Recently-released US government documents related to Israel’s deadly May 2010 raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla shed new light on the extent to which the US disregarded the rights and safety of US citizens participating in the humanitarian mission to the besieged Gaza Strip — and the lengths to which it shielded Israel from accountability.
Nine passengers, including a US citizen, were killed and many more injured by Israeli commandos who stormed the flagship Mavi Marmara, provoking international outrage and turning world opinion against Israel, possibly irreversibly. Seventeen US citizens were aboard the flotilla, including a former US army colonel and former US ambassador. Passengers were arrested and detained in Israel without charge and eventually deported.
The 5,000 pages of documents from various government agencies — many of them heavily redacted — were released after the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights sued the US government in May 2011 when the US failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by the CCR one month after the attack.
Murder of Furkan Doğan
The documents show that while the US government tracked citizens participating in the flotilla for months before their scheduled departure to Gaza, but made no efforts to ensure the safety of the passengers and parroted the Israeli government line by characterizing the humanitarian flotilla as a provocation.
The government emails and cables also show the shocking lack of concern regarding the slaying of a US teenager aboard the Mavi Marmara, Furkan Doğan, despite the desperate pleas of his father for information about his son’s whereabouts and safety (see the CCR’s production guide to the documents related to Furkan Doğan).
As the Center for Constitutional Rights summarizes: “Israeli commandos shot Furkan five times, including one shot to the head at point-blank range. At the time of the attack, it is believed Furkan was filming with a small video camera on the top deck of the Mavi Marmara.” A United Nations inquiry into Israel’s attack on the flotilla states that the teen’s wounds suggest that “he may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered, as suggested by witness accounts to that effect.”
The Obama administration made no inquiry into Furkan Doğan’s death and deferred to Israel’s own investigations into the incident, even though the attack occurred in international waters. And not only did the US fail to investigate Doğan’s killing, it also actively undermined independent international investigations into the siege of the flotilla. The US also made no high-level attempt to retrieve property of US citizens seized during the raid, including cameras that would yield key evidence to understanding the truth of what happened on the Mavi Marmara. Israel is believed to still possess property belonging to US citizens aboard the flotilla.
Passengers investigated for terror ties
It took the US government three days to learn that Furkan Doğan was slain on the Mavi Marmara, and US failed to investigate his death, yet the documents show that the US government wasted no time in investigating passengers on the humanitarian convoy for terror group financing ties.
The CCR notes in one of its production guides to the documents: “On August 17, 2010, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Financing Operations and Counterterrorism Financing Management Unit issued a memorandum that stated as its synopsis: ‘To provide results of research conducted on the 561 individuals associated with the Gaza Freedom flotilla’ to Counterterrorism squads in Kansas City, Chicago, San Francisco and Tel Aviv.”
Jessica Lee, a Bertha Fellow in International Human Rights, is part of a team at the Center for Constitutional Rights endeavoring to learn the truth of the US’ role regarding the 2010 raid. She spoke to me via Skype about the disturbing conclusions drawn from the government documents.
Maureen Clare Murphy: Just to summarize for readers, the Center for Constitutional Rights announced last week that various US government agencies released to the CCR 5,000 pages of documents related to the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. These documents were released after a civil complaint filed by the CCR after a year of non-compliance to Freedom of Information Act requests made by the CCR. Can you briefly describe what is actually in the released documents?
Jessica Lee: The released documents show the US response before, during and immediately following the attack and they also show the US’ failure to investigate and it’s stifling of investigations. What we’re seeing in these documents is that the US makes a choice again and again to follow Israel and to have an unquestioning deference to the Government of Israel, even when American lives are at stake.
Just to summarize the documents, we have a large portion from the Department of State; the documents are from multiple embassies, they are from offices in Washington, we have documents from the office of the legal advisor and memos from high-level officials such as [State Department legal advisor] Harold Koh and former Secretary Hillary Clinton. Again and again, they show a deference to Israel in assessing the issue of the flotilla and characterizing the flotilla, and really in their response, which is what I found very disturbing.
MCM: Is the Center for Constitutional Rights satisfied with what the government has produced in response to the FOIA civil complaint?
JL: No, we are not happy with what has been produced. A number of the agencies appear to have done inadequate searches. They don’t appear to have released all of the information that they have, and for the information that has been released, much of it is redacted and we’re finding that a lot of the redactions are inappropriate. We are challenging those redactions based on the FOIA law.
