A subtle form of whitewash: the Palmer report on Israel’s attack on the flotilla

Guest post by Sami Kishawi:

The report by the Palmer committee, appointed by the UN Secretary-General to look into Israel’s attack on the May 2010 Gaza-bound flotilla has been leaked. The PDF file can be found here.

The most prominent finding of this report is that Israel acted in properly and in complete “self-defense” although its military units acted with “excessive and unreasonable” force. This conclusion appears at face value to be openly critical of Israel’s military engagement of the flotilla, but it ultimately features a new and much more subtle form of whitewashing: it acknowledges Israel’s abuses but blatantly lets them slide, doing absolutely nothing about them except to passively pass along the blame to those in Gaza making the naval blockade necessary and “legitimate”.

Putting the occupier’s needs before those of the occupied

Here are some interesting quotes from the Palmer report and my take on them. Brackets indicate footnotes in the original document.

“We have made it clear that we consider that Israel was entitled to impose the naval blockade. It follows that Israel was also entitled to enforce it. The manner of its enforcement, however, raises serious issues of concern.” (Page 51)

The Palmer report openly justifies the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip which is one very critical aspect of the current Israeli siege over the territory that has been condemned by international agencies and governments as illegal for its role in denying basic human rights. The report attempts to balance the scales by investigating the flotilla raid within the following context:

a. “The security threat posed to Israel by militant groups in Gaza provides the foundation for its naval blockade” (page 67), and

b. “[C]oncern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza provides a motivation for more flotillas in the future” (page 67).

Based on these statements, the Palmer report admits that Israeli health and security concerns are more important than Palestinian health and security concerns. The naval blockade and its detrimental effect on Palestinian livelihood is justifiable so long as it secures Israeli livelihood. The report is tainted with its own apparent lack of humanitarian concern.

No evidence of lethal weapons

It is worth mentioning that Mr. Süleyman Özdem Sanberk, one of the panel judges, registered a statement on the final page of the report stating his disagreement with the alleged legality of the blockade on Gaza, reminding readers that the “UN Human Rights Council concluded that the blockade was unlawful” (page 105).

“No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons. [429] Video footage shows one passenger [430] holding only an open fire hose being killed by a single shot to the head or throat fired from a speedboat. [431]” (Page 60)

A common misconception is that the activists aboard the Mavi Marmara were armed with lethal weapons, forcing Israeli commandos to eliminate the threat by shooting attackers dead. The report outlines the weapons used by the activists which include slingshots and iron bars removed from various parts of the vessel. The deceased were eliminated with intent even though the findings show that they indeed were unarmed and posed no threat to the Israeli soldiers. Others were injured within the same pretext. One individual remains in a coma upon publication of this analysis.

“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.” (Pages 60-61)

There can be no denying that activists aboard the Mavi Marmara reacted with hostility, but the report seemingly denies these activists the right to self-defense while ensuring that Israeli action falls under the category of self-protection. The report regularly asserts that the involved Israeli commandos used force once it became clear that the raid could not be undertaken through covert means. Israeli commandos used force and flotilla participants used force, although not to the extent that the Israeli forces did. Assuming for the sake of the report that Israel had a legal right to raid the ships fully armed with lethal ammunition, the activists – as human beings – also have a due right to self-defense. This, however, goes unrecognized in the report.

At the same time, this statement alleges that the captured soldiers were mistreated by activists. This is noticeably inconsistent with the following statement:

“The Panel is not persuaded that claims that the three were taken below merely to receive medical assistance [395] are plausible, although it accepts that once below deck other passengers intervened to protect them and ensure that assistance was provided. [396] (Page 57)

Asserting that the Israeli commandos faced hostility from the flotilla passengers should not imply that they were abused while being held inside the ship. Again, the report makes the claim that the soldiers were “mistreated” even though, just four pages earlier, it reports that certain flotilla passengers intervened to protect and assist the captured soldiers. Although this might appear to be an issue of semantics, it is necessary to bring attention to this inconsistency so as to shed light on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the report’s conclusions and the contextual evidence the conclusions are based on.

