Gaza flotilla raid condemned by UN rights experts

Three human rights experts appointed by the United Nations have found that Israeli forces violated international law when they raided a Gaza-bound flotilla, killing nine activists earlier this year.

Three human rights experts appointed by the United Nations have found Israeli forces violated international law earlier this year when they raided a Gaza-bound flotilla, killing nine activists.

The Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound ship raided by Israeli marines, is escorted to Ashdod port by an Israeli naval vessel (not seen) on May 31. ((Nir Elias/Reuters))

The UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission concluded in a report published Wednesday that Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian territory was unlawful because of the humanitarian crisis there, and the military raid on the flotilla was brutal and disproportionate.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry responded late Wednesday by saying the Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, had a "biased, politicized 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 wilful 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 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," the report said. "It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality."

Report dismissed as 'biased'

The report 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 Hamas could sneak weapons into Gaza.

Israel indicated early on that it wouldn't co-operate 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 former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and former Colombian 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, said the report emphasized 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," Barhoum said.

The Human Rights Council 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.

The body, which is dominated by African, Asian and Latin American countries, has in the past repeatedly singled out Israel for criticism. Its resolutions carry little weight in law but are considered an important indicator of global opinion on human rights issues.