Why the Palmer-Uribe report on Israel’s flotilla attack is worthless
Turkey has imposed sanctions on Israel following Turkey’s rejection of a UN report on Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla last year.
In the latest developments on Friday morning, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rejected the findings of the report and announced unprecedented sanctions on Israel saying “it’s time for Israel to pay a price.”
From 7 September, diplomatic ties will be reduced to the lowest level, all Turkish-Israeli military agreements will be canceled, and Turkey will support victims of the Israeli attack on the flotilla to pursue justice through legal cases.
Crucially, Davutoğlu affirmed that Turkey does not recognize the blockade of Gaza which the Palmer report attempted to justify, and which a UN Human Rights Council official fact-finding mission had already ruled to be illegal. Turkey will also challenge the Israeli siege of Gaza through international legal channels.
Palmer report attempts to whitewash attack on flotilla, justify Israeli siege
A leaked copy of the Palmer report into Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010 was published by the New York Times on Thursday, a day before its expected official release by the UN Secretary General.
On 31 May 2010, Israel attacked the largest ship in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, killing 9 people on board.
Publication of the report had been delayed several times as Turkey and Israel attempted to negotiate a settlement. Turkey demanded an apology for the attack, compensation for victims and an end to the siege of Gaza. In his statement today Davutoğlu said Israel had passed up many opportunities to resolve the issue.
The four-member committee that wrote the Palmer report was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and was chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and vice-chaired by former president of Colombia Alvaro Uribe.
This panel is in addition to an official UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission which reported last September that Israel’s attack on the ships was illegal.
According to the The New York Times article on the Palmer report, the Palmer panel:
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.
An initial examination of the report indicates that these many of findings are not credible on their face for a number of reasons including the composition of the panel, its reliance on Israel which has controlled and withheld most of the evidence, and a skewed and politicized perspective which ignores the realities of Israel’s decades-long violent occupation of Gaza.
Palmer panel was stacked for Israel and includes notorious human rights abuser
As Jose Antonio Gutierrez and David Landy explained on The Electronic Intifada in August 2010, the panel was selected almost entirely according to Israel’s dictates:
The commission is composed of four persons, one chosen by Turkey, one chosen by Israel and two chosen from a list provided by Israel. The latter two are former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer, who will be the chair, and Uribe, who will serve as vice-chair. While Palmer, an expert in international law, is an uncontroversial choice, the appointment of Uribe is as perplexing as it is shocking. It appears that “balance” in this commission involves balance between someone versed in international and human rights law and someone who is adamantly opposed to it. This notion of balance fatally weakens this commission even before it has started, and tarnishes the process of international law.
Uribe himself has a long and notorious history of violating human rights on a massive scale, attacking human rights defenders and organizations, and expressing contempt for any notion of law that restrains states from engaging in almost any kind of violence they desire.
Gutierrez and Landy on Uribe’s record in Colombia:
In June 2010 an international human rights mission investigated the biggest mass grave in the western hemisphere — containing some 2,000 execution victims who had been dumped there since 2004 — which had just been discovered in the Colombian town of La Macarena. At the same time Uribe travelled to that very locality but not to pay his condolences to the victims’ families, or guarantee that an investigation would determine what happened there. Instead, he went to visit the local military base — exactly the same people that, according to victims’ reports, filled that mass grave with its grisly contents — to praise them for their work.
On Uribe’s attacks on human rights defenders, Gutierrez and Landy write:
Uribe’s scorn for human right defenders is notorious. According to Human Rights First, “President Uribe and other administration officials have branded [human rights defenders] as terrorist sympathizers and have insinuated that illicit connections exist between human rights NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and illegal armed groups. Irresponsible comments by government officials in Colombia put the lives of human rights defenders at even greater risk and threaten to undermine the value and credibility of their work” (“Human Rights Defencers in Colombia”).
In September 2009 Colombia was visited by Margaret Sekaggya, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders from the UN Human Rights Commission. Sekaggya found that constant problems faced by human rights defenders in Colombia include “Stigmatization [of human rights defenders] by public officials and non-State actors; their illegal surveillance by State intelligence services; their arbitrary arrest and detention, and their judicial harassment; and raids of nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) premises and theft of information” (“Report of the Special Rapporteur …,” 4 March 2010, pp. 13-18 [PDF]). Public officials in Colombia constantly attack human rights defenders and members of the political and social opposition as aides of “terrorists,” that is, left-wing guerrillas.
Uribe has led these attacks, calling human rights defenders “rent-a-mobs at terrorism’s service who cowardly wave the human rights flag,” “human rights traffickers,” “charlatans of human rights,” “bandits’ [ie. guerrillas] colleagues,” “intellectual front of the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]” and he has stated that “Every time terrorists and their supporters feel they will be defeated, they resort to denouncing human rights violations.”
