Thursday, September 23, 2010

The UN Report on the Gaza Flotilla

The UN Human Rights Commission has issued its preliminary report on Israel's boarding of the flotilla seeking to break the blockade of Gaza. Predictably, the report condemns Israel for its actions and implies that war crimes were committed. Israel refused to cooperate with the commission and has rejected the report. The world press will boil everything down to a 60-second sound byte , and I doubt if few will actually read or evaluate the report itself.

I decided to be one of the few. If you would like to read it, you can access it at Scroll down to A/HR/15/21 and then click on the "E" in the right column. This will download a pdf copy of the report.

Here are my summary observations on the report.

1. The first 19 pages have nothing to do with the flotilla incident. Instead they try to establish the fact that Israel is violating international law by imposing a blockade on Gaza. I found it interesting that the report talks much about Israel's "collective punishment" of the civilian population of Gaza but never mentions two key points: that Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip to help promote peace and that Hamas used that as an opportunity to launch thousands of rockets and mortars into Israel once Israel had withdrawn. In short, Israel's blockade was in response to hostilities launched against it by the ruling government in Gaza after it made a tangible gesture to help promote peace.

2. The report glosses over the fact that the Oslo agreements gave Israel the right to protect itself. To its credit, though, it does report that Article VIII of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement specifically stated that “Israel will continue to carry the responsibility ... for defence against external threats from the sea and the air [...] and will have all the powers to take the steps necessary to meet this responsibility.” Yet this carries little weight in the overall report.

3. The report acknowledges that "Under the laws of armed conflict, a blockade is the prohibition of all commerce with a defined enemy coastline. A belligerent who has established a lawful blockade is entitled to enforce that blockade on the high seas." However, it concludes Israel's blockade was illegal. A blockade is deemed to be illegal if "(a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival; or (b) the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade." Was Israel's intent in the blockade to starve the population? If it was, why were they permitting non-military items into the Gaza Strip throughout the blockade? To me, the real issue is how much is a nation allowed to defend itself against aggression? The blockade was designed to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip, because Hamas had shown it was able and willing to use any weapons it could obtain to attack Israel. And the seizure of the Karine A in 2002 and the MV Francop in 2009 show there have been attempts to smuggle Iranian arms into the Gaza Strip and Lebanon by ship in the past.

4. In weighing the different evidence regarding the actual boarding of the ships, the UN Commission decided to give more credence to the eyewitnesses aboard ship and less to the video footage of the boarding shot by Israel. Here is the official explanation in the report. "In ascertaining the facts surrounding the Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla, the Mission gave particular weight to the direct evidence received from interviews with eye witnesses and crew, as well as the forensic evidence and interviews with government officials. In light of seizure of cameras, CCTV footage and digital media storage devices and of the suppression of that material with the disclosure only of a selected and minute quantity of it, the Mission was obliged to treat with extreme caution the versions released by the Israeli authorities where those versions did not coincide with the evidence of eyewitnesses who appeared before us." Both types of evidence have strengths and weaknesses, but I tend to find more the video evidence more compelling. It might not be 100% of the truth (since not all the raw footage was released). But what it does show is an unbiased record of the event, which can't be said for the testimony of someone who might have a particular bias. Unless the video was doctored—and no one has made such a claim—I would tend to believe what I see with my own eyes than what someone else claims to have seen.

5. The report does make it clear that some passengers, especially those aboard the Mavi Marmara were planning to resist any Israel attempt to stop the flotilla. "There is clear evidence that some people on board the Mavi Marmara, including senior IHH leaders, were prepared actively to defend the ship against any boarding attempt." The night before the boarding "some passengers took electric tools from the ship’s workshop, which was not kept locked and sawed sections of railings into lengths of approximately one and a half metres, apparently for use as weapons. Lengths of metal chains from between the railings were also removed." Do you think these might be the iron pipes seen on the Israeli video footage?

6. The report also makes it clear that the goal of the flotilla was not just to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza. "The Mission notes a certain tension between the political objectives of the flotilla and its humanitarian objectives. This comes to light the moment that the Israeli Government made offers to allow the humanitarian aid to be delivered via Israeli ports but under the supervision of a neutral organization. The Mission also notes that the Gaza Strip does not possess a deep sea port designed to receive the kind of cargo vessels included in the flotilla, raising practical logistical questions about the plan to deliver large quantities of aid by the route chosen." So if the ships couldn't actually dock in Gaza, doesn't that speak to motives?

7. The report provides what appears to be a reasonable narrative of the events the morning of the boarding, though one needs to read through this section rather carefully to sort through the different statements. Israel sought to board the ships using nonlethal means. The active resistance aboard the Mavi Marmara set the tone for the rest of the operation. The video that was released (but not really used by the Commission) shows the severity of the attack on the Israeli soldiers. At that point it seems that any defense based on the claim that the ship's passengers were civilians loses credibility. From the report it appears that the passengers on ships that resisted Israel's boarding were treated more severely than the passengers on the ships that did not resist. Personally, I find it hard to fault a soldier in those circumstances. The report makes a rather silly observation at that point. "It is the view of the Mission that the Israeli forces should have re-evaluated their plans when it became obvious that putting their soldiers on board the ship may lead to civilian casualties." When the civilians actively engaged and opposed the Israelis it would seem to me that they ceased being able to claim that they were civilians.

So what do I make of the entire report? First, I believe the first 20 pages are in error. Israel has a right to live in defined borders in security. Once they pulled out of the Gaza Strip, whoever became the ruling authority there had responsibility for maintaining the security of its borders. When Hamas participate in, or allowed, missile attacks against Israel from its territory, it became a hostile force; and Israel had the right to defend itself. Israel's right to self-defense included the right to impose a blockade on Gaza as long as it didn't seek to starve the population. And Israel did allow humanitarian aid to go into Gaza once the goods were inspected to make sure nothing was included that could be made into weapons.

Second, I believe if the flotilla had been truly focused on the humanitarian needs of the people in Gaza, they could have offloaded the supplies in Ashdod and supervised their shipment to Gaza. This was not their intent. Instead, they sought to provoke a confrontation with Israel, and they succeeded.

Is there great human suffering within Gaza? Yes. Sadly the report lays the blame at the wrong doorstep. Hamas is to blame, not Israel.

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