MCM: As you mentioned, the documents show — in what I found to be a shocking way — that the US deferred to Israel to investigate itself for its siege on the Mavi Marmara even though the attack occurred in international waters, and even though the autopsy reports strongly suggested that the US citizen who was killed aboard the Mavi Marmara, Furkan Doğan, was shot at extremely close range and possibly summarily executed. It also shows that the US took three days to become aware of his death, and in the meantime his family was calling the US government, desperate for information. Can you comment on what the documents show regarding the US’ handling of the killing of a US citizen on the Mavi Marmara?
JL: These documents show what you just described, which is a complete deference to Israel despite this really barbaric murder. Furkan Doğan asked permission from his parents to go on this trip, and they never imagined the violence that would occur. They thought that having a US passport would provide him some level of protection. But what these documents show is that frankly, it doesn’t matter if you’re a US citizen; when it comes to challenging Israel, the US government is going to think of Israel’s interests first and citizens exercising their first amendment rights last.
As you said, [Furkan Doğan’s] father was desperately seeking information about [his son]. His father went to the airport hoping that his son was one of those deported back to Turkey and would be walking off the plane. And instead he was greeted by officials who told him that his son was dead. And of course, meanwhile, the US government was either ignorant or oblivious to the fact that a US citizen was killed.
Something that I thought was interesting about these documents was the scenario of what happened at the morgue. There was a US official who was sent to the morgue in Israel to see if they could identify any of the bodies as US citizens. And instead of being shown the bodies, they were shown pictures. And none of the pictures had bullet wounds, and none of the pictures in any way resembled Furkan, who we know was shot in the face. And so there was what seems to be an effort by Israel to not release the truth to the United States early on and in the months following. It doesn’t seem that the US ever took Israel to task for hiding this information or for the killing itself. They defer again and again to the Israeli investigation even though it was a barbaric murder which occurred at point-blank range.
MCM: Related to that, not only did the US not seem terribly concerned about whether US citizens were killed on the Mavi Marmara, the Center for Constitutional Rights shows that the US did very little to restore the property that was seized by Israel when it stormed the ships. The CCR mentions that it was likely that Furkan was holding a camera when he was killed and comments in its summary of the documents that “Israel’s apparent loss of this property and rejection of responsibility in its return is tantamount to destruction of evidence, since it impedes the investigation of the causalities that occurred during the incident.” Can you comment further on this?
JL: It’s really a travesty that the United States had an opportunity to press for this evidence and time and time again, they accepted Israel’s justifications for not turning it over. If you look at the documents, Israeli government officials delayed returning property for years now and there’s no high-level discussion of it, there was no US acknowledgement that this wasn’t just someone’s property with economic value, but that this was evidence. This wasn’t raised in any meaningful manner and it’s a really disappointing showing that the US was not interested in getting the truth out about what happened on this flotilla.
And something else that I think is very telling [is that] this property again and again was raised by consular officials but you don’t see it at the high level whatsoever. It’s not even on their radar that this evidence is important. The [Israeli government-sponsored] Turkel II commission report references how the IDF [Israeli military] seized all of these electronic equipments, and how that provided the Turkel commission such great insight about what happened on the ship. But even the Turkel II commission notes that some of the material appeared to have been edited. So having an outside body look at this electronic evidence would have been revolutionary when it comes to the investigation. But the US did very, very little to actually get the property back, either for an international investigation or for Furkan’s family or the US passengers themselves.
MCM: Something else that struck me in the documents is that they also suggest that the US government took Israel’s claims for granted that two US citizens participating in the 2010 flotilla were involved with “terror groups.” The documents released by the FBI are almost entirely redacted, yielding very little useful information. But the parts that aren’t redacted suggest that while the US was failing to investigate Israel’s killing of a US citizen, it was actively investigating US citizens who participated in the flotilla for violations of the laws forbidding material support for foreign terrorist organizations. Can you comment on this?
JL: It’s absolutely tragic that the United States failed to investigate the killing of US citizen at point-blank range yet somehow decided that it was worthwhile to investigate the passengers who were in a humanitarian assistance flotilla. I think this shows very clearly where the US priorities are. The government’s priorities are not about protecting US citizens or their free speech rights when it comes to challenging Israel. It’s all about what Israel’s needs are and following the line that the IDF has said to the American government, that these protesters were actually terrorists.
And I think it’s also telling that the government officials, from the very beginning, they didn’t necessarily say that the passengers were terrorists, but they used strong language to characterize them: they’re involved in the flotilla as a provocation, they’re trying to illicit conflict. It’s all painting this idea that Israel really preferences, which is that these are people who are interested in just a confrontation, rather than what we all know is true, which is that this was a humanitarian assistance flotilla.
MCM: One of the documents from the US government reads that the participation of US citizens aboard a future ship organized by the Turkish humanitarian group IHH is “especially unwelcome given our perception that IHH would almost certain [sic] welcome the publicity arising from confrontation at sea between the flotilla and the IDF. Many media representatives promise to be on hand.” Do you think this is characteristic of the US government’s assignment of blame for what happened on the Mavi Marmara?