“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.” (Page 61)

“Self-defense”

On the issue of self-defense, I fail to see how shooting unarmed activists in the back accounts for self-defense. Autopsy reports and testimonies submitted by Turkish authorities and confirmed by the Palmer report’s panel investigators determined the following:

“Five of those killed had bullet wounds indicating they had been shot from behind: Cengiz Akyüz, [416] Çetin Topçuoğlu, [417] Necdet Yıldırım, [418] Furkan Doğan [419] and İbrahim Bilgen. [420] This last group included three with bullet wounds to the back of the head: Cengiz Akyüz, [421] Çetin Topçuoğlu [422] and Furkan Doğan. [423] İbrahim Bilgen was killed by a shot to the right temple. [424] … At least one of those killed, Furkan Doğan, was shot at extremely close range. [427] Mr. Doğan sustained wounds to the face, back of the skull, back and left leg. That suggests he may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered, as suggested by witness accounts to that effect. [428]

Keep in mind that the nine deceased individuals do not fully reflect the full scope of Israel’s self-defense tactics. Dozens more injured, many sustaining critical and life-threatening wounds from live ammunition and other lethal weapons. These were, for the most part, unarmed civilians engaged in their fundamental right to self-preservation, a right denied by Israel’s weapons and subsequently by the Palmer report.

“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.” (Page 61)

The Palmer Committee finds that there is no question most of the deceased were shot in the back or at close range. The evidence for this exists in the autopsy reports compiled by the investigators. Israel’s account of the flotilla raid does not account for these facts, but this is expected for two reasons:

a. The Palmer report is, essentially, a “second chance” for the Israeli government to regain composure and attempt to show the world that the flotilla raid was necessary and not as dramatic as previously reported. Hiding or downplaying these facts plays in Israel’s favor. Also,

b. The Israeli government chose to downplay rather deny this evidence because denying the forensic evidence would mean that the hostile confrontations indeed occurred. Israel confiscated almost all of the footage recorded on the Mavi Marmara in an attempt to control what details about the raid were made public. Immediately following the raid, Israel had virtually complete control over how the raid was framed through mainstream media. Details such as this forensic evidence were hidden from the public as part of Israel’s strategy to improve its image internationally. It is no surprise that these very same details were hidden from its own self-investigation that was recently submitted and analyzed by the Palmer Committee.

“Turkish Commission report, Annexes 6, 10. However, the report notes that the Mavi Marmara, when returned after being held in Ashdod for 66 days, had been scrubbed down thoroughly, blood stains completely washed off, bullet holes painted over, ship records, Captain’s log, computer hardware, ship documents seized, CCTV cameras smashed and all photographic footage withheld, see Turkish Commission report, at 6.” (Footnote 52, page 18)

Cleaning up the scene of the crime

Further analysis reveals Israel’s strategy to hide the reality of the raid, to downplay the unruly amount of force it exercised on a population of civilian passengers out at sea, and to withhold criticism by eliminating the physical evidence linking the Israeli commandos to the intentional deaths of nine individuals. It is doubtful that the Mavi Marmara was cleaned and fixed out of courtesy to Turkey. After all, Israel still refuses to apologize to Turkey for the deaths of its citizens. Footage was seized, records were destroyed, and the physical damage of a lethal assault was repaired in order to prevent independent investigation that would inevitably rule against Israel’s favor.

