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As Turkey Freezes Israel Ties, Critics Decry “Whitewashed” U.N. Report on Gaza Flotilla, Blockade

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Turkey has downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel and frozen military cooperation ahead of a long-awaited United Nations report on Israel’s deadly attack on a Gaza-bound aid ship in 2010. The report accuses Israel of “excessive and unreasonable” force in its attack—which killed nine people—on the Mavi Marmara ship, and says Israel should issue a statement of regret and compensate the families of the dead as well as wounded passengers. But it also chides passengers aboard the Marmara and the other flotilla ships for what it calls a “reckless” attempt to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. In a major development with broader implications, the U.N. report concludes that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal under international law. We speak with Norman Finkelstein, author of several books on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including “'This Time We Went Too Far': Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion.” We are also joined by Huwaida Arraf, one of the organizers of the Free Gaza Movement. Both Arraf and Finkelstein blast the U.N. report, calling it a “whitewash” and “morally debased.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Turkey has downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel and frozen military cooperation ahead of a long-awaited United Nations report on Israel’s deadly attack on a Gaza-bound aid ship in 2010. According to leaked excerpts, the report accuses Israel of, quote, “excessive and unreasonable force” in its attacks on the Mavi Marmara which killed nine people. The report says Israel should issue a statement of regret and compensate the families of the dead as well as wounded passengers. But the report also criticizes passengers aboard the Marmara and the other flotilla ships for what it calls a, quote, “reckless” attempt to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. And in a major development with broader implications, the United Nations report also concludes that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal under international law.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. investigation was overseen by Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand. Turkey says it will expel the Israeli ambassador and downgrade diplomatic ties to their lowest level until Israel drops its refusal to apologize for the raid and provides compensation.

For more, we’re going to go to Ramallah, where we’re joined by Huwaida Arraf, one of the organizers of the Free Gaza flotilla movement. She’s on one of—she was on one of the six ships that were in the Gaza flotilla when the Mavi Marmara was attacked. She’s joining us by Democracy Now! audio stream. And here in New York, we’re joined by Norman Finkelstein, author of a number of books on Israel-Palestine conflict, including “This Time We Went Too Far”: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion.

In Ramallah, Huwaida Arraf, your response to the leaked report—the New York Times posted it online—of the U.N.?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Hi, Amy, Juan, Norman.

Sadly, it’s a completely expected whitewash of Israeli crimes. This panel’s composition—not only its composition, but its mandate—was problematic in so many ways. And it wasn’t designed to get at the truth of what happened or to achieve—to get at justice for the victims of Israel’s attack, but rather to arrive at political compromise between Israel and Turkey. And that’s what we have. It’s an attempt to whitewash the crimes, set them aside, and in addition, it came up with some outrageous claims that completely contradict the findings of numerous human rights organizations and international law authorities, including various bodies of the U.N. itself, about the legality of the Israeli blockade. So, very problematic.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the report’s criticism or faulting of one organization, in particular, a Turkish organization, that had some members—helped organize the flotilla. Could you talk about what it said and your response to that?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Sure. It did say—you did quote that we were “reckless,” but it also said that Israeli soldiers faced organized violence when they tried to board the Mavi Marmara, which is completely untrue. We spent a long time preparing for this flotilla. And our—everything that we prepared, the passengers and our—the foundations of our movement and what we do is based on nonviolent direct action resistance.

This is not to deny that Israeli soldiers did face some attacks when they boarded, but you can’t say that these attacks were anything more than self-defense, because of the obnoxious way in which Israeli soldiers—and very violent way in which they took over the ships, in the way that was intended to cause tremendous fear and commotion. They boarded the ships firing, even on our very small boat. The boat that I was on was traveling right next to the Mavi Marmara, and we only had about 17 people on that boat. They boarded, beating down people, using tasers, firing stun grenades and paintball pellet at people’s faces. It was completely uncalled-for violence, so that some people, a handful out of 700 volunteers, reacted in what can be called a violent way. It was self-defense, so it was in no way organized. And this is—I’m saying this, being part of the central organizing committee of the flotilla.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N.'s report notes that, quote, “On the basis of public statements by the flotilla organizers and their own internal documentation, the Panel is satisfied that as much as their expressed purpose of providing humanitarian aid, one of the primary objectives of the flotilla organizers was to generate publicity about the situation in Gaza by attempting to breach Israel's naval blockade. The purposes of the flotilla were clearly expressed in a document prepared by IHH and signed by all flotilla participants,” unquote.

The report then cites the document’s statement of purpose, which reads, quote, “Purposes of this journey are to create an awareness amongst world public and international organizations on the inhumane and unjust embargo on Palestine and to contribute to end this embargo which clearly violates human rights and delivering humanitarian relief to the Palestinians.”

