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Bloody Sunday

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The Mavi Marmara Inquiry: Denying the Obvious

14 August 2010

The Mavi Marmara Inquiry: Denying the Obvious

By Gwynne Dyer

They are all lying, of course. The pro-Palestinian activists who said that the flotilla of ships that tried to breach the Israeli blockade and bring aid to the Gaza Strip had purely humanitarian goals were lying, and so are the Israeli officials who blandly insist that the blockade is solely to stop offensive weapons from reaching the Hamas-ruled enclave. But only the Israeli commandos who seized the ships and killed nine people had guns.

The flotilla had a clear propaganda purpose, seeking a confrontation that would draw attention to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the plight of the Palestinians. The blockade has the clear political purpose of squeezing the million-and-a-half Palestinians in that open-air prison and turning them against the Hamas regime that currently rules them. Nobody wanted it to end in deaths – but there were nine dead civilians and no dead Israelis.

Testifying on 9 August to Israel’s own Commission of Inquiry into the events, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stuck to the script. The Israeli commandos had displayed “exceptional bravery in carrying out their mission and in defending themselves from genuine and lethal danger,” he claimed.

Elsewhere, Netanyahu has referred to the dead activists alternately as “terrorist fanatics” and “mercenaries,” although most people would see these as mutually exclusive categories. Terrorist fanatics don’t usually expect to be paid, whereas mercenaries most definitely do – and both terrorists and mercenaries generally bring something a little more lethal than sticks and iron bars to the party. But let it pass.

Netanyau is just employing the usual tactic of blaming the victims for their own deaths, and that allegation will probably not be challenged by the Israeli inquiry. What the world should be paying attention to is the United Nations inquiry. Or rather, to the one that even Israel cannot ignore.

There are actually two UN inquiries. The first was created by the UN Human Rights Commission, which the Israelis always depict as hopelessly biased. (Its members include Sir Desmond de Silva from Britain, a former undersecretary of the UN and war-crimes prosecutor, and Karl Hudson-Phillips from Trinidad and Tobago, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, but never mind.)

“We are not going to even grace (the UNHRC inquiry) with an official statement,” said an Israeli official. “They are totally irrelevant.” But it is much harder for Israel to ignore the Panel of Inquiry created last week by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Jeffrey Palmer, with Colombia’s outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, as Vice Chair and official representatives from both Israel and Turkey.
Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to let Israeli officials testify to the UN inquiry – but then insisted that he had a deal with Ban that none of the Israeli commandos involved in the killing would be called before the inquiry. Ban said on 9 August that there was no such deal, and that’s where matters rest today. But the sheer cheek of the Israeli prime minister is astounding: nobody is to be allowed to question the men who actually did the shooting?

Even in Israel’s most devoted allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, soldiers sometimes do extremely brutal and stupid things. The US National Guard killed four anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, for example, and the British army killed 13 Catholic protesters on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972.

Sometimes the soldiers just panic and use far too much force. More often they seize on the pretext of some minor violence by the “activists” to do what they really want to do, which is kill some of them. Then, at the inquiry, they lie about it – and the state, always solicitous of military morale, pretends to believe them.

So we should not expect the UN inquiry to work miracles. It took forty years for Britain to admit the truth about Bloody Sunday, and nobody was ever punished for it. The truth about Ohio came out a lot faster, but nobody was punished for that either. The one big difference here is that whereas the US National Guard killed American citizens, and the British army killed British citizens, the Israeli commandos killed Turkish citizens.

That’s why the UN got involved this time. As to why Netanyahu won’t let any of the commandos be questioned, it’s the usual defensive reflex. He would be better advised to let them be exposed as undisciplined killers – the autopsies on the nine killed revealed thirty bullet wounds, a quarter of them in the back – than to let the blame fall on the Israeli state.

