The Turkel Committee, investigating the legality of Israel’s lethal response to the Gaza Flotilla in May 2010, has published the first part of its conclusions. The omens for the report were not good, and unfortunately, its 248 pages (Hebrew) reinforce the impression that this inquiry was a sham, intended to whitewash any Israeli wrongdoing involved with the incident. This can be gleaned from the report itself, without even having to confront it with any external evidence.
The Turkel Committee, investigating the legality of Israel’s lethal response to the Gaza Flotilla in May 2010, has published the first part of its conclusions. The omens for the report were not good. The committee was appointed through a procedure that allowed the Israeli government to select its own inquisitors. And one of its members accidentally let it slip that the committee has already made up its mind long before completing the inquiry.
Unfortunately, the report’s 248 pages (Hebrew) reinforce the impression that this inquiry was a sham. Its purpose was not to investigate, but to whitewash any Israeli wrongdoing involved with the flotilla incident. This can be gleaned from the report itself, without even having to confront it with any external evidence.
First, the report aims to clear Israel from the accusations that the siege on Gaza was illegal under international law. In order to do so, it claims that this policy was not devised with the purpose of harming non-combatants. It bases this conclusion on a meticulous examination of the way the siege was carried out and its consequences. However, the details the provided by the committee itself, regarding decision making on this issue, clearly indicate that the siege was not motivated by military considerations.
From the outset, the maritime closure was needed because the IDF could not otherwise justify searching ships going into Gaza, as it did not have enough information to base a reasonable suspicion that these vessels were carrying military goods (p. 53). So without specific information, they simply decided to enforce a comprehensive siege.
The decision itself was made during the Gaza war in late 2009-early 2010. This could reinforce its military purpose, except that the government did not even bother to re-examine the need for such a closure after the war ended (p. 34). In contrast to international custom, the declaration was open ended, laying the ground for the closure’s potentially infinite continuation.
The committee admits that the maritime closure was enacted, at least partly, in order to “weaken Hamas and isolate it.” According to senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, as well as an official document quoted by the committee, the closure was motivated by a desire to deny Hamas economic, political and internal benefits, as well as legitimacy (p. 52).
The committee claims there is no shred of evidence that Israel mainly or exclusively targeted Gaza’s civilian population (p. 94). Obviously, the panel’s septuagenarians are not Google savvy. There are statements by commanders of both the Northern and Southern commands of the IDF which explicitly talk about targeting Gaza’s civilian population. Similar statements were also made by at least one senior minister, and an expert in IDF military doctrine. Moreover, the notion of targeting broad Palestinian society, instead of specific military goals, permeates the IDF’s military doctrine, as I have written elsewhere.
The second part of the report addresses the operation itself, in which nine people, all on the flotilla side, were killed by the IDF. Unsurprisingly, the report clears the IDF from any wrongdoing on this matter as well. In order to do so, it relies on the testimonies of the soldiers and information provided by the IDF itself.
While I would not automatically accuse the army of lying, in this specific case, the committee ignores or papers over some significant reasons to doubt the IDF’s credibility, despite the fact that all this information appears in the report itself. The report notes that seven investigations were launched against 16 soldiers, suspected of theft and looting money and items from the flotilla participants. Four soldiers were indicted, and one was already convicted (p. 160). So IDF soldiers are dishonest enough to steal and loot, but not dishonest enough to misrepresent the facts when accused of excessive use of force?
Even when there are strong indications that killings were unjustified, the committee bends over backwards to wave them away. For example, among the fatalities was a 61 year old man. Another was a photographer, and as the committee itself notes, there was a clear separation between combatants and cameramen among the flotilla participants. Nonetheless, it classifies both of them as part of the violent activists group (pp. 176-177).
The report mentions that there were ceramic vests on board the flotilla, and that the violent activists wore gas masks and orange suits, sometimes even badges, during their engagement with the IDF. But they do not mention whether such items were found on the dead bodies, which means they probably were not. This is a strong indication that at least some of those killed did not participate in violent acts.
So how did they die? Again, clues for what happened can be gleaned from the report itself. One of the soldiers testifies that cries of “Allah Akbar” made him realize that people shouting these words, “with such madness and extremism”, are an enflamed, radical and dangerous element (p. 122). This indicates that while some soldiers were in true peril, others might not have made a distinction between people who were actually dangerous, and people who only seemed so due to prejudice and expectations.
Could the soldiers have fired on people on the ship from their choppers, risking harm to non-combatants? The committee dismisses this possibility out of hand, since there were no trained soldiers or specialized weapons for that purpose. This reasoning is ridiculous on its face, as this whole operation was clearly ill-prepared and badly executed. But it is further undermined by the fact that several of those killed were shot from above. The report attempts to explain these damning findings away, with stories ranging from activists leaning above soldiers (how would that create a higher angle?) to activists being shot while they were falling down. (p. 217)
The idea that innocents were killed during the raid should be especially appalling in light of one finding by the committee, which was not exactly highlighted by the Israeli media. As the IDF soldiers themselves testify, some of them were saved from death or serious injury only because peaceful flotilla passengers intervened to stop the violent activists. This report is another missed opportunity to ponder the importance of non-violence, and all the ways in which Israel works to undermine it.
The Turkel committee is another significant blow to the notion that Israeli society can seriously examine itself and correct its own errors. In an unintentionally Kafkaesque moment, in the middle of the report, the committee quotes the operational order the IDF formulated for the raid. This order states that the purpose of the operation is to stop the flotilla “while maintaining legitimacy” (p. 110). Obviously, in this sense, the operation failed. The Turkel committee, sadly, merely aggravates this failure.