Norm Finkelstein, your response?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I noticed that Juan was looking perplexed at that statement. I have to say, last night, when I was reading the report, I was completely dumbfounded, and I had to keep repeating—rereading these passages over and over again. What the report stated—and all of your listeners should hear closely, because it was so shocking, so morally debased—the report said that we doubt, or we question, the true motives of the organizers of the flotilla. They said, we have evidence that their real motive was not humanitarian. And the statement that you just quoted was the evidence that their real motive was not humanitarian, that they had this really sinister, nefarious motive. Their real motive was not humanitarian; the real motive was, they said, the report said, to cast publicity on Israel’s illegal and immoral blockade of Gaza.

Now I have to say, that is—and I’m meaning this literally—it is a new low. I read all the Israeli reports, in particular the Turkel report, the one put out by the former Supreme Court justice. It’s about 300 pages. They never stooped to that level. They claimed that this handful of what they call jihadists, that they were looking for a confrontation with Israelis or the Israeli soldiers, and they brought on weapons for a confrontation. This report does not claim that they were looking for a confrontation. It holds them morally culpable for trying to cast publicity on an illegal and inhumane blockade. With the Israelis, at least we’re in the same moral universe, and it’s a question of fact. What was the intent of these commandos—excuse me, what was the intent of the activists? Was it to get a confrontation, or was it to cast humanitarian—cast light on what’s happening? But with this report, we’ve entered a new moral universe. They are actually saying that to cast light on an illegal and inhumane blockade is a morally sinister act.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask, there were four members on this committee: one from Turkey, one from Israel, then there were two supposedly independent ones, the former prime minister of New Zealand and Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, who himself presided over a period of the most—the highest level of extrajudicial killings and assassinations in his own country. It seems amazingly strange to have someone like Álvaro Uribe on this panel as an objective member of the committee.

AMY GOODMAN: The Colombian president.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, it was clear from the moment that Ban Ki-moon, the alleged secretary-general of the United Nations—it was clear from the moment he appointed Uribe on the panel that it was going to be a farce. Beyond all the crimes for which Mr. Uribe has been accused and also have been documented, he was also known as being very close to Israel and advocating closer military relations with Israel. So, from the get-go, from the moment the members were named, it was clear which way the report was going to go.

But, you know, you always wonder, what are they going to come up with? How could they possibly justify certain things? They said that the blockade of Gaza—now, we have to be clear. They said the naval blockade was legal. They separated it from the land blockade, for technical reasons, which it’s no point in going into here. But they said the naval blockade was legal. And the grounds they gave were this: that Israel clearly faces security problems from Gaza, the rocket and mortar fire. OK. And they say, to document this security problem, since 2001, some 25 Israelis have been killed by these rocket and mortar attacks. Fair enough. And then they say that many people have suffered psychologically, psychological trauma from these attacks. Fair enough.

Then there’s the other side of the equation. There is not one word, one syllable, on how many Gazans have perished as a result of Israeli attacks. It’s not 25. It’s not 250. It’s at least at an order of magnitude of 2,500. We’re not just talking about the 1,400 Palestinians who were killed in Operation Cast Lead. Israel always has operations in Gaza, has very fancy names—Operation Summer Rains, Operation Autumn Clouds, Operation Hot Winter, Operation Rainbow. All of it vanishes from this report. The only people who have suffered deaths in Gaza due to armed hostilities are Israelis.

Now, let’s say it’s true. Fair enough. They have a right to impose a naval blockade to prevent weapons from going to Gaza, for security reasons. Don’t the people of Gaza have the right to impose a military blockade on Israel, to prevent weapons from going to Israel? You can’t even raise that question. It’s beyond their comprehension. In fact, the irony is, that’s the law. The law is, as Amnesty International pointed out in its report “Fueling Conflict,” under international law and domestic American law, it’s illegal to transfer weapons to any country or—any state or non-state party which is a consistent violator of human rights. So, if that commission, the Palmer Commission, named after, you know, the former New Zealand president, if they had any integrity, they would have said, OK, Israel has the right to impose a blockade on Gaza, and the international community” — because this is what Amnesty said. Amnesty says the international community has an obligation—that’s what they said—to impose an arms embargo on Israel, as well, because it’s a consistent violator of human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: I want—I wanted to bring Huwaida Arraf back into the discussion, who’s in Ramallah, chair of the Free Gaza Movement, was part of the aid flotilla last year that the Mavi Marmara was a part of. The U.N. investigation did accuse Israel of excessive and unreasonable force. Now Turkey has announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the suspension of military cooperation, hours before the report was published. But also, in the last attempts of the Gaza flotilla, just in the last months, they themselves stopped a ship from going forward. Can you talk about all of this, Huwaida?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Sure. Really quickly, I’d like to just touch on a couple of important points that Norman made, the first one being about the legality of the blockade. And Norman did say that they considered it very separate from the rest of the closure, which has been declared completely illegal and a violation of Israel’s obligations, so there’s no way that this maritime blockade can be legal, no matter what way you look at it. It’s a violation of Israel’s obligations under international law as an occupying power.

Also, in regards to Uribe and the problems that Norman mentioned, the other thing is that he is known to have a complete disdain for human rights defenders. And you can look at complaints from human rights organizations within Colombia. Also, an organization called Human Rights First called this out, that him referring to human rights defenders as “terrorist sympathizers” endangers human rights defenders. So, from the start, he had a disdain for people like us who like to call attention to and take action, nonviolent action, against these human rights abuses.

