By Neil MacFarquhar and Ethan Bronner www.NYTimes.com
UNITED NATIONS — A long-awaited United Nations review of Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-based flotilla in which nine passengers were killed has found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is both legal and appropriate. But it said that the way Israeli forces boarded the vessels trying to break that blockade 15 months ago was excessive and unreasonable.
The report, expected to be released Friday, also found that when Israeli commandos boarded the main ship, they faced “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers” and were therefore required to use force for their own protection. But the report called the force “excessive and unreasonable,” saying that the loss of life was unacceptable and that the Israeli military’s later treatment of passengers was abusive.
The 105-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, was completed months ago. But its publication was delayed several times as Turkey and Israel sought to reconcile their deteriorating relationship and perhaps avoid making the report public. In reactions from both governments included in the report, as well as in interviews, each objected to its conclusions. Both said they believed that the report, which was intended to help mend relations, would instead make reconciliation harder.
Turkey is particularly upset by the conclusion that Israel’s naval blockade is in keeping with international law and that its forces have the right to stop Gaza-bound ships in international waters, which is what happened in the 2010 episode. That conclusion oversteps the mandate of the four-member panel appointed by the United Nations secretary general and is at odds with other United Nations decisions, Turkey argued.
The report noted that the panel did not have the power to compel testimony or demand documents, but instead had to rely on information provided by Israel and Turkey. Therefore, its conclusions cannot be considered definitive in either fact or law.
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.
Israel considers the report to be a rare vindication for it in the United Nations. A United Nations Security Council statement at the time assailed the loss of life, and Israel faced widespread international condemnation. It thought that by offering to negotiate an agreement with Turkey that would stop the report’s publication, Turkish officials might soften their position.
But the two countries’ negotiations, which focused on some kind of apology from Israel and compensation for the victims — eight Turks and an American of Turkish descent — ended in failure. Israel says it is willing to express regret and pay compensation. But the Turks want a full apology. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said he believed that apologizing would demoralize Israeli citizens and broadcast a message of weakness. Aides said he might reconsider at a later date if the Turks eased their demands.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said an apology and compensation would not be sufficient to return Turkey’s ambassador to Tel Aviv. Israel also has to end its naval blockade of Gaza, he insisted.
The report does recommend that Israel make “an appropriate statement of regret” and pay compensation, but the Turks say that formula does not express sufficient remorse.
The United Nations investigation into the events on the ship, the Mavi Marmara, which was sailing under a Turkish flag and was the largest of six vessels that were commandeered by Israeli commandos on May 31, 2010, was led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand. He was aided by Álvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia, along with one representative from Israel and another from Turkey.
The report takes a broadly sympathetic view of Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza.
“Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza,” the report says in its opening paragraphs. “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.”
The report is hard on the flotilla, asserting that it “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.” It said that while a majority of the hundreds of people aboard the six vessels had no violent intention, that could not be said of the I.H.H. Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the Turkish aid group that primarily organized the flotilla. It said, “There exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly I.H.H.”
It also said that the Turkish government tried to persuade the organizers to avoid an encounter with Israeli forces, but that “more could have been done.”
Regarding the boarding of the ship, the Palmer committee said Israel should have issued warnings closer to the moment of action and should have first turned to nonviolent options.
The report assailed Israel for the way in which the nine passengers were killed and others were injured. “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,” it says. The report does, however, acknowledge that once on board the commandos had to defend themselves against violent attack. The report also criticizes Israel’s subsequent treatment of the passengers, saying it “included physical mistreatment, harassment and intimidation, unjustified confiscation of belongings and the denial of timely consular assistance.”
Like so many elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the events on the Mavi Marmara produced two competing narratives, each full of self-justification and contempt for the other.
An official Israeli investigation found not only that Israel’s naval blockade was legal but that everything done by Israel, from the actions of its commandos to the treatment of the passengers afterward, was honorable and appropriate. The flotilla organizers, it said, included 40 members of a “hard-core group” who were not properly checked before boarding in Turkey.
A Turkish investigation came to precisely the opposite conclusion. It asserted that the blockade was illegal in all aspects, amounting to collective punishment of the Palestinians of Gaza. It said all of the people on board were civilians, all had been checked out and were unarmed and therefore subject to protection from any invasion under international humanitarian law.
The Turks also concluded that Israeli commandos used live fire before landing, leading to death and injury; the Israelis said they had not. The Palmer committee said it was unable to determine who was right.
Those critical of Israeli actions toward Gaza have viewed the blockade that began officially in January 2009 as part of a siege imposed by Israel on Gaza after Hamas took full control there in 2007. That siege, which has eased considerably in the past year, prevented the movement of most goods and people.
But the Palmer committee said that while it had concerns about that policy and urged that it be loosened further, it saw the naval blockade as a purely security-oriented tool that had been imposed to stop weapons from arriving in Gaza by sea. It also expressed strong concern about the thousands of rockets and mortar shells fired into Israel from Gaza in recent years. It said that because Gaza’s port could not handle large ships, a naval blockade had little impact on the supply of civilian goods.
Neil MacFarquhar reported from the United Nations, and Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem.