The Palmer Report into the Gaza Flotilla

Sep 7, 2011

The Palmer Report into the Gaza Flotilla

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 7, 2011
Number 09/11 #02

Over the weekend, the UN’s Palmer Report into the Mavi Marmara maritime incident last May was published – the full report is available to read here, a good summary of its key provisions is here.  That report – which takes Israel’s side on most questions relating to the Gaza blockade and the background to the incident – has led to an intensification of the crisis in Israeli Turkish relations – with Turkey expelling the Israeli Ambassador and threatening to cut off trade relations.  The response of the Israeli Government to the report – it was accepted with some reservations – is here.

First up is an editorial from the Wall Street Journal pointing out that this apparently fair report from the United Nations is something of a minor miracle given the past history of that body’s approach to Israel. It enunciates the report’s key points – Israel’s blockade of Gaza is legal, the flotilla was no “humanitarian mission”, and the violence was sparked by activists from the radical group IHH who were determined to have a fight and prepared accordingly. The paper goes on to comment briefly on the self-defeating bellicosity and  lack of soul-searching on the part of Turkey in the wake of the report. For the editorial in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, who canvasses the findings of the report, the Turkish reaction, and some critical comment on the US Government’s approach to defusing the Israeli-Turkish crisis. But even more interestingly, she looks at what the report says more broadly about Hamas, Gaza, and Israel’s policy towards them. Quoting extensively from the report, she makes a strong argument that the situation in Gaza as described in the report – characterised by ongoing rocket attacks on Israel, and what is effectively a state of war – provides good reasons to avoid granting nominal statehood to the Palestinians at the UN, as planned later this month. For her complete argument, CLICK HERE. More on US policy toward the Israeli-Turkish dispute comes from former senior US official Elliot Abrams.

Finally, this Update offers readers an unusual perspective on the Israeli-Turkish dispute of the moment – from Turkish columnist  Ömer Taşpinar, writing in the pro-government Turkish daily Today’s Zaman. From a Turkish perspective, he asks why Israel has refused the Turkish demand for an apology and compensation over the Mavi Maramara, even though preserving good relations with Turkey, if possible, is very much in Israel’s interest. Taşpinar concludes, convincingly,  that this was primarily because Tel Aviv understood that” the apology would not solve problems with Turkey”, pointing to additional Turkish demands related to the the Palestinians, and arguing that the era of good Turkish-Israel relations is likely over, regardless of Israel’s stance on the apology demanded. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE. The Jerusalem Post published an editorial making much the same point about Israel’s response to Turkish demands. Meanwhile, Israelis analyst Ely Karmon says the current Turkish stance is part of a larger pattern of Turkish foreign policy mistakes and setbacks.

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A United Nations Miracle

Israel is vindicated on the Gaza flotilla, but Turkey still pouts

Wall Street Journal, SEPTEMBER 6, 2011, 5:14 P.M. ET

Here’s a story for the man-bites-dog folder: The United Nations has conducted another inquiry into an Israeli military operation—and produced a report that mainly vindicates the Jewish state. And here, alas, is a story for the dog-bites-man folder: The Turkish government has responded to the U.N. report by withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv and expelling Israel’s from Ankara.

The Palmer report—named for the inquiry’s chairman, former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer—was commissioned by the U.N.’s Secretary General to investigate the May 2010 “flotilla incident,” when six ships sailing from Turkey to Gaza on an alleged humanitarian mission were boarded by Israeli commandos enforcing a naval blockade of Gaza. Nine passengers were killed (and several Israeli soldiers badly beaten) in the ensuing melee, sparking a crisis in Jerusalem’s already frayed relations with Ankara.

Given the U.N.’s track record on Israel, one might have expected this latest report to be a reprise of Richard Goldstone’s notorious report alleging Israeli war crimes during its 2009 war with Gaza (charges later retracted by Mr. Goldstone). Instead, the Palmer report offers a point-by-point rebuttal to some of the most preposterous accusations leveled against Israel.

