On May 31, the Israeli military attacked a flotilla of ships in International waters. The vessels were carrying humanitarian supplies to the people in the Gaza Strip, who suffer under a punishing blockade by Israel. The stated aims of the flotilla were to draw international attention to the situation in Gaza and the effect of the blockade; to break the blockade; and to deliver humanitarian assistance and supplies to Gaza.
During the attack, Israeli soldiers killed 9 people, seriously wounded more than 50, and detained 750. They also confiscated or destroyed equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The United Nations Human Rights Council sent an independent fact finding mission to investigate violations of international law resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla. The Mission, with Judge Karl T. Hudson-Philips, Q.C., retired Judge of the International Criminal Court presiding, interviewed 112 witnesses and examined forensic and other evidence, assisted by experts in forensic pathology, military issues, and firearms. Israel refused to cooperate with the independent investigation.
In a 56-page draft report [PDF], released on September 21, the Mission concluded that the Israeli military "demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality. Such conduct," the report added, "cannot be justified or condoned on security or any others grounds. It constituted grave violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law."
The Mission made the following findings:
Passengers on the vessels and their luggage were subjected to "security checks similar to those found in airports before boarding, including body searches," to ensure that they were not carrying weapons. "At no stage was a request made by the Israeli Navy for the cargo to be inspected."
The Israelis fired live ammunition from an Israeli
helicopter onto the top deck of the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, before
soldiers boarded the vessel by descending from the aircraft. Although
some of the passengers used chairs, sticks, a box of plates and other
resist the soldiers, there was "no evidence to suggest that any of the passengers used firearms or that any firearms were taken on board the ship."
During the operation to secure control of the top deck, the Israeli forces landed soldiers from three helicopters in a 15-minute period. The use of live ammunition resulted in fatal injuries to four passengers and injuries to at least 19 others, 14 with gunshot wounds.
Israeli soldiers continued shooting at passengers who were already wounded, with live ammunition, soft baton charges and plastic bullets. "There was considerable live fire from Israeli soldiers on the top deck and a number of passengers were injured or killed whilst trying to take refuge inside the door or assisting others to do so."
Furkan Dogan, a 19-year old with dual Turkish and U.S. citizenship, was one of the people killed by the Israeli forces. He was hit with live fire while filming with a small video camera on the top deck. He received five bullet wounds. "All of the entry wounds were on the back of his body, except for the face wound, which was delivered at point blank range while he was lying on the ground on his back."
Many people were forced to kneel on the outer deck in harsh conditions for many hours and people were subjected to physical mistreatment and verbal abuse, unnecessarily tight handcuffing, and the denial of access to toilets and food.
Israeli authorities confiscated, withheld, and in some cases destroyed the private property of many hundreds of passengers on board the vessels.
There is a "severe humanitarian situation in Gaza, the destruction of the economy and the prevention of reconstruction." Israel's blockade was "inflicting disproportionate damage upon the civilian population" in Gaza, and is therefore illegal. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits collective punishment of civilians under occupation. One of the principal motives behind Israel's imposition of the blockade was "a desire to punish the people of the Gaza Strip for having elected Hamas" in the 2005 election. There is "no doubt that Israel's actions and policies amount to collective punishment." In this conclusion, the Mission explicitly supported the findings of Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, as well as those of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The firing of rockets and other munitions of war into Israeli territory from Gaza "constitutes serious violations of international and international humanitarian law. But action in response which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza is not lawful in the present or in any circumstances."
Israel has continuously occupied Gaza despite its unilateral withdrawal of military forces in 2005. Since then, "abject poverty" among refugees has tripled. Israel determines the conditions of life within Gaza. Israel controls the border crossings and the territorial sea adjacent to Gaza, and it has declared a virtual blockade and limits to the fishing zone, thereby regulating economic activity in that zone. Israel maintains complete control of the airspace above Gaza through continuous surveillance, and it makes military incursions and from time to time hits targets within the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Israel regulates the local monetary market of Gaza based on the Israeli currency and controls taxes and customs duties.