An expert panel investigating Israel's boarding of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla four months ago said Tuesday that Israel is suppressing footage of the incident it seized from the passengers.
The three independent, UN-appointed experts said Israeli soldiers confiscated photos and video material from more than two dozen journalists and others aboard the flotilla during the raid, which killed nine pro-Palestinian activists.
"When the military took over the ships, they scrupulously confiscated all photographic material," said Karl T. Hudson-Phillips, a former judge at the International Criminal Court who chaired the panel. "All cameras were seized, all cell phones were seized, all laptops were confiscated."
"From this one would conclude that part of the strategy, as we indicated in our report, was to control information and to have a monopoly on versions as to what existed," he said.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, rejected the charge, saying the report's authors had "no way of knowing what footage Israel has and therefore what - if anything - was suppressed."
Israel refused to cooperate with the panel from the start, arguing that the UN Human Rights Council which commissioned it was biased against Israel. Requests by the experts to visit Israel and interview Israeli officials were refused.
Palmor said Israel had returned all equipment and material that journalists on the boats had requested through the International Federation of Journalists, but acknowledged that most of the material had not been returned.
Questions about video footage shot during the raid have been central to the dispute over what happened on the Mavi Marmara on May 31, in which eight Turkish activists and one Turkish-American were shot and killed.
Israel used confiscated videos to justify why its troops opened fire after rappelling onto the deck, saying they came under attack by activists wielding clubs, axes and metal rods. The army says its soldiers were armed with non-lethal paintball guns as their primary weapons and only resorted to using their handguns after they were assaulted.
The activists said they were defending their ship after it was attacked by Israeli soldiers in international waters on its way to delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
"We interviewed persons who told us that they had taken certain footage which was not seen in any of the versions released by the Israeli authorities," said Hudson-Phillips. "We also got evidence from some persons that parts of the footage released they recognized as being very close, if not identical, to what they visualized as having taken."
"It appears as if some use in a selective way was made of information seized," he said at a news conference in Geneva, where the panel had presented its report to the 47-nation rights council.
The 56-page report, which concluded that the Israeli raid was clearly unlawful, was sharply criticized Tuesday by the United States, which expressed concern at its unbalanced language, tone and conclusions.
"We urge that this report not be used for actions that could disrupt the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks now under way," said Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador at the council.
The experts refrained from making recommendations in their report. But former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Desmond de Silva, another member of the panel, told reporters that since the Mavi Marmara was sailing under the flag of the Comoros Islands, that country could technically ask prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to pursue any alleged crimes.
Palmor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, downplayed the possibility of prosecution.
"If the Comoros wants to take us to court, they may do so, of course, he said. We don't fear such a procedure because we don't feel we have anything to hide or anything to fear from a fair and balanced court of law.".