A report by three UN-appointed human rights experts has found that Israeli forces violated international law when they raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla killing nine activists earlier this year. The UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission concluded that Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian territory was unlawful because of the humanitarian crisis there, and described the military raid on the flotilla as brutal and disproportionate.
The Israeli foreign ministry responded by saying the Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, had a "biased, politicised and extremist approach". The Islamic militant group Hamas that controls Gaza, meanwhile, praised the report and called for those involved in the raid to be punished. The 56-page document lists a series of alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces during and after the raid, including willful killing and torture, and claims there is "clear evidence to support prosecutions".
"A series of violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, were committed by the Israeli forces during the interception of the flotilla and during the detention of passengers in Israel prior to deportation," the experts found. Examining the circumstances of the raid, the panel concluded that a humanitarian crisis existed in Gaza on the day of the incident in Gaza and "for this reason alone the blockade is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law".
Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas militants violently seized control of the coastal territory from the moderate Palestinian Fatah party in 2007. Israel allows humanitarian aid and goods into Gaza via land crossings after inspection for weapons. "The conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel toward the flotilla passengers was not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality," the report said.
It described the Israeli raid on May 31, in which eight Turkish activists and one Turkish-American aboard the Mavi Marmara were shot and killed, as "clearly unlawful". "The report published today is as biased and as one sided as the body that has produced it," the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement. Israel says its troops opened fire after coming under attack by activists wielding clubs, axes and metal rods. Soldiers rappelled on to the deck armed with non-lethal paintball guns as their primary weapons. They said they 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. The raid sparked an international outcry and forced Israel to ease its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Israel, along with Egypt, imposed the embargo in June 2007 after Hamas militants took control of the area. Since then, Israel has lifted virtually all restrictions on food, medicine and consumer goods, but still maintains its naval blockade, saying that Hamas could sneak weapons into Gaza.
Israel indicated early on that it wouldn't cooperate with the panel and roundly rejected its conclusions on Wednesday. "The Human Rights Council blamed Israel prior to the investigation and it is no surprise that they condemn after," said Andy David, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, referring to the 47-member body's resolution in early June condemning the raid. Israel has instead been working with a separate UN group under New Zealand's former prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and Colombia's former president Alvaro Uribe that is also examining the incident but has yet to publish its findings.
"Israel is a democratic and law abiding country that carefully observes international law and, when need be, knows how to investigate itself," the foreign ministry said. "That is how Israel has always acted, and that is the way in which investigations were conducted following Operation Cast Lead, launched to protect the inhabitants of southern Israel from rockets and terror attacks carried out by Hamas from Gaza."
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas - the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza - said the report emphasised that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories violates human rights "not only against Palestinian people but against innocent people who came to show their sympathy". "Now it's required to be a mechanism in order to translate this report into action and to bring the occupation commanders to trial for the crimes they committed," Mr Barhoum said.
The Human Rights Council's report was compiled by former UN war crimes prosecutor Desmond de Silva, Trinidadian judge Karl T. Hudson-Phillips and Malaysian women's rights advocate Mary Shanthi Dairiam. It is scheduled to be debated in the council on Monday. * AP