Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times
June 17, 2010 - 12:00am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to appoint an internal commission of inquiry into Israel's commando raid on the Freedom Flotilla that left nine people dead because he is scared stiff of another independent commission of inquiry.

Israel is still reeling from the Goldstone report that said it should be investigated for possible war crimes for its 2008-09 onslaught on Gaza.

The Israeli probe is to be headed by retired supreme court justice Yaakov Turkel and will include international lawyer Shabtai Rosen and retired Major General Amos Horev, former president of the Israel Institute of Technology. While the panel will be permitted to question government ministers, its mandate does not include the right to investigate decision making ahead of the raid. Instead, the panel will look into whether the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the interception of the flotilla were legal.

The inquiry will examine the actions of the activists and organisers of the convoy. The commissioners will not have the right to question Israeli commandos who took part in the operation, but will be given access to testimony taken by a separate military review board. The panel will publish a report, but it is not clear when this will happen.

Following protracted negotiations with Washington, Netanyahu also appointed as observers Lord David Trimble, a former Ulster Unionist politician, and Brigadier Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general in the Canadian armed forces. The choice of Trimble is particularly interesting because he joined a "Friends of Israel" initiative launched in Paris two weeks before his appointment by Dore Gold, a close Netanyahu confidant. It would seem that Trimble decided to associate himself with this effort in the wake of the flotilla raid. If this assumption is correct, he is unlikely to be an impartial observer.

However, Israel cannot be certain how he will react once the panel begins work. Trimble was a Protestant Ulster Unionist politician who became first minister of Northern Ireland and shared the 1998 Nobel Prize for peace with John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. While Trimble stood against the majority in his own party when he signed the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to war-torn Northern Ireland, it is not clear how he will deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Watkin, a l?gal officer for 25 years, was involved in inquiries into the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1993 killing of a Somali teenager by Canadian soldiers.

He warned that criminal charges could be preferred if the Canadian government did not change its policy of allowing Canadian forces in Afghanistan to hand over Afghan prisoners to local security forces that tortured or made men disappear. While Watkin's attitude towards Israel and its actions has not been revealed, the current Canadian government is very pro-Israel and took the view that Israel has every right to defend itself - from what was not made clear when challenged by six boats carrying unarmed activists and aid.

The presence of outside observers on this commission is all too obviously a public relations gambit - what the Israelis call "hasbara".

The observers will not have any influence on the conduct of the commission's inquiries or on the final report. Furthermore, according to a statement issued by Netanyahu's office, the observers could also be denied access to documents or other information if such material is "almost certain to cause substantial harm to national security or to the state's foreign relations".

As soon as the composition of the panel and the details of its mandate were announced, Netanyahu made it clear that its main objective was to show the operation was "appropriate and met international standards. The government decision will make it clear to the world that Israel is acting legally, responsibly, and with complete transparency".

If Israel was, indeed, acting in such a way, Gaza would not be besieged and blockaded, and there would have been no need for flotillas.

The naming of the panel coincided with a report issued by the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) that said Israel's siege and blockade of Gaza are violations of international law. The ICRC called the blockade "collective punishment", a crime under international law.

The report stated: "The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is about to enter its fourth year, choking off any real possibility of economic development. Gazans continue to suffer from unemployment, poverty and warfare, while the quality of Gaza's healthcare system has reached an all-time low."

The extraordinary ICRC effort was bolstered by a report published by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, which pointed out that 95 per cent of Gaza's industries have closed, 98 per cent of Gazans suffer from power outages (which average 6-7 hours a day) and 93 per cent of Gaza's water is polluted with sewage and seawater.

The Israeli liberal daily, Haaretz, revealed that, in addition to the Turkel commission, the state comptroller, Micha Linden Strauss, is set to investigate the role of the national security council in the decision to launch the raid and Israel's public relations campaign conducted in the wake of the raid. This report is likely to be for ministerial eyes only.

Meanwhile Israel is set to face a wave of boats and cargo ships determined to bust the blockade of Gaza. An Iranian freighter has already set sail for Gaza and a second one is loading cargo at Bandar Abbas. A Lebanese boat is preparing for the voyage to Gaza and a German Jewish organisation, Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, is searching for a second boat to accompany one that is oversubscribed. The voyage is scheduled for mid-July. Free Gaza, the movement that started the effort that is becoming an enterprise, plans to resume the challenge on the high seas in September.

"Show boating" to Gaza, my irreverent characterisation of the determined efforts of the Free Gaza movement, has caught on and Israel's cruel blockade of the besieged coastal strip is under challenge as never before.

The international outcry is due to the dedication and determination of the Free Gaza movement, a grouping of generous individuals who decided "Enough is enough" and are determined to challenge Israel's actions against Gaza's 1.5 million people.

The first Free Gaza voyage was made nearly two years ago in two tiny Greek fishing vessels, which made the passage from Cyprus to Gaza although the boats were not really safe for such an endeavour. On other, more viable boats, Free Gaza made four more successful trips to Gaza from Cyprus. The Dignity, one of the ships that attempted the five interdicted attempts, was rammed so badly by the Israeli navy that it sunk, one turned back due to bad weather, and eight others travelling in Free Gaza-organised voyages have been seized by Israel. These include the Spirit of Humanity, captured in 2009, and the seven commandeered this summer.

The Free Gaza movement, launched mainly by women who first made contact on the Internet, is a shining example of civil society taking on governments and the malign and wrong-headed policies they adopt. Free Gaza was once proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize and should be nominated again. Israel is now under more pressure than ever before to lift its blockade on Gaza. Once this happens, this will be a victory for individuals and for civil society.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017