Tag Archives: MV Mavi Marmara

Another UN Failure: The Palmer Report on the Flotilla Incident of 31 May 2010

11 Sep


 

            When the UN Secretary General announced on 2 August 2010 that a Panel of Inquiry had been established to investigate the Israeli attacks of 31 May on the Mavi Marmara and five other ships carrying humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Gaza there was widespread hope that international law would be vindicated and the Israelis would finally be held accountable. With the release of the Palmer Report these hopes have been largely dashed as the report failed to address the central international law issues in a credible and satisfactory manner. Turkey, not surprisingly, responded strongly that it was not prepared to live with the central finding of the 105 page report reaching the astonishing conclusions that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is lawful and could be enforced by Israel against a humanitarian mission even in international waters.

 

            Perhaps this outcome should not be so surprising after all. The Panel as appointed was woefully ill-equipped to render an authoritative result. Geoffrey Palmer, the Chair of the Panel, although a respected public figure, being the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and an environmental law professor, was not particularly knowledgeable about either the international law of the sea or the law of war. And incredibly, the only other independent member of the Panel was Alvaro Uribe, the former President of Colombia, with no professional credentials relevant to the issues under consideration, and notorious both for his horrible human rights record while holding office and forging intimate ties with Israel by way of arms purchases and diplomatic cooperation that was acknowledged by ‘The Light Unto The Nations’ award given by the American Jewish Committee that should have been sufficient by itself to cast doubt on his suitability for this appointment. His presence on the panel compromised the integrity of the process, and made one wonder how could such an appointment can be explained, let alone justified.  Turkey’s agreement to participate in such a panel was itself, it now becomes clear, a serious diplomatic failure. It should have insisted on a panel with more qualified, and less aligned, members.

 

The other two members of the panel were designated by the governments of Israel and Turkey, and predictably appended partisan dissents to those portions of the report that criticized the position taken by their respective governments. Another unacceptable limitation of the report was that the Panel was constrained by its terms of reference that prohibited reliance on any materials other than what was presented in the two national reports submitted by the contending governments. With these considerations in mind, we can only wonder why the Secretary General would have established a formal process so ill-equipped to reach findings that would put the legal controversy to rest and resolve diplomatic tensions, which it has certainly failed to do. Such deficient foresight is itself one of the notable outcomes of this unfortunate UN effort to achieve the peaceful resolution of an international dispute.

 

            Even such an ill-conceived panel did not altogether endorse Israeli behavior on 31 May. The panel found that Israel used excessive force and seemed legally and morally responsible for the deaths of the nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara, instructing Israel to pay compensation and issue a statement of regret. In other words the Palmer Report seems to fault seriously the manner by which the Israeli enforced the blockade, but unfortunately upheld the underlying legality of both the blockade and the right of enforcement, and that is the rub. Such a conclusion contradicted the earlier finding of a more expert panel established by the Human Rights Council, as well as rejected the overwhelming consensus that had been expressed by qualified international law specialists on these core issues. A gross inadequacy of the report was to separate the assessment of the blockade as if exclusively concerned with Israeli security, and ignore its essential role in imposing an intolerable regime of collective punishment on the population of Gaza that has lasted for more than four years.

 

            While the Panel delayed the report several times to give diplomacy a chance to resolve the contested issues, Israel and Turkey could never quite reach closure. There were intriguing reports along the way that unpublicized discussions between representatives of the two governments had agreed upon  a compromise arrangement consisting of Israel’s readiness to offer Turkey a formal apology and to compensate the families of those killed as well as those wounded during the attack, but when the time for announcing such a resolution of this conflict, Israel refused to go along. In particular, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed unwilling to take the last step, claiming that it would demoralize the citizenry of Israel and signal weakness to Israel’s enemies in the region. More cynical observers believed that the Israeli refusal to resolve the conflict was a reflection of domestic politics, especially Netanyahu’s rivalry with the even more extremist political figure, Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who was forever accusing Netanyahu of being a wimpy leader and made no secret of his own ambition to be the next Israeli head of state. Whatever the true mix of reasons, the diplomatic track failed, despite cheerleading from Washington that openly took the position that resolving this conflict had become a high priority for American foreign policy. And so the Palmer Report assumed a greater role than might have been anticipated for what was supposed to be no more than a technical inquiry about issues of law and fact. After the feverish diplomatic efforts failed, the Palmer panel seemed to offer the last chance for the parties to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution based on the application of the international law and resulting recommendations that would delimit what must be done to overcome any violations that had taken place during the attack on the flotilla.

