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Mavi Marmara

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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.”

How to Break the Gaza Blockade

7 June 2010

How to Break the Gaza Blockade

By Gwynne Dyer

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Britain, France, Germany and Russia have done the same. After Israeli commandos killed nine peace activists last week aboard a ship that was trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the blockade “unsustainable and unacceptable.” But how can it be ended?

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, predictably, is brazening it out. He blames the victims for their own deaths. They were “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”: people so violent and Turkish and terroristic and extremist that the poor Israeli commandos had no choice but to fire thirty bullets into the nine who were killed, and wound 30-odd others for good measure.

It’s a striking example of how Netanyahu bludgeons reality with words until it conforms to his purposes. Why does he need all those extra words? Could there conceivably be “non-violent Turkish terror extremists”? Or “violent Turkish terror moderates”? Presumably he believes that if you pile on enough synonyms, some people will conclude that there must have been something bad about the victims.

Anybody with the slightest experience of the real world knows what must have happened on the deck of Mavi Marmara, the aid ship in question. A bunch of over-confident, under-trained Israeli commandos ran into unexpected resistance from activists, a few of whom had improvised but serious weapons like iron bars. Maybe one or two had knives. And one or two of the commandos panicked and opened fire.

Then the rest of the commandos joined in, presumably thinking that the shooters were responding to a real threat. They all blasted away for twenty or thirty seconds, and when their magazines were empty there were forty bodies on the deck, some writhing in pain and others lying very still. After that, there was nothing the commandos could do but come up with a story that excused their actions.

This atrocious event has put the Israeli policy of blocking supplies to the Gaza Strip in the spotlight and raises two questions. Does it really give Israel added security at a reasonable cost to Palestinians? And if it is doesn’t, then how can it be ended?

The blockade of Gaza began in 2007, after Hamas, which does not recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli state, won a brief civil war and took control of the densely populated territory. It launched thousands of crude, home-made rockets against towns in southern Israel, killing 10 Israelis, so in early 2009 Israel attacked the Gaza Strip.

At least 1,300 Palestinians died, and only 13 Israelis. Since then Hamas has observed a cease-fire. Other Palestinian militants still launch sporadic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, but only one person in Israel has been killed in the past 18 months. Yet the blockade continues unabated.

Only one-quarter of the normal volume of supplies makes it through the sole Israeli checkpoint. The 1.5 million people in the Strip have been reduced to abject poverty, and Israel seems determined to keep up the pressure until they reject Hamas (which they backed in free elections in 2007) and overthrow it. Just how they are to do that, however, is not clear.

Israel has the right to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, but it is hard to see how cement, macaroni, footballs, tomato paste and fruit juices (all banned) fit that description. In any case, the material to make the rockets has always come in through tunnels under the frontier with Egypt, and is unaffected by Israel’s blockade.

The blockade is simply collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. It has not overthrown Hamas, but instead has strengthened its control over the population. It should be ended, but how?

The Israeli government is now on the defensive on this issue, and a cheap and effective tactic would be to send another aid ship or flotilla to run the blockade every week or so. The cargo should be inspected and certified as weapons-free by the port authorities in Greece, Italy, France or wherever they sail from.

The blockade-runners should not agree to go to an Israeli port, because then their cargo would fall victim to Israel’s blockade rules. (Almost all of Mavi Marmara’s 10,000 tonnes of cargo was construction materials, and would have been blocked by the Israelis.) The ships should not surrender at the first challenge, but sail on towards Gaza and compel the Israelis to conduct hostile boarding operations against them.

The crews should not physically resist the Israeli troops, but some of them would probably be hurt. Would some be killed? Possibly, though Israel will try to avoid another public relations disaster like last week’s. Might they end up serving jail sentences in Israel? Maybe, if Netanyahu’s government is in a particularly self-destructive mood.

Volunteers can easily be found for these aid missions, and so can the money to pay for them. Carry out one operation a week for the next couple of months, and the blockade would almost certainly crumble. Netanyahu’s government would either change its policy or fall. Either outcome would be greeted with pleasure in almost every capital in the world, including Washington.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Israeli…victims”)