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Villainous and the Reckless:Deadly Flotillas & Palmer Report

The Villainous and the Reckless: Deadly Flotillas and the Palmer Report

Binoy Kampmark
September 6, 2011

Politics is, as ever, a game of ducking, weaving and stalling. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu found himself attempting to do the latter, seeking a delay the release of the UN Palmer Report into the Mavi Marmara affair in May last year. He recently hoped for a breathing space of six months. The UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was not deterred, releasing its findings on the incident of May 31, 2010 when a flotilla of six vessels was boarded by Israeli Defense Forces 72 nautical miles from land. The flotilla was navigating towards the coast of Gaza, intending to breach Israel’s naval blockade that has been in place since 2009.

In the course of the seizure, Turkey lost nine citizens on the Mavi Marmara to the bullets of Israeli commandos. Ankara has pressed Israel at various stages to apologise, but they have stood fast. The Turkish submissions to the inquiry insisted that ‘the naval blockade was illegal and that the interception of the flotilla vessels on the high seas was therefore in breach of the international principle of the freedom of navigation’ (Palmer Report, 38).

The Panel however, did not find fault with the blockade, as it was ‘a distinct legal measure […] imposed primarily to enable a legally sound basis for Israel to assert control over ships attempting to reach Gaza with weapons and related goods’ (Palmer Report, 38). This was taken as a separate matter from Israel’s control of the land crossings to Gaza. To conclude on that issue, then, the Panel found that, ‘Israel was entitled to take reasonable steps to prevent the influx of weapons into Gaza.’

Having approved the legal basis of the blockade, the panellists proceeded to issue a few lashings at Israel. While the report admits that IDF personnel were placed at risk at stages given the resistance by ‘a group of passengers’ on boarding the Mavi Marmara, the sheer level of brutality inflicted on the group was unacceptable. In paragraph 134 of the report, the panellists find that the casualties inflicted during ‘the takeover of the Mavi Marmara was unacceptable.’ The panellists had to admit that Israel was found wanting on its explanations as to why the deaths took place. ‘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.’

As with such matters in the traumatized region, finding calm and untrammelled ground between Israeli heavy-handedness and Turkish indignation has been virtually impossible. The Turks have suspended defence arrangements and sent the Israeli ambassador packing. Ankara has also declared an interest in taking Israel before the International Criminal Court.

In truth, relations between the two have been less than rosy. While the 1990s saw a golden age in the relationship, which enabled the Israeli Air Force to take advantage of Turkish airspace for training purposes, along with arms agreements and the exchange of intelligence, the rot had well and truly set in by 2008.

As Amos Harel (Haaretz.com, Sep 4) notes, Israel’s launch of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip placed Turkey in a difficult position, having just played host to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been attempted to renew peace talks between Israel and Syria. This resulted in a constriction in Turkish participation alongside Israel in military exercises, even with the United States. Israel, in turn, scaled back its intelligence efforts when a radical Islamic activist took the over the reins of the Turkish intelligence services.

In truth, the parties bristling at the report will be varied and many. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the report on Sunday. In the scolding words of OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, ‘The UN Panel of Inquiry’s Report failed to reflect an objective and unbiased position’ (The Egyptian Gazette, Sep 5). Both Turkey and Israel have now entered a tense stand-off, a cold war of sorts. While it is unlikely to hot up in any tangible sense, the thaw will take some time to come.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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