JL: Definitely. Throughout these documents we see a dismissal of the first-amendment rights of the protesters. We see a dismissal of their very genuine concerns about the suffering occurring in Gaza, and we see them painted instead as people seeking a confrontation without any addressing of these very real claims that the flotilla participants had, and without a strong condemnation of what Israel did. Like we said a minute ago, I think it’s really telling that they were investigating the passengers but weren’t investigating Israel for this barbaric murder of an American teenager, and that’s the sort of mindset that we see evidenced throughout these documents that they produced — that Israel can do no wrong, their story is the one that is received and preferrenced and echoed throughout these government agencies — even when they’ve committed these barbaric acts and even when American lives are at stake.
MCM: Related to that, this question of investigation and accountability, the Center for Constitutional Rights communicated with the US government about a visit made to New York University by an Israeli combatant who was one of the first commandos to board the Mavi Marmara. Did the government take any action on this?
JL: It doesn’t appear that they took any action. The request that the Center for Constitutional Rights that they investigation was forwarded on but it didn’t appear that anything actually came of it.
MCM: So he was able to come to a major university and talk about his experience on the Mavi Marmara.
JL: That’s my understanding. I wasn’t here then but a trial attorney at the Department of Justice forwarded on our message about the event and basically said, “feel free to do whatever you want with this,” and we got no follow up response from this and no idea that anything was happening. But we had no reason to think that they would do anything different because time and time again, they’ve chosen not to investigate. So I don’t think this is out of line with what we’ve been seeing from the Department of State and the FBI when it comes to Furkan Doğan’s murder; there’s just no desire from the US government to seek accountability.
[Author’s note: since this interview was published, The Electronic Intifada has learned that the Israeli commando’s event at New York University was canceled after students protested and it is not clear whether he actually entered the United States. The Facebook event page for the commando’s speaking event, organized by Birthright Israel and co-sponsored by anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs, promised “exclusive firsthand footage taken aboard the ship.”]
MCM: What steps are the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups taking, whether in the US or internationally, to pursue justice for Furkan Doğan and the other passengers killed aboard the Mavi Marmara?
JL: Well first off, we’re just trying to learn as much as we can about what happened and what the US role was in that. We are continuing this litigation to uncover more documents and to have the documents that we currently have in our possession unredacted as possible. We’re challenging the US government to find out what their role was. And we’re hoping that this will be a tool for activists and maybe, one day, for courts that are seeking accountability.
We’re hopeful — there’s been a case in Turkey, this IHH case, and there’s been discussion in Spain about Spain potentially forwarding on the case of the Mavi Marmara to the International Criminal Court. So we’re hopeful that one of these actions or a new case will come of this. But in the meanwhile, we’re going to fight to learn everything that we can so that protesters and future flotilla passengers will be able to really hold the government accountable and demand a response from them.
Something that was very much in our mind when pursuing this litigation is that these flotillas are not going to stop. And so we need to know as much as we can about whether the US will make efforts to protect citizens. And if not, we need to take as much advocacy as possible here in the States to pressure the State Department and other government agencies to stand up for the rights of American citizens and ultimately, one day, hopefully stand up to Israel for what they are doing to Gaza.
Something that I thought was pretty important and we haven’t produced a production guide on it yet, but is very much related to Furkan, is the United States’ efforts to stifle the international investigations. We have documents from the US mission in Geneva — this is the mission to the [United Nations] Human Rights Council — where they’re writing in a cable to the Secretary of State that they’re exploring ways to “turn off” the fact-finding mission, and they want the mission to fall away. So not only do we have the US government here declining to investigate, but there’s an active effort to try to stop the credible investigations that were being done by UN bodies.
MCM: Not only was the United States failing to conduct its own meaningful investigation into the slaying of a US citizen, but it was also actively undermining international efforts for investigation.
JL: Right. There’s these repeated contradictions that we’re seeing. They tracked the US passengers for weeks but they didn’t take action to protect them. They won’t conduct an investigation themselves, but they’re trying to stop those who will. And they’re choosing instead to have a counter-terrorism investigation of the other passengers. The choices that the US government makes again and again are all in line with following Israel rather than protecting their citizens or working for accountability.
In the next few weeks we will be releasing another production guide and part of this will be focused on US efforts to block flotillas. Something that we found which was pretty striking was that in 2011, instead of seeing documents pressuring Israel to not take violent action against the flotilla, we actually saw a concerted US government and State Department effort to block flotillas from launching from across the world. And it appears that this was done after a direct request from the government of Israel to prevent the flotillas.