In what lawyers are calling a groundbreaking case, four individuals are suing Israel in US federal court over its lethal raid on a humanitarian flotilla almost six years ago.
The plaintiffs, three of them US citizens, were aboard the US-flagged Challenger I when it was intercepted and violently raided by the Israeli army on 31 May 2010.
Challenger I was one of six vessels in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
A tenth victim died from his injuries in May 2014.
The civil suit, filed in Washington, DC, late Monday, seeks compensatory and punitive damages. It accuses Israel and several of its ministries of committing war crimes, including torture and cruel and inhumane treatment.
The complaint also alleges that soldiers confiscated and never returned passengers’ personal property, money and all the medical supplies on board.
The US ship was never returned by Israel.
Several legal actions have been been lodged on behalf of the victims’ families, including in the United States and Turkey and in the International Criminal Court.
However, all previous attempts to hold Israel accountable have targeted specific officials in the Israeli military and government for their roles in planning and executing the attack.
This is the first time that a civil suit in the US in respect to the incident has named the State of Israel as the defendant.
“This case is filed against the State of Israel itself for the attack on a US flagged vessel, Challenger I, during which US citizens were injured and harmed, which brings it within the reach of US law,” lawyer Rodney Dixon told The Electronic Intifada.
While in many cases the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act would preclude a civil lawsuit against a state, Dixon explained that there is an exception in the law if the alleged conduct which caused personal injury and loss occurred in the US.
Dixon said the claim is based on a US-flagged ship coming within this exception: “It’s a legal issue that has not been specifically addressed by the courts, and is thus a groundbreaking case.”
Professor Ralph Steinhardt, a leading international law expert at George Washington University and member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, said in a press release, “Israel is a sovereign state, which gives it certain rights and powers. But that certainly does not include the right to attack a civilian vessel flying the flag of the United States on the high seas and then to assault the civilians on board, including US citizens.”
The plaintiffs in this case are US citizens David Schermerhorn, Mary Ann Wright and Huwaida Arraf, and Belgian citizen Margagrieta de Knoops.
According to the complaint, the Challenger I was attacked while it was 100 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea.
Seventeen passengers from several countries were on board, including humanitarian workers, medics and several journalists clearly identified as members of the press. All were unarmed.
Before the Israeli army boarded the ship it detonated a stun grenade that exploded in Schermerhorn’s face causing a permanent partial loss of sight.
When the soldiers boarded the vessel they fired rubber-coated bullets and paintballs at the passengers.
One passenger was shot five times in the back with rubber-coated bullets. Two other passengers were tasered to such a degree that it caused burning and vomiting, according to the complaint.
While arresting the passengers, at least two were allegedly threatened with electric shock weapons and two others were forcibly carried off the vessel.
“When a passenger refused to leave the ship, IDF [Israeli army] soldiers bound her arms and legs, threw her against a wall and threatened her with a taser device,” the complaint alleges.
In total, around 156 civilian passengers were injured, 52 of them reported to have been serious, during the Israeli assault on the boats in the flotilla.
In September 2010, a UN-commissioned inquiry found that Israel’s actions were a violation of international human rights law.
Its report said that the “behavior by Israeli officials which was aimed at humiliating individuals which, if not torture, would constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment under the terms of article 16 of the Convention against Torture.”
It is notable that a year later, in June 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all but gave Israel a green light to violently intercept another flotilla in which US citizens, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, planned to sail.
“Until justice prevails”
The Gaza Freedom Flotilla set sail for Gaza in late May 2010 with the declared aim to bring international attention to the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip that had been initiated in mid-2008 but was fully established on 3 January 2009, one week after Israel launched a massive aerial and ground invasion of Gaza.
Doğan, 19, was a US citizen who was killed during the raid on the Mavi Marmara. He was shot multiple times at point blank range.
Media reports have speculated that a possible rapprochement between Israel and Turkey would include the nullification of all legal claims against Israeli officials currently pending in Turkish courts in exchange for Israeli compensation of the victims’ families.
But Dixon emphasized “whatever discussions that may have happened have produced no resolution at all for the passengers and have not involved them.”
Victims have rejected any such agreement.
“The families of the ones who were killed have come out and said that these negotiations have nothing to do with us,” Hakan Camuz, a spokesperson for some of the families, told The Electronic Intifada. “We will not give up on the cases until justice prevails.”