Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is legal and justified but it used unreasonable and excessive force when it killed nine Turks on a flotilla trying to break through it, a UN report has concluded.
A special UN inquiry found that Israeli commandos who boarded the lead ship in a Turkish-based Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010 encountered "organised and violent resistance" by a group aboard the ship and were required to use force to protect themselves. But the loss of life was unacceptable and the later treatment of passengers by the Israeli forces was abusive, the report concluded. The long-awaited report into the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara by a team headed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former New Zealand premier, will be published today against a background of a serious deterioration in relations between Israel and the country that has long been its closest Muslim ally.
The report, whose publication both governments have at times sought to delay, is unlikely to reverse the growing tension between the two countries.
Turkey has repeatedly challenged the legality of the blockade and continued yesterday to demand the full apology which Israel has declined to make for the deaths on the vessel. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has suggested that lifting of the naval blockade would be required before Ankara returns its currently withdrawn ambassador to Tel Aviv.
But the report largely vindicates the naval blockade, saying that in the face of a "real threat" from militant groups in Gaza, "the naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law".
Israel regards the report's endorsement of the naval blockade as an unusual UN vindication of one of its more controversial policies but has agreed to express "regret" for the deaths on the vessel – a report recommendation – and to pay compensation to the families of the dead, eight Turks and a US citizen of Turkish descent.
Despite widely reported pressure by the US, however, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declined to go further by offering a full apology, which some Israeli politicians, especially on the right, argue would be seen as a sign of weakness.
The report does not extend its endorsement to the land blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas's seizure of Gaza in June 2007, which was beyond its remit. But it criticises the flotilla for "recklessly" attempting to breach the naval blockade.
While a majority of the hundreds of the people aboard the ships did not intend violence, it says, there exist "serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organisers, particularly IHH" – the Turkish aid group behind the flotilla. It also says the Turkish government could have done more to stop the flotilla.
At the same time it says Israel should have issued warnings and applied non-violent options when boarding was imminent, and is critical of the way in which passengers were killed and injured, arguing that Israel has not adequately explained why most of the deceased were shot multiple times, "including in the back, or at close range".