This is just a small selection of Uribe’s verbal attacks on human rights organizations in his own country, but he has also referred to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as “rats.”
Uribe’s alliance with Israel
During Uribe’s term, Colombia, which is one of the top three recipients of US military aid along with Israel and Egypt, developed a close military alliance with Israel, as Gutierrez and Landy explain:
In recent years, according to news reports, Israel has become Colombia’s number one weapon supplier, with arms worth tens of millions of dollars, “including Kfir aircraft, drones, weapons and intelligence systems” being used against opponents of the Colombian regime (“Report: Israelis fighting guerillas in Colombia,” Ynet, 10 August 2007). According to a senior Israeli defense official, “Israel’s methods of fighting terror have been duplicated in Colombia” (“Colombia’s FM: We share your resilience,” 30 April 2010).
There is a reason that Latin Americans often refer to Colombia as the “Israel of Latin America,” and indeed why Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, ex-Minister of Defence and right hand of Uribe, expressed his pride at such a comparison (“Santos, orgulloso de que a Colombia lo comparen con Israel,” El Espectador, 6 June 2010).
As Gutierrez and Landy also point out, top officials in Uribe’s administration, including the president himself, frequently expressed full support for Israel’s fight against what it terms “terrorism.”
Israel withheld and manipulated evidence
The Palmer panel cannot be described in any sense as an independent investigation. As the report states:
The Panel received and reviewed reports of the detailed national investigations conducted by both Turkey and Israel. Turkey established a National Commission of Inquiry to examine the facts of the incident and its legal consequences, which provided an interim and final report to the Panel along with annexes and related material. Israel provided the report of the independent Public Commission that it had established to review whether the actions taken by the State of Israel had been compatible with international law.
The Panel reviewed these reports and further information and clarifications it received in written form and through direct meetings with Points of Contact appointed by each government.
The report adds:
In particular, the Panel’s means of obtaining information were through diplomatic channels. The Panel enjoyed no coercive powers to compel witnesses to provide evidence. It could not conduct criminal investigations. The Panel was required to obtain its information from the two nations primarily involved in its inquiry, Turkey and Israel, and other affected States.
The panel therefore interviewed no survivors or witnesses. Only Israel controlled most key physical evidence – the ship itself and the belongings and recordings of all the passengers and the weapons Israel used in carrying out the attack. The panel did not have uncensored access to the massive amounts of evidence in the form of photo and video from passengers on board that Israel has stolen, hidden and refused to release or return. As a consequence, of these crippling limitations, the report states:
It means that the Panel cannot make definitive findings either of fact or law. But it can give its view.
The panel also implies that its own independence is further in question because:
It will be clear from the above that the essential logic of the Panel’s inquiry is that it is dependent upon the investigations conducted by Israel and Turkey.
In contrast, the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission report published last September went much beyond merely commenting on information provided by governments. That fact-finding mission:
conducted interviews with more than 100 witnesses in Geneva, London, Istanbul and Amman.
And in addition to information provided by governments, the Human Rights Council also relied on information
including the evidence of eyewitnesses, forensic reports and interviews with medical and forensic personnel in Turkey, as well as written statements, video film footage and other photographic material relating to the incident.
Perhaps because of its thoroughness, Israel refused to cooperate with the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, just as it refused to cooperate with the Goldstone report.
Accusations of “violent resistance”
The Palmer panel report claims:
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.
Given the fact that Palmer panel did not gather any evidence of its own, its conclusion that the Israeli military attackers who boarded the Mavi Marmara under cover of dark in international waters, faced “organized and violent resistance” can be given no more credibility than any common or garden Israeli military press release.
While Israel has repeatedly made such claims, it never produced independent evidence of it and – as noted – is still concealing evidence.
Nevertheless, the video footage that did escape Israeli confiscation showed:
- Indiscriminate live fire by the Israeli attackers
- A working journalist who appears to have been executed
- Evidence of targeted assassination of at least one passenger
Even the deeply flawed Palmer report is forced to admit:
The loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces during the take-over of the Mavi Marmara was unacceptable. Nine passengers were killed and many others seriously wounded by Israeli forces. No satisfactory explanation has been provided to the Panel by Israel for any of the nine deaths. 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.
Moreover, the propagandistic Israeli claims that their soldiers were mistreated were belied by photographs that showed passengers giving aid and protection to Israeli attackers who had been disarmed.
It is possible of course that passengers defended themselves against a terrifying Israeli assault in dead of night with a full military arsenal that included assault helicopters and elite commandos against a civilian ship.
