Even if Bin Laden Had Been on the Gaza-Bound Flotilla, Israel’s Actions Would Have Been Illegal, Says UN-Appointed Judge

By Patrick Goodenough | September 29, 2010 | 7:02 AM EDT

A screen shot from a videoclip released by the Israeli Defense Forces shows activists onboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara attacking troops who boarded it at sea on May 31, 2010. (Image: IDF)

(CNSNews.com) - Israel’s blockade of a Gaza-bound flotilla last May would have been illegal, even if Osama bin Laden himself had been on the ship full of pro-Palestinian activists, a member of a U.N.-appointed fact-finding mission told the Human Rights Council.

The Geneva-based HRC is considering a report by the three-member commission that investigated the so-called “flotilla incident” – Israel’s interception at sea of Gaza-bound vessels, including the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, on May 31, 2010.  The ensuing deadly clashes between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists left nine activists dead.

Accusing Israel of war crimes, the report stated that the seizure of the ship was illegal, based on the determination that the Israeli blockade was itself illegal under international law.

During an “interactive dialogue” between the commission and representatives of governments and non-governmental organizations, the jurists were challenged by the non-governmental group U.N. Watch on the issue of the motivation and actions of radicals onboard the Mavi Marmara.

Some members of the controversial Turkish group in control of the boat, IHH,  had indicated beforehand a desire for martyrdom, and they included some of the nine people subsequently killed.

Knives, clubs, bars and other items which the Israeli Defense Forces said were recovered from the Mavi Marmara after clashes at sea between Israeli troops and activists trying to sail to the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2010. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

Israel claimed its soldiers acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists wielding iron bars and other weapons.

U.N. Watch had earlier submitted to the commission a package of more than 40 reports, audio and video clips which it said “documented the jihadist intent and actions of the IHH militants on the ship.” U.N. Watch representative Leon Saltiel asked the commission Tuesday why the evidence had been disregarded.

Both the commission head, Trinidadian Judge Karl Hudson-Phillips, and panel member Desmond da Silva, a British jurist, indicated in their response that the intentions and statements of those onboard the boat were irrelevant to their conclusions.

The points raised by U.N. Watch were “not something which would have altered our conclusions as to the lawfulness or otherwise of the Israeli intervention,” Hudson-Phillips said. “It would not have made the blockade lawful, and therefore it would not have made the interception lawful. It could not have changed our thinking in any way.”

Da Silva then added that Saltiel’s comments betrayed an ignorance of the law.

“Even if bin Laden himself was on board the Mavi Marmara it wouldn’t have made the blockade legal.”

Da Silva also mocked the idea that rudimentary weapons in the activists’ possession would have posed a threat to the Israelis.

“Well of course we found a photograph of somebody with a catapult, in the course of making our inquires. No doubt that catapult was there to sink one of the two Israeli submarines that were part of the naval force.”

The Human Rights Council meets at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, in the Palais des Nations. (Photo: UNOG)

U.N Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said afterwards it was “astonishing” that the fact-finding commission members acknowledged having disregarded so crucial a matter.

“Contrary to the commissioners’ attempt to downplay this evidence, the truth is that the entire interpretation of the facts hinges on who was the aggressor, and whether Israel’s soldiers attacked peaceful activists or instead acted in self-defense in face of a violent mob seeking to lynch them,” he said.

“Evidence that seven of the nine passengers killed in the clash had previously declared their intent to become ‘martyrs’ is something the inquiry obviously should have examined, yet failed to do so,” Neuer added.

The third member of the commission, Mary Shanti Dairiam of Malaysia, told Tuesday’s session that the panel stood by its conclusions that Israel had gravely violated international law, using disproportionate violence against people who were civilians, not combatants. Justice for the victims was now of paramount importance.

Members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) dominated the session – of 28 countries that spoke during the session, 20 were members of the Islamic bloc – and U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe was alone in raising concerns about the “unbalanced language, tone and conclusions” of the fact-finding commission’s report.

Israel declined to cooperate with the commission, saying an independent Israeli panel with international observers was investigating the incident. In giving its reasons to withhold cooperation the Israeli foreign ministry also cited what it called the HRC’s  “biased, politicized and extremist approach.”

On Wednesday the HRC is due to vote on a resolution, introduced by the OIC, endorsing the findings of the report.

It is one of at least two expected resolutions condemning Israel that will be voted on as the council wraps up its three-week session.

If passed, as is highly likely, they will take to 32 the total number of resolutions critical of Israel passed by the HRC since it was created in 2006.

The other 191 U.N. member-states, together, have accounted for just 31 resolutions, applying to 11 countries (Burma, Sudan, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Burundi, Guinea, Honduras and Kyrgyzstan), according to statistics maintained by the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow