added: “Our soldiers were under a live threat”.
Yes, it looks like Haloutz had already been briefed about what was in the UN report, and yes, it sure looks like an attempt at a finessed Israeli apology.
Halutz was IDF Chief of Staff from 2005-2007, and was previously commander of the Israeli Air Force, and he said today
that he made many trips to Turkey in his professional capacity. But, Halutz is now retired from active military service, having been severely criticized for Israel’s military performance during the Second Lebanon War — and dabbled in business before joining, just eight months ago, the opposition Kadima party led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni [who ran a hard-fought campaign against the current Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in the last Israeli general elections in February 2009, and she continues to be very critical of Netanyahu’s conduct of office].
Halutz’s profile is perfect for making an unofficial [yet somehow official] apology.
The timing and purpose of the press briefing would otherwise seem…vague. He appeared at the press briefing in the company of a professional Public Relations man.
After his meeting with journalists, Haloutz smoked a quick cigarette in the sunshine outside, then turned and quickly bounded up three flights of stone stairs, taking the whole rise two steps at a time. The PR man, also in as good [military-grade] shape, followed one step behind.
A few hours later, the New York Times posted a leaked, advance copy of the “Final” Report commissioned by the UN Secretary-General on how to avoid a repetition of the mayhem and deaths that occurred during the Israeli naval interception on the high seas of a Freedom Flotilla aiming to break the Israeli siege on Gaza. During the pre-dawn Israeli raid on the 600-passenger Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, nine Turkish men [including one Turkish-American high school student] were shot to death.
The UN Report states that all nine appeared to have been unarmed.
The UN report, which the NYTimes posted on its website today here, says that “The events of 31 May 2010 should never have taken place as they did”.
It also says that “The incident and its outcomes were not intended by either Turkey or Israel … But more could have been done to warn the flotilla participants of the potential risks involved and to dissuade them from their actions”.
The UN report states that “The Panel is not a court. It was not asked to make determinations of the legal issues or to adjudicate on liability…In particular, the Panel’s means of obtaining information were through diplomatic channels. The Panel enjoyed no coercive powers to compel witnesses to provide evidence. It could not conduct criminal investigations. The Panel was required to obtain its information from the two nations primarily involved in its inquiry, Turkey and Israel, and other affected States”.
Specifically, the UN panel said it reviewed “statements from 93 individuals that were appended to the Turkish report, and excerpts of statements by IDF personnel engaged in the incident that were included in the Israeli report. In this regard, we stress again that the Panel is not a court. We have not personally heard the witnesses whose statements we have read. Nor are we able to make definite findings on each statement’s reliability and credibility. They are more plausible on some aspects than others. But in certain areas, when viewed as a whole, we regard them as useful material for the purposes of the Inquiry”.
The Panel said that it could not “make definitive findings either of fact or law. But it can give its view”.
On Israel’s formal naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million people are virtually sealed inside a small strip of land from which Israel unilaterally “disengaged” in September 2005, and on which Israel maintains a tight military control, the UN report says:
“The fundamental principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas is subject to only certain limited exceptions under international law. Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law…[However]…Bearing in mind its consequences and the fundamental importance of the freedom of navigation on the high seas, Israel should keep the naval blockade under regular review, in order to assess whether it continues to be necessary…”
“All States should act with prudence and caution in relation to the imposition and enforcement of a naval blockade. The established norms of customary international law must be respected and complied with by all relevant parties…”
“The imposition of a naval blockade as an action in self-defence should be reported to the Security Council under the procedures set out under Article 51 of the Charter…”
“States maintaining a naval blockade must abide by their obligations with respect to the provision of humanitarian assistance…”
“States enforcing a naval blockade against non-military vessels, especially where large numbers of civilian passengers are involved, should be cautious in the use of force. Efforts should first be made to stop the vessels by non-violent means. In particular, they should not use force except when absolutely necessary and then should only use the minimum level of force necessary to achieve the lawful objective of maintaining the blockade. They must provide clear and express warnings so that the vessels are aware if force is to be used against them…”
But, Sari Bashi, the Director of the Israeli human rights organization GISHA, which led a group of ten Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations in an unsuccessful effort to get Israel’s Supreme Court to stop the collective punishment involved in the Israeli military-imposed sanctions against the Gaza Strip, issued a statement this evening saying: “In a failed attempt to achieve political compromise, the Palmer Report squandered an opportunity to evaluate the overall Gaza closure policy, still in place today. Stopping ships to Gaza for reasons of security is legal – the civilian closure of Gaza is not”.
Bashi said that “Gisha shares the position of the Palmer Commission that international law allows Israel to stop ships on their way to Gaza for the purposes of security. Nonetheless, Gisha recalls that, in parallel, the law requires 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. For it to conform to the principles of international law, Israel must remove the sweeping restrictions on export of goods, movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank and entrance of construction materials”.
In a separate fact sheet on the UN Report, posted here, GISHA argues that in its view the formal Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip is not lawful: “In our opinion, the legality of the maritime closure must be considered in the context of the overall closure of the Gaza Strip, which is also enforced by air and land. In this context, Israel has failed to meet its legal obligations. It is a fundamental principle of international law that with control comes responsibility; this in order to avoid a situation where no side takes responsibility for the protection of civilians during wartime or in situations of occupation. Accordingly, the substantial control Israel exercises over the crossings into the Gaza Strip imposes an equally substantial responsibility to permit the movement of people and goods at the level required in order to maintain the proper functioning of the economy, the health and education systems, and other aspects of civilian life. Israel is permitted to prevent the passage of merchandise or people only if there is a concrete security reason for doing so, and even then it must strike a balance between its security needs and its obligation to maintain normal life in the occupied territory. By preventing the passage of civilians and goods of a civilian nature to and from the Gaza Strip, Israel has paralyzed the economy of the area and caused substantial damage to key aspects of civilian life. In so doing, it has violated its obligations under international law, rendering its policy of closure – including the maritime closure – unlawful”.
The UN report makes several points of specific and pointed criticism about the use of force, and resistance, during the Israeli naval interception — which, the report notes, took place 72 nautical miles off the coast, well outside of Israeli territorial waters [or Gaza’s maritime space]:
“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 … Non-violent options should have been used in the first instance…[and]…The operation should have reassessed its options when the resistance to the initial boarding attempt became apparent…”
“Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection. Three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded…”
“The loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces during the take-over of the Mavi Marmara was unacceptable. Nine passengers were killed and many others seriously wounded by Israeli forces. No satisfactory explanation has been provided to the Panel by Israel for any of the nine deaths. Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel…”
“There was significant mistreatment of passengers by Israeli authorities after the take-over of the vessels had been completed through until their deportation. This included physical mistreatment, harassment and intimidation, unjustified confiscation of belongings and the denial of timely consular assistance…”
Paul Woodward wrote, on his War in Context blog, a post entitled “How Israel got away with Murder on the Mavi Marmara”, in which he noted: “But just a minute. The panel — even if it’s conclusion amounted to saying, can’t you all just learn to get along — did actually note that Israel provided no information whatsoever on the circumstances in which nine men were killed. And had those deaths not occurred, there would have been no inquiry. Let’s repeat that … Israel provided no information whatsoever on the circumstances in which each of these deaths occurred”.
Woodward cites the UN report itself which says that “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons. Video footage shows one passenger holding only an open fire hose being killed by a single shot to the head or throat fired from a speedboat”. This is posted here.
Back to the UN report: it says that the Freedom Flotilla, which was organized by a loose alliance of European and American advocates of Palestinian rights, had for the first time participation of the Turkish humanitarian relief organization IHH [which Israelis have called “terrorist”], along with a Malaysian NGO/charity.
The Palmer Report states:
“Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. The majority of the flotilla participants had no violent intentions, but there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH. The actions of the flotilla needlessly carried the potential for escalation”.
“All humanitarian missions wishing to assist the Gaza population should do so through established procedures and the designated land crossings in consultation with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority…”
“Humanitarian missions must act in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and humanity and respect any security measures in place. Humanitarian vessels should allow inspection and stop or change course when requested…”
Then, the UN report says that “An appropriate statement of regret should be made by Israel in respect of the incident in light of its consequences” and “Israel should offer payment for the benefit of the deceased and injured victims and their families, to be administered by the two governments through a joint trust fund of a sufficient amount to be decided by them”.
According to an article published in the New York times this afternoon, here, “The Foreign Ministries in Turkey and Israel declined to comment publicly on the report, saying they preferred to wait for its official release. No one was available to comment in the office of the United Nations spokesman”.
Gaza was allocated a maritime space for fishing and economic activities by agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO], and a map defining this space as extending 20 nautical miles straight out into the Mediterranean is attached to 1994 and 1995 agreements signed under the Oslo process. The map is signed by Israel’s late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and by the PLO’s late leader Yasser Arafat — and it is also signed by the U.S. Secretary of State and by the Russian Foreign Minister, as well as a high-ranking member of the Egyptian military.
But, despite the Israeli “disengagement” of its settlers and the military forces protecting them in September 2005, Israel has not loosened its military control over Gaza’s external boundaries, particularly Gazan air and sea space.
Plans for the construction of a deep sea port in Gaza were pointedly endorsed in a November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access brokered by U.S. then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Israel tightened its imposition of sanctions after the surprise Hamas victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, and the capture of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Kerem Shalom in late June 2006. then the Hamas rout of Fatah-led Palestinian Preventive Security Forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007. In September 2007, the Israeli Government declared Gaza an enemy entity, or hostile territory, and the Israeli military was given the task of devising a regime that would allow into Gaza only the bare minimum of humanitarian necessities –and it went into effect in late October 2007.
Throughout, there has been sporadic but indiscriminate firing by various militant groups from Gaza of mortars, rockets, and other projectiles onto surrounding Israeli territory. Over the years, there have been thousands of these projectile attacks on Israel, which Palestinians have explained as natural responses to Israeli strikes on Gaza, but which the UN as well as human rights bodies have denounced as war crimes. Though Hamas has not claimed responsibility for several years, and has many times acted to try to control these attacks, Israel maintains that Hamas is now running Gaza, and is the ultimate “address”.
The Free Gaza movement launched its first expedition by sea to Gaza in August 2008, with the aim of “breaking the siege”.
Israel explained that it decided to allow the ship to pass, in order to deny the activists on board a “propaganda victory”. But, several expeditions later, by December 2008, Israel threatened and indeed did use force, once badly damaging a vessel by ramming, in order to block passage.
Then, on the night of 3-4 January 2009, halfway through the Israeli military’s Operation Cast Lead — a massive three-week assault of overwhelming force on targets said to be related to Hamas — Israel declared its formal naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.