 

            But to be satisfactory, the report had to interpret the legal issues in a reasonable and responsible manner. This meant, above all else, that the underlying blockade imposed more than four years ago on the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza was unlawful, and should be immediately lifted. On this basis, the enforcement by way of the 31 May attacks was unlawful, an offense aggravated by being the gross interference with freedom of navigation on the high seas, and further aggravated by producing nine deaths among the humanitarian workers and peace activists on the Mavi Marmara and by Israeli harassing and abusive behavior toward the rest of the passengers. Such conclusions should have been reached without difficulty by the panel, so obvious were these determinations from the perspective of international law as to leave little room for reasonable doubt. But this was not to be, and the report as written is a step backward from the fundamental effort of international law to limit permissible uses of international force to situations of established defensive necessity, and even then, to ensure that the scale of force employed, was proportional, respectful of civilian innocence, and weighed security claims against harmful humanitarian effects. It is a further step back to the extent that it purports to allow a state to enforce on the high seas a blockade, condemned around the world for its cruelty and damaging impact on civilian mental and physical health, a blockade that has deliberately deprived the people of Gaza of the necessities of life as well as locked them into a crowded and impoverished space that has been mercilessly attacked with modern weaponry from time to time.

 

            Given these stark realities it is little wonder that the Turkish Government reacted with anger and disclosed their resolve to proceed in a manner that expresses not only its sense of law and justice, but also reflects Turkish efforts in recent years to base regional relations on principles of fairness and mutual respect.  The Turkish Foreign Minister, realizing that the results reached by the Palmer Panel were unacceptable, formulated his own Plan B. This consisted of responses not only to the report, but to the failure of Israel to act responsibly and constructively on its own by offering a formal apology and setting up adequate compensation arrangements. Israel had more than a year to meet these minimal Turkish demands, and showed its unwillingness to do so. As Mr. Davutoglu made clear this Turkish response was not intended to produce an encounter with Israel, but to put the relations between the countries back on ‘the right track.’ I believe that this is the correct approach under the circumstances as it takes international law seriously, and rests policy on issues of principle and prudence rather than opts for geopolitical opportunism. As Davutoglu said plainly, “The time has come for Israel to pay a price for its illegal action. The price, first of all, is being deprived of Turkey’s friendship.”

 

            And this withdrawal of friendship is not just symbolic. Turkey has downgraded diplomatic representation, expelling the Israeli ambassador from Ankara and maintaining inter-governmental relations at the measly level of second secretary. Beyond this all forms of military cooperation are suspended, and Turkey indicated that it intends to strengthen its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. As well, Turkey has indicated that it will initiate action within the General Assembly to seek an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice as to the legality of the blockade. What is sadly evident is that Israeli internal politics have become so belligerent and militarist that the political leaders in the country are hamstrung, unable to take a foreign policy initiative that is manifestly in their national interest. For Israel to lose Turkey’s friendship is second only to losing America’s support, and coupled with the more democratic-driven policies of the Arab Spring, this alienation of Ankara is a major setback for Israel’s future in the region, underscored during the last several days by the angry anti-Israeli protests in Cairo.

 

            What is more, the Turkish refusal to swallow the findings of the Palmer Report adopts a political posture that is bound to have a popular resonance throughout the Middle East and beyond. At a time when some of Turkey’s earlier diplomatic initiatives have run into difficulties, most evidently in Syria, this stand on behalf of the victimized population of Gaza represents a rare display by a government of placing values above interests. The people of Gaza are weak, abused, and vulnerable. In contrast, Israel is a military powerhouse, economically prospering, a valuable trading partner for Turkey, and having in the background an ace in the hole– the United States ever ready to pay a pretty penny if it could induce a rapprochement, thereby avoiding the awkwardness of dealing with this breakdown between its two most significant strategic partners in the Middle East. We should also keep in mind that the passengers on these flotilla ships were mainly idealists, seeking nonviolently to overcome a humanitarian ordeal that the UN and the interplay of national governments had been unable and unwilling to address for several years. This initiative by civil society activists deserved the support and solidarity of the world, not discouragement from the UN and a slap on the wrist by being chastened by the Palmer report’s view that their actions were irresponsible and provocative rather than empathetic and courageous.

