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UN rights probe into Gaza flotilla incident rebukes Israel for ‘unnecessary’ violence

Mud-brick houses being built by UNRWA as temporary shelter for families in Gaza.
UNRWA/Shareef Sarhan
Mud-brick houses being built by UNRWA as temporary shelter for families in Gaza.

UN rights probe into Gaza flotilla incident rebukes Israel for ‘unnecessary’ violence

Israel demonstrated “totally unnecessary violence” during its interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla on 31 May, the head of the fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council said today.

Nine civilians lost their lives and several more were seriously injured in the incident against the flotilla of aid ships that departed from Turkey and were trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, which has been the subject of an Israeli blockade since 2007.

The mission – which is distinct from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s four-member panel of inquiry into the same incident – found that the conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel towards the passengers on the flotilla was “disproportionate and excessive,” its chairperson, Justice Karl Hudson-Phillips, told the Geneva-based Council.

“They demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary violence,” he added, as he presented the findings contained in the mission’s 56-page report, which also found that serious violations of both humanitarian and human rights law occurred during and after the incident.

The report, which was made public last week, presents a factual description of the events leading up to the interception of each of the six ships in the flotilla as well as a seventh ship intercepted on 6 June, the deaths of nine passengers and wounding of many others, and the detention of passengers in Israel and their deportation.

It states that no arms or weapons of an offensive nature were taken on board any of the vessels of the flotilla except for a few catapults, according to Justice Hudson-Phillips. When it appeared that Israeli forces intended to board one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, a very small group of the passengers armed themselves with pieces of wood and iron cut from the ship’s railings.

There was no evidence that any gunfire was directed from the Mavi Marmara towards the boats bearing Israeli soldiers, he added. However, both live ammunition and non-lethal fire were used from helicopters while the soldiers were descending to the ship’s deck.

“The Israeli soldiers used live ammunition on the passengers of the Mavi Marmara, killing nine and injuring over 50 with live bullets; six of the deceased were the victims of summary executions, two of whom were shot after they were severely injured and could not defend themselves,” said the chair.

The mission, which interviewed more than 100 witnesses in Geneva, London, Istanbul and Amman during the course of its work, also found that once the Israeli forces took complete control of the Mavi Marmara, passengers with few exceptions were kept handcuffed and kneeling for hours.

“Passengers were assaulted by being kicked and gun-butted. Passengers on three of the other vessels were also subjected to unnecessary violence by Israeli forces as they took control,” stated the chair.

Justice Hudson-Phillips said that when they finally disembarked at the port of Ashdod, attempts were made to get them to sign confessions that they had entered Israel illegally – some of those who refused to sign or give their fingerprints were further beaten.

“The treatment on shore was a continuation of the treatment onboard ship after the military had taken control,” he reported, adding that, at the end of the ordeal, passengers had to endure further violence including beatings prior to deportation at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.

In addition to Justice Hudson-Phillips, former judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the mission comprised Sir Desmond de Silva, Queen’s Counsel, who was chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone War Crimes Tribunal, and Shanthi Dairiam, human rights expert of Malaysia and former member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.