One such accusation from the Turks is that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is illegal because blockades can only be legally imposed on another state, and Israel has never recognized Palestine as a state. The Palmer report dismisses that legal legerdemain, noting that “Hamas is the de facto political and administrative authority in Gaza,” that “it is Hamas that is firing projectiles into Israel or permitting others to do so,” that “law does not operate in a political vacuum” and thus “Israel was entitled to take reasonable steps to prevent the influx of weapons into Gaza.”

Then there is the fiction that the flotilla had embarked on a “humanitarian mission.” If that were true, its organizers would not have spurned Israel’s offer to off-load their supplies in the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod. As the report acidly observes, the flotilla’s largest ship and the site of the fighting—the Mavi Marmara—barely contained any humanitarian goods beyond “foodstuffs and toys carried in passengers’ personal baggage.”

The report also gives weight to the view that a “hardcore group of about 40 activists” from an Islamist NGO known as the IHH “had effective control over the vessel during the journey and were not subjected to security screening” when they boarded the ship in Istanbul. “It is clear to the Panel that preparations were made by some of the passengers on the Mavi Marmara well in advance to violently resist any boarding attempt.”

Simply put, the flotilla’s organizers were spoiling for the fight they later would claim as evidence of Israeli criminality. That’s a fight Israel went out of its way to avoid, both through high-level diplomatic representations to Ankara and repeated warnings to the flotilla to turn away from the blockade. Too bad, then, that the report makes a weak stab at balance by chiding the conduct of Israeli soldiers in the heat of a battle against dozens of thugs armed with iron bars, chains, knives and—given that two of the Israeli commandos were shot—probably firearms as well.

All of this might have provoked a bit of soul-searching within the Turkish government, just as its once-warm embrace of Syria’s Bashar Assad has. Instead, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has doubled down on his anti-Israel bets, insisting that Jerusalem apologize to Turkey, compensate the victims and lift its blockade of Gaza as the price for his forgiveness. The Palmer report is a fresh reminder—from the least likely of sources—of why Israel has no honorable choice but to spurn those demands. The Turks will learn in their own time that being Hamas’s patron is a loser’s game.

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Israel, the flotilla and the U.N.

By Jennifer Rubin

Washington Post online, Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 09/04/2011

The New York Times reported:

A long-awaited United Nations review of Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-based flotilla in which nine passengers were killed has found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is both legal and appropriate. But it said that the way Israeli forces boarded the vessels trying to break that blockade 15 months ago was excessive and unreasonable. . . .

While the report throws in the charge that Israeli commandos acted with excessive force, the report, as the Times notes, is “a rare vindication for it in the United Nations. A United Nations Security Council statement at the time assailed the loss of life, and Israel faced widespread international condemnation.” The report may also have a negative impact, however unintentionally, on the Palestinian gambit to obtain a declaration of statehood.

An Israeli official who was authorized only to speak on background told me: “Israel accepted the report with a few reservations. We think it is a serious and balanced report. We cooperated fully,” he said, noting that it made the results of Israel’s own internal review available to the investigators. He emphasized, “The fact that the report confirms Israel’s right to blockade Gaza and right to enforce it including in international waters are very important.” He attributed the fairness of the report to the work of Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, and Álvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia. He also noted, “While enforcing the blockade, Israel intercepted many vessels. Never did it end up in violence” until Israeli forces were “brutally attacked.”He also observed that the report confirmed Israel’s claim that there i no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that supplies should go through approved channels on land.

Indeed the report’s findings are remarkable considering the United Nations’ treatment of Israel over the past several decades. This statement from the report is a stinging rebuff to international efforts to brand Israel as a violator of international law: “The fundamental principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas is subject to only certain limited exceptions under international law. Israel faces a real threat to its security 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.”