Indeed, footage shows terrified passengers hiding and attempting to fend off indiscriminate fire with sticks in a blood-stained stairwell. But to equate any of this to “organized and violent resistance” that could in any way justify Israel’s execution-style killings is completely absurd.
The blockade is “legal”
The Palmer report’s assertion that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza is legal and necessary for “security” echoes the other aspects of the report that accept Israeli military propaganda as given.
By privileging the security of Israel, the occupying power, the report also ignores the rights and needs for security of the Palestinian people in Gaza who are being collectively punished and who have been subjected to decades of indiscriminate Israeli military attacks in which thousands of civilians have been killed and injured.
Yet this opinion of the Panel is, as the report states, not binding in any legal sense. But more importantly, it has no bearing at all on the assault on the Mavi Marmara, which Israel attacked in international waters as it was moving away from the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-controlled coast of Palestine.
Israel’s claim that it needs to blockade people it is violently victimizing in order to prevent them obtaining any means means whatsoever to defend themselves can only be made by wholly ignoring the context of Israel’s violent occupation of Gaza and decades of well-documented war crimes.
Israel is not in a defensive position in which it can claim a “security” need to impose a blockade. Israel is the military aggressor which for decades from 1967 until 2005 violently colonized the Gaza Strip, placing settlers there in blatant violation of international law. Since 2005, Israel has continued to occupy besiege, harass, attack and kill civilians in Gaza with almost no respite culminating in the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of civilians during the 2008-2009 “Operation Cast Lead.”
A perfect example of Israel’s wanton violence was its unprovoked series of attacks on the Gaza Strip last month which killed more than two dozen people, including children.
Human Rights Council fact-finding mission and legality of Israeli blockade
The UN Human Rights Council had already concluded that Israel’s interception of the flotilla was illegal because the blockade was unjustified:
In evaluating the evidence submitted to the Mission, including by OCHA oPt [Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories), confirming the severe humanitarian situation in Gaza, the destruction of the economy and the prevention of reconstruction (as detailed above), the Mission is satisfied that the blockade was inflicting disproportionate damage upon the civilian population in the Gaza strip and that as such the interception could not be justified and therefore has to be considered illegal.
It also concludes:
The Mission considers that one of the principal motives behind the imposition of the blockade was a desire to punish the people of the Gaza Strip for having elected Hamas. The combination of this motive and the effect of the restrictions on the Gaza Strip leave no doubt that Israel’s actions and policies amount to collective punishment as defined by international law.
the blockade amounts to collective punishment in violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.
Palmer panel went against international consensus on blockade
Moreover, the Turkish appointee on the Palmer panel, Süleyman Özdem Sanberk, noted in a dissenting statement rejecting large parts of the report:
On the legal aspect of the blockade, Turkey and Israel have submitted two opposing arguments. International legal authorities are divided on the matter since it is unprecedented, highly complex and the legal framework lacks codification. However, the Chairmanship and its report fully associated itself with Israel and categorically dismissed the views of the other, despite the fact that the legal arguments presented by Turkey have been supported by the vast majority of the international community. Common sense and conscience dictate that the blockade is unlawful.
- Also the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the blockade was unlawful. The Report of the Human Rights Council Fact Finding Mission received widespread approval from the member states.
- Freedom and safety of navigation on the high seas is a universally accepted rule of international law. There can be no exception from this long-standing principle unless there is a universal convergence of views.
- The intentions of the participants in the international humanitarian convoy were humanitarian, reflecting the concerns of the vast majority of the international community. They came under attack in international waters. They resisted for their own protection. Nine civilians were killed and many others were injured by the Israeli soldiers. One of the victims is still in a coma. The evidence confirms that at least some of the victims had been killed deliberately.
- The wording in the report is not satisfactory in describing the actual extent of the atrocities that the victims have been subjected to. This includes the scope of the maltreatment suffered by the passengers in the hands of Israeli soldiers and officials.
After Goldstone, protecting Israel
Based on what was known before its report became public, and now that we have read the report, it is clear that the Palmer panel was no more than political exercise by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to whitewash Israel’s attack on the flotilla and protect it from any real accountability.
After Israel and the United States’s all out war on the Goldstone report detailing Israeli war crimes in Gaza, it appears that international officials are unwilling to repeat the experience.
Indeed, an exclusive report on The Electronic Intifada in June 2010 revealed intense diplomatic efforts to undermine Turkey’s push for an independent UN investigation into Israel’s flotilla attack.
The Palmer panel was stacked from the start to ensure Israeli impunity, not to provide truth for the victims and survivors of the Mavi Marmara.