 

            Israel has managed up to now to avoid paying the price for defying international law. For decades it has been building unlawful settlements in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. It has used excessive violence and relied on state terror on numerous occasions in dealing with Palestinian resistance, and has subjected the people of Gaza to sustained and extreme forms of collective punishment. It attacked villages and neighborhood of Beirut mercilessly in 2006, launched its massive campaign from land, sea, and air for three weeks at the end of 2008 against a defenseless Gaza, and then shocked world opinion with its violence against the Mavi Marmara in its nighttime attack in 2010. It should have been made to pay the price long ago for this pattern of defying international law, above all by the United Nations. If Turkey sustains its position it will finally send a message to Tel Aviv that the wellbeing and security of Israel in the future will depend on a change of course in its relation to both the Palestinians, its regional neighbors, and to the international community. The days of flaunting international law and fundamental human rights are no longer policy options for Israel that have no downside. Turkey is dramatically demonstrating that there can be a decided downside to Israeli flagrant lawlessness. 

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A Shameless Secretary General versus Freedom Flotilla 2

2 Jun


             It is expected that at the end of June, Freedom Flotilla 2 will set sail for Gaza carrying various forms of humanitarian aid, including medical, educaional, and construction materials. This second flotilla will consist of 15 ships, including the Mavi Marmara sailing from Istanbul, but also vessels departing from several European countries, and carrying as many as 1500 humanitarian activists as passengers. If these plans are carried out, as seems likely, it means that the second flotilla will be about double the size of the first that was so violently and unlawfully intercepted by Israeli commandos in international waters on May 31, 2010, resulting in nine deaths on the Turkish lead ship.

 

            Since that shocking incident of a year ago the Arab Spring is transforming the regional atmosphere, but it has not ended the blockade of Gaza, or the suffering inflicted on the Gazan population over the four-year period of coerced confinement. Such imprisonment of an occupied people has been punctuated by periodic violence, including the sustained all out Israeli attack for three weeks at the end of 2008 during which even women, children, and the disabled were not allowed to leave the deadly killing fields of Gaza. It is an extraordinary narrative of Israeli cruelty and deafening international silence, a silence broken only by the brave civil society initiatives in recent years that brought both invaluable symbolic relief in the form of empathy and human solidarity, as well as token amounts of substantive assistance in the form of much needed food and medicine. It is true that the new Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing a few days ago (but not fully or unconditionally), allowing several hundred Gazans to leave or return to Gaza on a daily basis. At best, this opening even if sustained provides only partial relief. Rafah is not currently equipped to handle goods, and is available only to people and so the blockade of imports and exports continues in force, and may even be intensified as Israel vents its anger over the Fatah/Hamas unity agreement.

 

            As the Greek coordinator of Freedom Flotilla 2, Vangelis Pisias, has expressed the motivation of this new effort to break the blockade: “We will not allow Israel to set up open prisons and concentration camps.”  Connecting  this Gazan ordeal to the wider regional struggles,” Pisias added, “Palestine is in our heart and could be the symbol of a new era in the region.” Such sentiments reinforce the renewal of Palestinian militancy as exhibited in the recent Nabka and Naksa demonstrations.

 

            A highly credible assessment of the Israeli 2010 attack on Freedom Flotilla 1 by a fact finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the Israelis had violated international law in several respects: by using excessive force, by wrongfully attacking humanitarian vessels in international waters, and by an unacceptable claim to be enforcing a blockade that was itself unlawful. Such views have been widely endorsed by a variety of respected sources throughout the international community, although the panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to evaluate the same incident has not yet made public its report, and apparently its conclusions will be unacceptably muted by the need to accommodate its Israeli member.