“Photographs show bullet marks on the funnel of the vessel, which appear consistent with firing from above. [380] The wounds of several of the deceased were also consistent with bullets being fired from above. [381] The explanation given in the Israeli report that these shots were fired from the roof or as victims were bending over is not dispositive on this point. [382] The Panel considers it unlikely that the soldiers fired as they descended, but does not rule out the possibility that live fire was directed from the helicopters once the altercation on board the vessel had begun.” (Page 56)

The Palmer report insists that the involved Israeli commandos acted completely within self-defense. However, shooting from helicopters is not an issue of self-defense. The hostilities occurred on and within the Mavi Marmara, not in the sky. The life ammunition that was fired from the helicopters indicates an indiscriminate use of force against a defenseless set of civilians. Interestingly enough, the Palmer report does not find this substantial enough to discredit Israeli claims of self-defense and, instead, implicitly accepts this action as necessary to protect the commandos already aboard the vessel. It is obvious that subjectivity and double-standards play a heavy role throughout this report.

“By the IDF’s account, 308 live rounds, 87 bean bags and 264 paint ball rounds were discharged. [402] Seventy-one fully armed naval commandoes were deployed during the take-over, [403] which lasted for over 45 minutes.” (Page 58)

Nothing short of an invasion

For forty-five minutes, hundreds of unarmed activists were forced to deal with a small army of fully-equipped elite commando units intent on forcefully seizing control of the ship. According to Isreal’s self-investigation, its commandos fired a total of 659 projectiles which is greater than the number of passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara.

This was nothing short of a maritime invasion.

Throughout the report, the flotilla participants are demonized for their use of blunt objects and slingshots against the raiding commandos, even though the report fails to explicitly acknowledge that the hostile activists comprised a small percentage of the group of participants aboard the Mavi Marmara. The use of these objects, ironically likened to lethal weapons, is recognized by the report as the main reason why Israel was forced to kill nine unarmed activists. The report denies the flotilla participants any right to self-defense and instead bestows that privilege upon the Israeli forces by validating their raid, justifying the Israeli government’s procedures, and simply writing off the deaths and injuries as unintended consequences of mistaken excessive force.

Although straightforward and seemingly objective, the report concludes its findings without equalizing the playing field. The Israeli military is given the moral high ground and, ultimately, the benefit of the doubt once the report identifies its acceptance of an unlawful siege and blockade on the Gaza Strip. In doing so, the report naturally gives Israel the leverage it needs to justify the raid as a tactic of self-defense that incidentally, although not necessarily regretfully, resulted in shooting unarmed civilians in the back.

It is clear that this report is not controversial in the sense that it does not challenge Israel’s military strategies. But more importantly, this report also fails to seek true justice. Although it urges Israel to issue a formal apology and provide the families of the deceased with some amount of compensation, the Palmer committee shamefully plays into the anti-Palestinian agenda by vilifying a humanitarian campaign to end an illegal blockade and relieving Israel of the responsibilities incurred through its occupation of Palestine.

Sami Kishawi is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he is heavily involved with student campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. He blogs at Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.

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Comments

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Sorry, I didn't get what is "subtle" about the whitewashing report that assumes (and declares) the blockade to be legal?

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International humanitarian law (IHL, the law of armed conflict) is the wrong legal framework to be used as the basis for judging the lawfulness of the actions taken by Israel both against the civilian population of Gaza (the blockade) and against those resisting the boarding of the MM. The conflict between the Israeli navy and unarmed civilians on the Mavi Marmara was not armed conflict. International human rights law and law enforcement norms should have been applied, which would have made the use of force -- and especially lethal force -- an act of last resort. Nor should the legality of the blockade of occupied Gaza be analyzed in the framework of the law of armed conflict.

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International awards
In May 2007, the American Jewish Committee gave Uribe its "Light Unto The Nations" award. AJC President E. Robert Goodkind, who presented the award at AJC's Annual Dinner, held at the National Building Museum in Washington stated: "President Uribe is a staunch ally of the United States, a good friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
On 13 January 2009 US President George W. Bush awarded President Uribe, along with former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair and former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, the highest civilian award; the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dana Perino, the White House Press Secretary explained that he received this award "for (his) work to improve the lives of (his) citizens and for (his) efforts to promote democracy, human rights and peace abroad." She said (speaking of the three leaders who received the reward on this day): "All three leaders have been staunch allies of the United States, particularly in combating terrorism."

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.