He probably imagines that by refusing Israeli participation in the inquiry, he is ruining its credibility. Not in this case, he isn’t; the deaths speak for themselves. And just as Kent State destroyed US popular support for the Vietnam War and Bloody Sunday killed the myth of a benevolent British army protecting Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland, the events on the Mavi Marmara will ultimately end the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Elsewhere…pass”; and “Sometimes…them”)

How to Run an Inquiry: Bloody Sunday and Mavi Marmara

16 June 2010

How to Run an Inquiry: Bloody Sunday and Mavi Marmara

By Gwynne Dyer

In the aftermath of the bloody events on the aid ship Mavi Marmara, where nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed by Israeli commandos on 31 May, Israeli has set up a judicial inquiry into the affair. Since Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who chose the members of the inquiry, has already described the victims as “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”, some people doubt that the investigation will be impartial.

On 15 June, the second inquiry into “Bloody Sunday” in the Northern Irish city of Derry, where fourteen civil rights marchers were killed by British paratroops on 30 January, 1972, delivered its report. The first people to see it were the relatives of the victims. On the whole, they seemed satisfied.

The British inquiry was chaired by Lord Saville, a former High Court judge. Since the inquiry involved the British Army, the other two members were senior judges from New Zealand and Canada, not from Britain. And the Saville inquiry’s report was utterly damning.

It said that none of the casualties had guns, and that there were “no instances where it appeared to us that soldiers either were or might have been justified in firing.” The paratroops gave no warnings before they started shooting, and a number of soldiers afterwards “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing.”

The report also said bluntly that the soldiers had lost their self-control, “forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training, and failing to satisfy themselves that they had identified targets posing a threat of causing death or serious injury…There was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline.” Neither their commanders nor the British government wanted to kill innocent people, but they were to blame for it nevertheless.

Prime Minister David Cameron, disclosing the conclusions of the report to the House of Commons in London, did not pull his punches either. “You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. It. Was. Wrong.” And he apologised on behalf of the British state, without qualifications.

If a similarly impartial tribunal inquired into the events that occurred aboard the Gaza-bound aid ship last month, it would probably come to identical conclusions. We know enough about confrontations where none of the soldiers or police die, but lots of the demonstrators/ protesters/rioters do, to understand the psychology and the crowd dynamics of it.

That impartial inquiry would probably conclude that there was a “serious and widespread loss of fire discipline” among the Israeli commandos (five of the nine dead civilians were shot in the back or the back of the head). It would also probably find that few if any of the activists had lethal weapons, or acted in ways that justified killing them.

The report would almost certainly agree that nobody in authority in Israel intended a massacre, but that the government and the military must still bear the blame for the killings. Like the Saville report, it would not talk of “murder” or “unlawful killing”, but it would leave the door open for prosecutions by the appropriate authorities. And the Israeli prime minister, of course, would apologise on behalf of the nation.

All of this may well come to pass in Israel – in 2048, thirty-eight years from now. Because that is how long it took the British government to get from the Widgery report, the original whitewash that was produced only months after the Bloody Sunday massacre, to the Saville report.

Lord Chief Justice Widgery’s report in 1972 was a shameless cover-up that blamed the victims: “There is a strong suspicion that some (of the dead and wounded) had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.” And, of course, it exonerated the soldiers: “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”

Those lies stood for 38 years, which is why the first people to be shown Saville’s report this week were the victims’ families. It won’t bring the dead back to life, but it is a reckoning of sorts. The British government is a slow learner, but it does learn.

Tony Blair, back when he was still a new and popular figure, ordered this second inquiry into Blood Sunday in 1998. Only twelve years and £191 million ($283 million) later, it has finally seen the light.

Israel has appointed ex-Supreme Court judge Yaakov Tirkel, retired Israeli army officer Amos Horev, and Shabbtai Rosen, an Israeli professor of international law, to the current inquiry, but the only two foreign members are observers who have no vote, so this will probably be Israel’s Widgery report. There may be an Israeli version of the Saville report eventually, but not this year or next.

Who knows? By 2041, only 38 years late, the United States may even hold an inquiry into the “loss of fire discipline” by US paratroops in Falluja in 2003, the massacre of Sunni Arab youths that sparked the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation of Iraq. But not yet.

Sovereignty means never having to say you’re sorry. Or at least not for a long, long while.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 9 and 13. “Prime…qualifications”; “The report…nation”; and “Tony… light.”