Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal, but its deadly May 31 naval raid of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara was seriously flawed, according to a report released yesterday by the committee of inquiry investigating the raid.
The Turkel committee found that Israel did not have adequate intelligence about the "violent reception" awaiting the naval commandos who took over the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, in a raid aimed at preventing the flotilla led by that ship from breaching Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza.
Nine Turkish citizens were killed in the raid after members of IHH, a Turkish pro-Palestinian group said to have links with Hamas, attacked the commandos who boarded the Mavi Marmara. The report said the attackers used firearms, wooden clubs, iron rods, slingshots and knives.
The panel found that Israel had not planned sufficiently for the threat to the naval commandos, and had not considered alternative methods of preventing the maritime convoy from breaching the blockade.
But the blockade itself - the land blockade as well as the maritime one - has been implemented in a proportionate manner and does not contravene international law, according to the report. It did, however, call on the government to refrain from harming the civilian population of Gaza.
"Israel ultimately decided that imposing a naval blockade provided the most efficient and comprehensive legal tool to confront the prevailing security threat" and constitutes a "legitimate method of warfare," the Turkel committee found.
It said a blockade was the method of warfare that "interferes the least with neutral shipping," because it's restricted to a specific geographical area. The report added that since the flotilla attempted to breach the blockade, Israel's takeover of the ships did not contravene international law.
Israel has met all formal humanitarian conditions in terms of the imposition of the maritime blockade on Gaza, the committee found, adding that without the blockade, Hamas would be able to acquire more weapons.
All the same, it said Israel should make an effort to limit the suffering of the civilian population in the Strip, possibly by using "smart sanctions" that focus on Hamas.
"The negative effect on the civilian population inherent in economic sanctions ... should be taken into account," the report states.
The committee also has some criticism for the land blockade of the Strip, calling it harmful to public health.
In light of the fact that "significant challenges face the health system in the Gaza Strip," the report states, "Israel should continue in the future to examine whether it is possible to improve the current position."
Representatives of several nongovernmental organizations testified before the Turkel committee, as did United Nations officials and the Israel Defense Forces coordinator of activities in the occupied territories.
The report determines that the overland closure of the Gaza Strip is intended to weaken Hamas, and says Israel is "complying with the humanitarian obligations imposed on the blockading party" and is not preventing the entry of essential goods.
The committee, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel, is due to release the second part of its report - which focuses on the raid itself - over the next few months. The report is based on the testimony of 26 witnesses, in addition to the findings of the military investigations of the raid and the statements of 81 Israel Defense Forces personnel involved in the incident.
Below are additional findings and excerpts from the first section of the report:
Israel's decision makers did not know in advance that IHH members were planning to use violence, and this had a direct impact on tactics. Much of the information on which the Israel Navy based its decision was readily available, though two days before the raid, a naval intelligence report was circulated stating that the head of IHH was warning of violent resistance to a takeover of the Mavi Marmara.
"Throughout the planning process, whether looked at from a policy, operational, or legal perspective, the scenario of an organized force armed with lethal weapons actively resisting the boarding attempt appears not to have been considered."
The commandos boarded the flotilla from helicopters and speedboats, a method used by armed forces around the world. The commandos did not overreact to the violence even though it took them by surprise.
But senior military officials should have suggested alternatives when it became clear that the navy was encountering violent resistance. A meeting of senior political leaders convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu five days before the flotilla "was not planned in advance."
The Foreign Ministry made an effort to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza by diplomatic means, primarily by talks with the Turkish government. At the last minute, Turkey retracted a proposal, to which Israel had agreed, saying the Turkish Red Crescent would take responsibility for the flotilla and transfer the goods from Ashdod Port to Gaza through the overland crossings.
"We tried every possible channel to prevent the flotilla from departing," Foreign Ministry director general Yossi Gal told the committee. "At no stage was a positive response received."
The Turkish group IHH was responsible for the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara and has "links with Islamic extremists, including the Hamas and Islamic Jihadists," according to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center, a private group with close links to the Israeli intelligence community.
The report refrains from directly linking IHH with the Turkish government and stops short of stating that Ankara is responsible for the violence that took place aboard the ship.