Turkel Commission: Flotilla focus

Will the committee focus on purely operational issues or will it expand its purview to include the larger diplomatic conundrum in Gaza?

mavi marmara passengers 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
mavi marmara passengers 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
The Turkel Commission of Inquiry into the Maritime Incident of May 31 is planning to publish an interim report next month on its findings so far.
The government approved the establishment of the commission, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, on June 14.
Although a few public hearings are scheduled for next week, the committee members are spending most of their time writing the draft of the report. If it comes out as scheduled, some five months after beginning work, it will be one of the speediest reports by a public commission ever released to the public.
Not surprisingly, the committee will not issue warnings to anyone who was involved with the planning or execution of the seizure of the Mavi Marmara, in which nine Turks, most of them activists in the Islamic, pro-Hamas Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), were killed by IDF naval commandos who were attacked as they landed on the vessel.
Turkel made it clear from the outset, even before being officially appointed to head the commission, that he was against issuing warning letters or recommending punishments for anyone involved in the affair and he did not ask for this prerogative.
The commission’s mandate, as set down by the government, includes the following topics.
• Examination of the security circumstances surrounding the imposition of the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip and the conformity of the naval blockade with the rules of international law.
• The conformity of the actions taken by Israel to enforce the naval blockade in the incident of May 31, 2010 with the rules of international law.
• Examination of the actions taken by the organizers of the flotilla and its participants, as well as their identity.
The commission, which was appointed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was born in controversy.
A major complaint was that the members of the commission, which originally included Turkel, international law expert Shabtai Rosenne and Maj.- Gen. (ret.) Amos Horev, were handpicked because they were establishment men who would go easy on the government.
In an attempt to assuage world public opinion and worldwide demands for an independent, international commission of inquiry, Netanyahu and Barak appointed two international observers, Lord David Trimble from Ireland and Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Ken Watkin. Both were known to be strong supporters of Israel.
At Turkel’s insistence, two more members were added to the commission soon afterward. They were former Foreign Ministry director-general Reuven Merhav and Tel Aviv University law professor Miguel Deutch.
Of the five members, Deutch is the only one who has not spent his professional career representing the State of Israel. In the meantime, Rosenne, 93, a Foreign Ministry legal adviser from 1948 to 1967, died and was not replaced. The commission has hired the services of two European international law experts for consultation if necessary.
Furthermore, although the legal aspects of the naval blockade are apparently the most important topic with which the commission must deal, only two of the four members are lawyers and neither is an expert in international law or maritime law.
THE TASKS of the commission can roughly be divided into two. One deals with the decision-making, planning and operational aspects of the actual seizure of the Mavi Marmara. The international community is only interested in the conduct of the commandos during the seizure. The efficiency of the planning and decision-making is a purely “internal” problem. While criticism of the operation would only make Israel more vulnerable to international approbation or worse, criticism by the commission of the planning and decision- making aspects would only be of concern to the Israeli public and would be regarded as positive and for the good of the country.
The commission’s other task is to examine the question of the legality of the naval blockade, which inevitably raises larger questions regarding treatment of the Palestinian population of Gaza, including policies on land.
This is the issue that has triggered worldwide condemnation. One major concern of Israeli critics of the commission is that its members will reflexively defend the country rather than examine the issue objectively and be prepared to criticize the government, even if that should play into the hands of critics and enemies abroad.
Most of the public hearings that have been held by the commission have not yielded much new information.
They have largely been exercises in politeness. Among those who have appeared are Netanyahu, Barak, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Military Advocate-General Avishai Mandelblitt, Foreign Ministry Director-General Yossi Gal and other government officials. Two of the committee members, Deutch and Watkin, have stood out as asking the most probing questions at these hearings.
Of course, we have no idea what goes on in the sessions held behind closed doors, which involve more sensitive questions affecting national security and foreign relations. Perhaps the information gleaned in these private hearings will be manifest in the interim report.
The one hearing in which the majority of the members of the committee clearly rallied to the flag occurred last week, when representatives of three human rights organizations attacked Israel’s overall closure policy, linking the land closure policy introduced in September 2007, in response to increasingly frequent shelling by terrorist organizations under the Hamas regime, with the naval boycott, which they insist, was imposed in 1967 and not 2009, as the commission assumes.
During that hearing, Horev, Merhav and even Turkel openly defended the policy and openly criticized the human rights organizations.
Deutch, who tried to stick to the issue at hand, remained unconvinced of the link between the naval blockade, imposed in January 2009, which the commission was asked to assess legally, and the overland closure imposed in 2007.
This, perhaps, is one of the most difficult aspects of the entire affair to understand. As the human rights organization Gisha, Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, has emphasized, ever since Israel conquered Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, it has prevented international shipping from coming there. In addition to the ban, Gaza lacked a deep-water port to handle such shipping.
Vessels delivering humanitarian aid, or commercial goods to Gaza docked at Ashdod port. The goods were then unloaded and shipped overland, through the border crossings.
This policy continued after the Oslo Accords and even after the 2005 disengagement.
The point is that since goods coming by sea to Gaza were unloaded in Ashdod and transferred through the border crossings, the overland closure introduced in September 2007 applied to goods coming from sea. In fact, since most of the goods for Gaza came by sea, the severe restrictions applied at the overland crossings referred overwhelmingly to goods brought by sea. The unofficial blockade, together with the lack of a seaport in Gaza, was the cause of this situation.
Israel was satisfied with this arrangement, that is, an official blockade of Gaza, until 2008, when international activists launched their flotilla campaign. Military Advocate- General Mandelblitt became concerned that Israel had not established a proper legal basis for its blockade and that it would be in violation of international law if it stopped vessels from reaching Gaza. That was why it finally declared a naval blockade, almost 42 years after actually initiating it.
As far as the human rights organizations are concerned, the official blockade declared in January 2009 is nothing but an extension of the unofficial blockade introduced in 1967. And because the shipment of goods to Gaza by sea is directly affected by the overland closure policy, they argue that the commission cannot separate the two and must analyze the legal aspects of the entire policy, which they claim has brought severe hardship to the civilian population and constitutes economic warfare and collective punishment and has nothing to do with security.
From the comments of the members of the panel during the hearing, it is hardly likely they will be receptive to this argument.