If there was ever any doubt about the conclusion the government-appointed Turkel Commission would reach regarding the legality of the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip and the seizure of the flotilla seeking to break it on May 31, most members of the panel put paid to it on Wednesday, when they defended the government against criticism of its closure policy by human rights groups that testified before it.
The organizations that appeared before it were B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Gisha: The Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.
In another development, two Israeli Arabs who were scheduled to testify before the committee later in the day failed to show up and did not notify commission organizers in advance.
The committee issued a brief statement saying it would consider the steps it might take against the two.
At press time, the reasons why Muhammad Zidan, from Kafr Manda in the Western Galilee, and Hamad Abu Dabus from Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev, failed to attend were still unknown.
The tenor of the hearing was set early on, when the first speaker, B’Tselem director- general Jessica Montell, used the word “siege” to describe the government’s closure policy toward Gaza, which was introduced in September 2007.
“Why do you use the term ‘siege’ rather than ‘closure?’ panel member Maj.-Gen (res.) Amos Horev asked. “Words are important. Semantics are important.”
Former Foreign Ministry director-general Reuven Merhav asked Montell to differentiate between Gazan civilians who were killed when they were used as human shields by terrorists firing at Israeli targets and when they were killed in other circumstances.
“Either present these figures or acknowledge that there is a lacuna in your information,” Merhav told Montell.
After presenting the background leading up to the closure policy and explaining B’Tselem’s view that even after 2005’s disengagement, Israel was still responsible for the Palestinians in Gaza to the same degree, as it continued to control key aspects of its life, such as access to it by land, air and sea, Montell began to give examples of the effects of the closure policy on Gaza’s economy.
She started by charging that Israel had expanded the no-go zone that Palestinians are forbidden to enter, close to the Israeli border, from 50 meters according to the Oslo Accords to 300 meters today.
She added that according to UN figures, Israel maintains a strict no-go zone of 500 meters from the border and a less strict one of 1,500 meters.
Horev intervened, saying, “There are reasons given for the expansion of the zone. It isn’t a matter of papers [a reference to the Oslo agreement – DI]. You are presenting facts that are not in the context of reality. You ignore that.”
Merhav added, “You must ask yourself these questions before you make such statements. The situation has changed since Arafat signed the Oslo agreements. Hamas is not such a great supporter of Oslo. Perhaps the expansion is because of mortar fire.”
When another member of the panel asked Montell to stop presenting the background and get to the matter at hand, Montell replied, “This is the matter at hand. We are a human rights organization.”
Merhav replied, “You are not giving us background. You are giving us your presumptions.”
Ken Watkin, the Canadian observer on the commission, added that if Montell wanted to prove that the closure policy constituted collective punishment of the civilian population, she had chosen a poor example. In the case of the no-go zone, it was clear that Israel was motivated by security considerations and not the desire to punish.”
Gisha’s legal adviser, Tamar Feldman, also presented the organization’s grounds for insisting that Israel must continue to be responsible for the well-being of the Gaza population. She argued that from a policy and legal point of view, the naval blockade announced by Israel in January 2009 was no more than an extension of the closure policy introduced in 2007, following intensive shelling by Palestinian terrorists of Israeli civilian centers. The fact was, said Feldman, that the naval closure has been in effect continuously since Israel occupied Gaza in 1967.
In that context, Feldman said that the San Remo Manual, which provides the legal basis for naval blockades, did not apply to the Israeli action in Gaza. This, she argued, was governed by international humanitarian law.
During her presentation, Feldman charged that the government had refused to reveal documents governing its closure policy, including how food was to be delivered to Gaza, which foods would be allowed, and what were the criteria for determining the selection. “Gaza’s economy is governed without transparency,” she said.
Merhav took issue with the statement. “Who is conducting Gaza’s economy?
You are talking as if Gaza was an Israeli colony. Your use of words
must be very precise.”
Horev told Feldman, “One can’t ignore life. You seem to live in a bubble.”
He rejected Gisha’s claim that Israel was conducting economic warfare
against the civilian population of Gaza and that this constituted
collective punishment. “There is no situation in which economic
sanctions are imposed and the civilian population won’t be hurt,” he
said. “Take South Africa, for example.”
Turkel, the head of the commission and the man who will cast the
deciding vote in case of a deadlock among the four-person panel, told
B’Tselem’s Montell early on in the proceedings, “I read your reports
from time to time and I must say that I wonder about the sources of your
information. I don’t feel sure enough of the reliability of your