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Israel blockade of Gaza legal, UN review says

Force against Turkish flotilla called excessive

By Ethan Bronner and Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times / September 2, 2011

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UNITED NATIONS - A UN review has found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is legal and appropriate but that the way its forces boarded a Turkish-based flotilla trying to break that blockade 15 months ago, killing nine passengers, was excessive and unreasonable.

The report, expected to be released today, 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 the loss of life was unacceptable and the Israeli military’s later treatment of passengers was abusive.

The 105-page report, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times, was completed months ago. But its publication was delayed several times as Turkey and Israel sought to reconcile their deteriorating relationship and perhaps avoid making the report public. In reactions from both governments included in the report, as well as in interviews, each objected to the conclusions. Both believe the report, which was intended to help mend relations, will instead make reconciliation harder.

Turkey is particularly upset by the conclusion that Israel’s naval blockade is in keeping with international law and that its forces have the right to stop Gaza-bound ships in international waters, which is what happened. That conclusion oversteps the mandate of the four-member panel appointed by the UN secretary-general and is at odds with other UN decisions, Turkey contends.

The report noted that the panel did not have the power to compel testimony or demand documents, but instead had to rely on information provided by Israel and Turkey.

The foreign ministries in Turkey and Israel declined to comment publicly on the report, saying they preferred to wait for its release. No one was available to comment in the office of the UN spokesman.

The UN investigation into the events on the Turkish-flagged ship known as the Mavi Marmara, the largest of six vessels that were commandeered by Israeli commandos on May 31, 2010, was headed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former prime minister of New Zealand, aided by Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia, along with a representative each from Israel and Turkey.

It takes a broadly sympathetic view of Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza.

“Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza,’’ the report says in its opening paragraphs. “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.’’

The report is hard on the flotilla, asserting that it “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.’’ It said that while the majority of the hundreds of people aboard the six vessels had no violent intention, that could not be said of IHH, the Turkish aid group that primarily organized the flotilla. “There exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature, and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH,’’ it said.

It also said that the Turkish government tried to persuade the organizers to avoid an encounter with Israeli forces but that “more could have been done.’’

Regarding the boarding of the ship, the Palmer committee said Israel should have issued warnings closer to the moment of action and should have first turned to nonviolent options.

The report assailed Israel for the way in which the nine were killed and others injured. “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,’’ it says.

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