And the last really important thing before I get to your question is this report and the attention that it’s supposed to get, when we already had an independent U.N. fact-finding mission that released a report almost one year ago, comprehensive, interviewed over a hundred victims and participants, and that was put together by scholars in international law and known judges on international tribunals. This should be the authority on what actually happened, not this farce of a report.

But in terms of what you said about Turkey stopping—about being part of stopping the last flotilla, known as Freedom Flotilla 2, which was supposed to launch last summer, or this past summer, not exactly. It was Israel placed a lot of pressure on a lot of countries, the European countries, to stop their citizens from participating. Not many—you know, some leaders of these countries made statements that the flotilla is not helpful and that they warn their citizens not to take part. But the country that was—that really cooperated with Israel—and it was a shock and quite sad—was Greece. And it did—we did learn that it came under a lot of political and economic pressure also because of the economic situation that they’re in. But they did impose restrictions and did not let our boats leave. So it really became complicit in Israel’s blockade. And we are challenging that on different levels.

Turkey itself didn’t really. It did communicate to us and to our Turkish partners that it might not be helpful at this time, but what happened—but the Turkish organization IHH remained fully a part of the flotilla. The Mavi Marmara was not able to go, because it was not physically, mechanically ready to go. In fact, up until the date that we were supposed to launch, they still had people working to meet all of the guidelines for being certified to go into international waters on the kind of mission that we wanted it to. So we knew—at a point, we realized it wasn’t going to be ready, and we took that boat out of the equation. But the Turks remained fully a part of the organizing. And in fact, we were going to launch one boat from Turkey. One of the boats—it was the Irish ship—was located in Turkey, but it was sabotaged by, we believe, Israeli agents and was not able to launch. So, they didn’t really place any barriers, certainly not like Greece did.

AMY GOODMAN: But the fact that this report did find that Israel’s use of force was excessive and unreasonable, and the significance of Turkey expelling the Israeli ambassador?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Definitely. Well, it’s kind of funny that Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador today after the release of this report, because the whole point of this report was to reach a political compromise and to repair the relation between Israel and Turkey. And we’re glad that Turkey has taken the position that it has taken. And in fact, Turkey’s foreign minister has said that it’s time that Israel paid a price. And it’s true, because Israel does not pay a price for any of its human rights violations. It continues to act with impunity. And even the fact that this report did say Israel acted using excessive force, it doesn’t—it doesn’t go enough to—money or paying compensation is not—is no kind of justice for the families or for the people that—for the victims of Israel’s actions. And that’s what we want to see. We want to see some kind of accountability. And that’s different from the U.N. report that was issued last September by the independent fact-finding mission, which recommended that human rights abusers be held accountable. And that’s what we’re waiting to see. So, this report, the Uribe-Palmer report, pays some lip service to the victims, but its main—again, its main goal, to repair relations, and we’re glad to see that Turkey is not falling for that.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I’d like to say—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Norman, if we can, we just have a little bit of time.


JUAN GONZALEZ: If you could just briefly talk about the implications of this report coming out now and the continuing schism between Turkey and Israel, as we head into the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, actually, many Israelis worried that this would be Pyrrhic victory for the Israeli government, because being so stubborn about refusing to make an apology—there are two of consecutive words that just don’t translate into Hebrew. The two words, consecutive words, are “excuse me.” They can’t comprehend that. And the Israeli—many Israeli officials were saying, “Make the apology, because we need Turkey. Turkey is our—has historically been our strongest ally in the Muslim world. Things are now turbulent with our other main ally in the Arab world, Egypt. Make the apology, and move on.” But there were members of the Netanyahu government—in particular, Mr. Lieberman, the foreign minister, and his party—who refused, because they said if they made the apology, Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, would run with it and would embarrass the Israelis, and Israelis would be humiliated. But they didn’t think it was a wise move. And actually, I don’t think it is, either. Losing the military relationship with Turkey, suspension of diplomatic relations, and now you know Turkey, when the state issue—statehood issue comes up in September, they are going to be in the forefront now, because Erdogan has been humiliated by this report. It was a complete spit in the face of the Turks, what this report said.

So I think, from a moral point of view, it was a disgrace. But from a political point of view, it will probably end up helping the Palestinians. You have to remember the whole point of the report. It described the killing of the nine members of the—on the—passengers on the Mavi Marmara. You know the phrase they used? It was a “major irritant” to diplomatic relations. Killing nine people is an “irritant.” And they said, “We have to get over this irritant, so that Israel and Turkey can restore diplomatic relations.” That’s their moral level.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Norman Finkelstein, we thank you for being with us, author of, among other books, “This Time We Went Too Far”: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, and Huwaida Arraf, chair of the Free Gaza Movement, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, was on one of the six ships that were in the Gaza flotilla when the Mavi Marmara was attacked. She was joining us from Ramallah, on the West Bank.

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