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Gaza Flotilla Incident: The Turkel Commission Report

(January 23, 2011)

The Independent Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of May 31, 2010, was a committee chaired by retired Supreme Court Judge Jacob Turkel that was established on June 14, 2010, to investigate the Gaza flotilla incident. The committee was asked to submit findings on the question of whether the actions undertaken by the State of Israel to prevent the arrival of ships to the coast of the Gaza Strip and their purposes, as well as additional matters concerning this, were compatible with the rules of international law.

Summary of Findings

The Commission has reached the following conclusions:

  • A vessel that attempts to breach a blockade is subject to international law governing the conduct of hostilities: international humanitarian law, including the rules governing use of force.
  • The Israeli armed forces' interception and capture of the Gaza Flotilla vessels in international waters - seaward of the blockaded area - was in conformity with customary international humanitarian law.
  • The tactics chosen to intercept and capture the Flotilla vessels - including having Shayetet 13 naval commandoes board from Morena speedboats and fast-rope from helicopter onto the roof of the vessels - was consistent with established international naval practice.
  • The participants in the Flotilla were predominantly an international group of civilians whose main goal was to bring publicity to the humanitarian situation in Gaza by attempting to breach the blockade imposed by Israel.
  • On board the Mavi Marmara and the other flotilla vessels was a group of IHH and affiliated activists (the “IHH activists”) that violently opposed the Israeli boarding. The IHH activists who participated in that violence were civilians taking a direct part in hostilities.
  • The force used against civilians on board the flotilla was governed by the principles of "necessity" and use of "proportionate force" associated with human rights based law enforcement norms. However, the IHH activists lost the protection of their civilian status for such time as they directly participated in the hostilities. The use of force against these direct participants in hostilities is governed by the applicable rules of international humanitarian law.
  • The Rules of Engagement for the operation provided an authority to use force that reflected the nature of a law enforcement operation.
  • The IHH activists carried out the violence on board the Mavi Marmara by arming themselves with a wide array of weapons, including iron bars, axes, clubs, slingshots, knives, and metal objects. These were weapons capable of causing death or serious injury. Further, the hostilities were conducted in an organized manner with IHH activists, inter alia, operating in groups when violently assaulting the IDF soldiers.
  • The IHH activists used firearms against the IDF soldiers during the hostilities.
  • The Commission has examined 133 incidents in which force was used. The majority of the uses of force involved warning or deterring fire and less-lethal weapons.
  • Overall, the IDF personnel acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence. This included continuing to switch back and forth between less-lethal and lethal weapons in order to address the nature of the violence directed at them.
  • The Commission has concluded that in 127 cases, the use of force appeared to be in conformity with international law.
  • In six cases, the Commission has concluded that it has insufficient information to be able to make a determination.
  • Three out of those six cases involved the use of live fire and three cases involved physical force; two incidents of kicking and one strike with the butt of a gun.
  • In five out of the 127 incidents that appeared to be in conformity with international law, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the use of force was also in accordance with law enforcement norms. However, in these cases, force appeared to be used against persons taking a direct part in hostilities and, as a consequence, was in conformity with international law.
  • The planning and organization of the IDF mission to enforce the blockade did not include anticipation that there would be a violent opposition to the boarding, which had a direct impact on the operational tactics, Rules of Engagement, and training before the operation. However, the focus of the planning and organization of the operation on a lower level of resistance did not lead to a breach of international law.

Concluding Remarks:

Today, approximately five months after hearing the first testimonies, the Commission is completing this part of its work by submitting this report to the Government of Israel. For whom was the report written? It was written, of course, for the Government of Israel, but also for military personnel and jurists studying international humanitarian law, who may, perhaps, use it in the future for guidance and instruction; for the public, who in all the confusion of information wishes to know what happened; and for ourselves, who sought with all our abilities to arrive at the truth.

After a journey full of obstacles and pitfalls, and after exhaustive investigations, inquiries, studies and discussions, we unanimously and wholeheartedly summarize our conclusions:

The naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip - in view of the security circumstances and Israel’s efforts to comply with its humanitarian obligations - was legal pursuant to the rules of international law. The actions carried out by Israel on May 31, 2010, to enforce the naval blockade had the regrettable consequences of the loss of human life and physical injuries. Nonetheless, and despite the limited number of uses of force for which we could not reach a conclusion, the actions taken were found to be legal pursuant to the rules of international law.

Read Full Turkel Commission Report - Part 1 [pdf]

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Public Commission To Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010