Israeli inquiry rules that flotilla raid was legal

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The Independent Online

An Israeli inquiry cleared the government and military today of wrongdoing in the bloody seizure of a Turkish aid ship that tried to breach the Gaza blockade, saying passengers were to blame for the violence.

The Turkel Commission, whose report will form the core of Israel's submission to a UN inquiry into the May 31 incident, endorsed the sea closure but urged Israeli reviews of how to focus sanctions on Gaza's Hamas rulers and spare its civilians.

"By clearly resisting capture, the Mavi Marmara had become a military objective," the commission said in a 245-page report, referring to a converted cruise ship which Israeli marines boarded on the high seas after it ignored orders to turn back.

Nine pro-Palestinian Turks were killed in the ensuing brawls. The commission accused the IHH, a Turkish Islamist charity that owned the Mavi Marmara, "of planned and extremely violent" resistance which was "directly connected to the ongoing international armed conflict between Israel and Hamas".

The findings were unlikely to be welcomed by Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country that had been in alliance with the Jewish state and which has demanded an Israeli apology for the raid and compensation over the casualties. Israel has refused.

In September, three international experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the attack said it had been unlawful and resulted in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.. Israel said the investigators' mandate was biased.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set up his own inquiry into the incident, which is still in progress.

In its report, the Israeli commission said the Gaza blockade was justified given the threat of gun-running to Hamas and Israel's efforts to maintain humanitarian supplies to ordinary Palestinians there.

"Even if the naval blockade ... had been considered not to meet the requirements of international law, individuals or groups do not have the right to take the law into their own hands and breach the blockade," the report said, alluding to the IHH and other pro-Palestinian activists behind the May flotilla.

Marines who boarded the Mavi Marmara from helicopters and dinghies used sound tactics, resorting to gunfire when passengers threatened their lives, it said, echoing the conclusions of an Israeli military inquiry from July.

Using video from marines' helmet-mounted cameras and confiscated from passengers, as well as testimony from witnesses, the commission examined 133 instances in which the boarding party used guns or non-lethal violence, a panel official said.

In 127 of the cases, marines responded appropriately to passengers who attacked them, the official said. The other six cases - three of which involved gunfire - were inconclusive.

Around 100 of the some 600 passengers put up a fight and should therefore not be considered civilians but "direct participants in hostilities" whom marines could regard as combatants, the commission said.

Footage showed some of the passengers pummelling, clubbing and stabbing marines and the Israelis have said gunfire was also used against them, an account disputed by activists.

Asked whether the nine dead Turks, one of whom was also a US national, had been "direct participants in hostilities," the panel official said this could not be determined given that forensic information on how they had been shot was lacking.

The commission heard testimony from Israeli Arabs who had been passengers on the Mavi Marmara, but its call for Turkish and other foreign witnesses to come forward was largely ignored. Transcripts of the interrogation of passengers by Israeli police after their detention was also examined.

Two foreign observers, Canadian military jurist Kenneth Watkin and Northern Ireland statesman David Trimble, approved the Turkel Commission's findings. The panel also consulted two international experts on warfare.

Marines who participated in the raid did not testify and their accounts were relayed by senior officers. The commission also questioned top generals, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a series of hearings.