Moreover, the report rejected the notion that the flotilla was an entirely peaceful humanitarian mission. “Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. The majority of the flotilla participants had no violent intentions, but there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH [The Foundation for Human Rights, Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief]. The actions of the flotilla needlessly carried the potential for escalation.”

In the aftermath of the report, Turkey has, to be blunt, freaked out. On Friday the Times reported:

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would reduce its diplomatic representation in Israel to the level of second secretary — one of the lowest diplomatic ranks — and had ordered Israel’s ambassador, Gabby Levy, to leave Turkey by Wednesday. The move stopped short of a complete breach in diplomatic relations but nonetheless seemed likely to deepen the already serious alienation between the countries and to further isolate Israel in the region as Arab Spring revolts threaten to undermine other previously stable relationships there.
“All military agreements have been suspended,” Mr. Davutoglu said but added that relations could return to normal if Israel apologized for the killings of nine people on board the ship and lifted its embargo on Gaza — demands Israel has consistently rejected. Both sides, however, professed readiness for further efforts to resolve the dispute.

Plainly, Turkish authorities had oversold to its domestic audience the expected results of the report. Having been unable to extract an apology from Israel, it now is indulging in a spasm of retaliation. Noteworthy, however, is the lack of any Israeli response. To the contrary, Israel hopes that after an initial backlash, Turkey will return to a less adversarial stance toward the Jewish state. The Israeli official I spoke with said, “We hope the report will allow us to put this incident behind us and continue the important relations between the two states.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. role in this has been less than helpful, as former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams explains:

[I]t is clear that the U.S. government was pushing Israel to apologize. Of course, administration spokesmen will largely deny this and say they were seeking a middle ground. Probably so: that has been administration policy toward Israel for two and a half years now. The policy is not to offer strong support, but to seek a compromise between Israel and her enemies. In this case such a position was both morally wrong and dumb, if the idea was to get [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan off his anti-Israel kick and restore the good old days of warm Turkish-Israeli relations.

So what does this have to do with the Palestinian statehood gambit? Consider the report’s acknowledgment of the threat to Israel posed by Hamas terrorists:

The United Nations Charter, Article 2 (4) prohibits the use of force generally, subject to an exception under Article 51 of the Charter for the right of a nation to engage in self-defense. Israel has faced and continues to face a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. Rockets, missiles and mortar bombs have been launched from Gaza toward Israel since 2001. More than 5,000 were fired between 2005 and January 2009, when the naval blockade was imposed. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians live in the range of these attacks. As their effectiveness has increased,some rockets are now capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Since 2001 such attacks have caused more than 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The enormity of the psychological toll on the affected population cannot be underestimated. In addition, there have been substantial material losses. The purpose of these acts of violence, which have been repeatedly condemned by the international community, has been to do damage to the population of Israel. It seems obvious enough that stopping these violent acts was a necessary step for Israel to take in order to protect its people and to defend itself.

The report goes on to note:

It is Hamas that is firing the projectiles into Israel or is permitting others to do so. The Panel considers the conflict should be treated as an international one for the purposes of the law of blockade. This takes foremost into account Israel’s right to self-defense against armed attacks from outside territory. In this context, the debate on Gaza’s status, in particular its relationship to Israel, should not obscure the realities. The law does not operate in a political vacuum, and it is implausible to deny that the nature of the armed violence between Israel and Hamas goes beyond purely domestic matters. In fact, it has all the trappings of an international armed conflict . . . Israel was entitled to take reasonable steps to prevent the influx of weapons into Gaza. With that objective, Israel established a series of restrictions on vessels entering the waters of Gaza.

Not only is this an implicit repudiation of the premises of the Goldstone Report (which, in Operation Cast Lead, portrayed the Israelis as aggressors and Gazans as victims), but it is a powerful argument against granting the Palestinians their request for a declaration of statehood. The government of that new state is co-run by the very terrorists described in the flotilla report as waging war on Israel.

