By Ozdem Sanberk
May 31st 2010 is a date which the Turkish public will surely find it very hard to forget. Nearly a year and a half on, we still feel in our hearts the pain we experienced on learning that Israel had attacked an international convoy carrying nothing except humanitarian items in its cargo and killed nine people on board. So I believe that it is worth briefly re-examining the events which followed the attack on the convoy.
The attack by Israel deeply affected Turkish public opinion in two ways. The first of these was the degree of brutality which it exhibited. There is no way to explain away a night attack with a full scale military operation again a civilian ship and passengers leading to the killing of nine of those on board and more than 70 others, people from different countries, being wounded. Second, the attack came from a country in our region with which historically we have been friendly and which we have ties with. This is something which it is impossible to accept.
So Turkey which might have come up with a very different response if this attack had come from another country, went to great pains to act with moderation. It presented a request to Israel that was firmly within the framework of international law and customary practice. It said clearly that if what it was asked for did not happen, then it would be impossible for relations to return to normal.
Within 24 hours of the incident, all the relevant mechanisms of the United Nations were mobilized. A statement from the president of the Security Council (of which Turkey was then a member) was obtained (S/PRST/2010/9) which condemned the Israeli action which had led to the death of nine people and calling for the immediate return of the vessels and the wounded. It also called for a swift, impartial, reliable, and transport investigation which conformed to international standards of investigation.
So in August 2010 the UN Secretary General set up the four-member Panel of which I was a member. The Secretary General selected as chairman of the Panel, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former prime minister of New Zealand and the outgoing Columbian president, Mr Alvaro Uribe, as its deputy chairman. Israel was represented on the Panel by Mr Joseph Ciechanover. But the four members of the Panel did not enjoy equal powers. Should the four fail to reach agreement, then the chairman and deputy chairman had power to take a decision together. Furthermore the Panel had no powers to summon as witnesses the people who had suffered from the attacks. Instead each country had to name a national ‘contact point’ who would submit reports of the victims to the Panel.
Within a month of the establishment of the Panel, Turkey had complied with these requirements and submitted a preliminary report which laid out its legal and factual position. Israel however resorted to various tactical delaying measures and claimed that it could not participate in the Panel’s work until the internal domestic committee of enquiry which it had set up for show, had completed its work. Thus the work of the Commission was held up until January 2011.
Within two weeks of the Israeli report being submitted, Turkey submitted its final report to the Panel. In doing so, it submitted full evidence concerning the crimes which Israel had committed. It also declared that the Israeli attack had been contrary to international law together with the views of leading specialists on international law.
The outcome was that Palmer and Uribe wrote a report that was the outcome of their own studies. The report did make clear that Israel had committed crimes as shown by definite evidence and that there was no room for dispute about this. It also stated that Israel had carried out the attack at a point which was well outside the area of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and that the attack using a large military force to attack the ships was excessive and inexplicable.
The report notes that the deaths and injuries which the Israeli soldiers were responsible for were quite unacceptable, that no one had been called to account for the deaths, and that the dead bodies showed evidence that they had been shot several times at close range and in the back. The report also concluded that the passengers were seriously ill treated; that this included physical blows, assaults, and threats and that along with their personal goods had been illegally removed; and that they were prevented from access to consular assistance.
So the report, on these aspects is completely in line with the facts and evidence which Turkey supplied to the Panel and reaches correct and realistic conclusions. But the report omits some facts: that Israeli troops opened fire on the passengers from the helicopters before they had even set foot on the ships and that at least some passengers were deliberately killed by the Israeli soldiers.
However Mr Palmer and Mr Uribe go on to claim that Israel’s blockade on Gaza is legal. This suggestion is completely impossible to accept. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has published reports and there are resolutions which have accepted confirm that the Gaza blockade is illegal. These resolutions have been endorsed by the UN General Assembly and now form part of customary international law. The UN Security Council directly criticizes the blockade. The international community is united in holding that the Gaza blockade is illegal. Common sense and conscience also testify that it is illegal.
That being the situation, it is hard not to suspect that Mr Palmer and Mr Uribe have come up with this highly debatable conclusion less because of indisputable legal ground but rather out of political considerations. In this respect, Turkey is not part of the picture. Mr Palmer and Mr Uribe submitted their report at the end of April 2011 and since them I am on record as saying that Turkey would have no further part in the work. The report was submitted to the UN Secretary General as reflecting only the personal views of Mr Palmer and Mr Uribe and carried only their signatures. The Israeli member of the Panel stated that he was unable to sign the report as it clearly mentioned crimes carried out by Israeli troops
The report also concludes that Israel should pay compensation for the crimes which it committed and suggests an expression of regret though this falls far short of Turkey’s call for an apology.
The report has no binding aspects. Mr Palmer and Mr Uribe themselves state in the course of it that they have no powers to create law. The UN Secretary General has not authorised any link between the report and himself and the UN. Consequently there are no grounds for taking seriously the conclusions which Mr. Palmer and Mr Uribe put forward on the blockade.
What remains valid are the reports of the UN Commission on Human Rights which unhesitatingly conclude that the blockade is illegal and the resolutions of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly which form the basis for this.
All parties involved are agreed on the fact that no doubt has been cast on the crimes committed by Israel, that the brutal attack carried out by Israel was completely unacceptable, and that no one should remain indifferent to these crimes. It is thus entirely right that Turkey is now taking the necessary legal measures. It has to be understood that unless Israel accepts that it acted wrongly and apologizes and pays compensation, there can be no favourable developments in relations between Turkey and Israel. Until there is an end to the inhuman Israeli blockade against Gaza, it is completely unrealistic to expect that its present isolation on the international scene will end.
Director of USAK
This article was first published in 8th issue of USAK’s monthly journal ANALIST in Turkish.