 

            In light of these surrounding circumstances, including the failure of Israel to live up to its announced promise after the attack in 2010 to lift the blockade, it shocks our moral and legal sensibilities that the UN Secretary General should be using the authority of his office to urge member governments to prevent ships from joining Freedom Flotilla 2. Ban Ki-moon shamelessly does not even balance such a call, purportedly to avoid the recurrence of violence, by at least sending an equivalent message to Israel insisting that the blockade end and demanding that no force be used by Israel in response to humanitarian initiatives of the sort being planned. Instead of protecting those who would act on behalf of unlawful Palestinian victimization, the UN Secretary General disgraces the office, by taking a one-sided stand in support of one of the most flagrant and long lasting instances of injustice that has been allowed to persist in the world. True, his spokesperson tries to soften the impact of such a message by vacuously stating that “the situation in the Gaza Strip must be changed, and Israel must conduct real measures to end the siege.” We must ask why were these thoughts not expressed by the Secretary General himself and directly to Israel? Public relations is part of his job, but it is not a cover for crassly taking the wrong side in the controversy over whether or not Freedom Flotilla 2 is a legitimate humanitarian initiative courageously undertaken by civil society without the slightest credible threat to Israeli security and in the face of Israeli warnings of dire consequences.

 

            Appropriately, and not unexpectedly, the Turkish Government refuses to bow to such abusive pressures even when backed by the UN at its highest level. Ahmet Davutoglu, the widely respected Turkish Foreign Minister, has said repeatedly in recent weeks when asked about Freedom Flotilla 2, that no democratic government should ever claim the authority to exercise control over the peaceful initiatives of civil society, as represented by NGOs. Davutoglu has been quoted as saying “[N]obody should expect from Turkey…to forget that nine civilians were killed last year..Therefore we are sending a clear message to all those concerned. The same tragedy should not be repeated again.” Underscoring the unresolved essential issue he asked rhetorically, “[D]o we think that one member state is beyond international law?” Noting that Israel has still not offered an apology to Turkey or compensation to the families of those killed, Davutoglu makes clear that until such reasonable preconditions for diplomatic normalization are met, Israel should not be accepted “to be a partner in the region.”

 

             In the background of this sordid effort to interfere with Freedom Flotilla 2 is the geopolitical muscle of the United States that blindly (and dumbly) backs Israel no matter how outrageous or criminal its behavior. And undoubtedly, this geopolitical pressure helps explain this attempted interference by the UN with a brave and needed humanitarian initiative that deserves to be strongly supported by the UN rather than condemned. Despite the near universal verbal objections of world leaders, including even Ban Ki-moon, to the Israeli blockade, no meaningful action has been yet taken by either governments or the UN. Israel’s undisguised defiance of the requirements of belligerent occupation of Gaza as set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and the First Additional Protocol appended thereto in 1977, is an unacknowledged scandal of gigantic proportions.

 

            Liberating Palestine from oppressive occupation and refugee regimes should become a unifying priority for peoples and leaders during this second stage of the Arab Spring. Nothing could do more to manifest the external as well as the internal turn to democracy, constitutional governance, and human rights than displays of solidarity by new and newly reformist governments in Arab countries with this unendurably long Palestinian struggle for justice and sustainable peace. It would also offer the world a contrast with the subservience to Israel recently on display in Washington, highlighted by inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to address an adoring U.S. Congress, a rarity in the country’s treatment of foreign leaders. Its impact was heightened by the pandering speech given by President Obama to AIPAC, the notorious Israeli lobbying organization, at about the same time. It is unprecedented in the history of diplomacy that a leading sovereign state would so jeopardize its own global reputation and sacrifice its values to avoid offending a small allied partner. It is in the American interest, as well as in the interest of the peoples of the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians, to end the conflict.

 

             The United States Government has long discredited itself as an intermediary in the conflict. Its partisanship, driven mainly by domestic politics, represents a costly sacrifice of its own interests, but is also objectionable as lending support to intolerable Israeli policies of apartheid occupation and colonialist expansionism. It is time to shift the locus of diplomatic responsibility for resolving the conflict from Washington to the far more geopolitically trustworthy auspices of Brazil, Turkey, Nordic countries, even possibly Russia or China, and to encourage a more active regional role. If the encouraging recent Fatah/Hamas unity arrangements hold up and move forward, Palestinian representation will be regarded as increasingly credible, and hopefully will actively incorporate elements of the refugee communities in the bordering countries into their diplomacy. It is time for the world to realize, and the Palestinians to highlight, that the conflict is not just about territory (‘land for peace’), or even to ensure an adequate Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, it is most fundamentally about people. Insisting on respect for the moral, legal, and political rights of Palestinian refugees is the litmus test of a people-centered approach to the conflict, and our concern for the future of these long entrapped refugees should not be allowed to drift off into peripheral space, as has happened in the past.