The United Nations is now going to reward Hamas with a declaration (albeit symbolic) that its unity government joins the “international community” of civilized nations? It’s of course preposterous. Neither the United Nations nor anyone else knows how, or even if, the unity government will function. What we do know is that Israel is involved (still) in an ongoing war against terrorists who target Israeli civilians in contravention of international law. Perhaps when it is Israelis’ turn to speak on the resolution, its representatives should hand the microphone over to Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Álvaro Uribe, who can read their informative report to the General Assembly.

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Deciphering Israel’s behavior


Today’s Zaman, 05 September 2011, 

Certain crises are predictable. Turkey’s decision to expel Israel’s ambassador to Ankara and to downgrade relations to second secretary level falls in this category of predictability.
It was clear from the very beginning that there would be a price to pay for Israel in the absence of an apology for the 2010 storming of the Mavi Marmara and the killing of nine Turkish citizens. Israel decided not to apologize and it knew that relations would hit rock bottom as a result.

The question we should be asking is simple: why did Israel decide not to apologize to Turkey? After all, there were many reasons that could have convinced the Israeli government to swallow its pride. Needless to say, Turkey was a crucially important strategic partner for Israel. As the only Muslim country in the region with which Israel had a military partnership agreement, Turkey provided an open air space for the training of the Israeli air force, a lucrative market for the Israeli defense industry and a fellow democratic partner that shared a similar “security-first” strategic culture. Israel earned hundreds of millions of dollars from sales of military hardware to Turkey, including surface-to-air missiles and drones, and it has upgraded Turkish tanks and fighter jets.

There are other, contextual factors that could have convinced the Israeli government to apologize. At a time when the Arab Spring is rapidly changing the region, it looked like Israel needed Turkey more than ever. The loss of Egypt with the ousting of the Mubarak regime was a major strategic blow for Tel Aviv. After having lost Egypt was Israel willing to also lose Turkey? Wasn’t Israel condemning itself to total isolation in the region? In many ways, this was the question Washington was asking Tel Aviv. It is widely known that American diplomacy tried very hard to avoid this crisis. As Washington pressured Israel to swallow its pride, it was also asking Turkey for some more time.

At the end of the day Israel decided not to apologize not because of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s stubbornness or Benjamin Netanyahu’s difficult domestic situation and sliding popularity. To be sure, factors related to domestic politics and the need to save face played a certain role. Yet, the real reason behind Israeli behavior is very simple. Tel Aviv decided that the apology would not solve problems with Turkey. According to the strategic assessment in Israel, it seemed that the relationship with Turkey was broken beyond repair. An apology would have allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to declare victory without really changing the structural flaws that have emerged in the bilateral partnership since 2006. The fact that Turkey was not only demanding an apology and compensation but also an end to the embargo over Gaza is very telling for the Israelis. This showed that normalization with Turkey was almost impossible as long as the Turkish government indexed its relations with Tel Aviv not just to bilateral factors but also to the Palestinian question. In that sense, from the Israeli perspective, Turkey set the bar too high. As a result, the Netanyahu government came to the conclusion that, even in the aftermath of an apology that would have been quite costly in terms of Israeli domestic politics, there was no return to the golden age of Turkish-Israeli strategic relations in the 1990s.

At the end of the day, Tel Aviv, seems to have realized that normalization with Turkey will remain elusive in the absence of a genuine peace process. What made the golden age with Turkey possible in the 1990s were the Oslo Peace Process and a Palestinian entity that was in serious negotiations with Tel Aviv. Turkey was also much weaker and needed Israeli support in the 1990s. Today, the picture both in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and at the regional level — with the absence of a peace process with Palestinians — is radically different. All these factors should help us understand why Israel believed a mere apology would not have changed the worsening structural dynamics in Turkish-Israeli relations. History may well remember the 1990s as an anomaly rather than the norm in the relations of these two countries.

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Image: X/Twitter

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