A group of Gaza Freedom Flotilla survivors gathered in London today to express their concern at a last-minute intervention by an Israeli NGO to halt International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations into the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara in 2010.
An organisation that MEMO can reveal to be Shurat HaDin – the Israel Law Centre – has filed an official legal submission to the ICC as part of smear campaign presenting the ship’s passengers as “radical activists” with violent intent. The submission also cites recent statements by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who in September threatened the ICC if it moved to prosecute the US or Israel for war crimes.
Dated 8 February 2019, the legal submission seen by MEMO clearly states that the ICC pursuing such a case would bring “the Court’s reputation into disrepute”, linking to a news article detailing Bolton’s comments.
The file also refers to an understanding reached by Israel and Turkey in 2013, which it claims prevents any criminal liability from being attributed to Israel in return for some $20 million in compensation for the families of those killed.
Speaking at today’s press conference on behalf of victims of some 37 nationalities, survivor Alexandra Lort Phillips stressed that this agreement had no binding on any of the victims, particularly those of British citizenship who are pursuing the case independently via the ICC.
“We are profoundly concerned that the Prosecutor is facing unprecedented external pressure […] The court must be allowed to do its work. The prosecutor must be allowed to do her work. The victims must be allowed to seek justice without being slandered and attacked. It is the least we deserve,” Phillips concluded.
Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla killed 10 people – all of Turkish citizenship – who fellow passenger Laura McDonald Stewart described as having been “summarily assassinated”.
The convoy was carrying 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the besieged enclave, which has been blockaded by Israel since 2007. At 04:30 on 31 May 2010, the flotilla was surrounded by Israeli battleships and helicopters before armed soldiers boarding the flagship Mavi Marmara. Several people were shot in the head and chest at close range, with eyewitnesses reporting gunshots at close range even as a white flag was raised by civilians.
Scores of people were injured in the attack; humanitarian activist Osama Qashoo recounted how he was tortured, beaten and put in solitary confinement by Israeli forces. Many also witnessed the deaths of friends and colleagues, including Paveen Yaqub who was brought to tears as she recounted her friendship with Furkan Dogan, the youngest victim to be killed aged only 18.
Phillips also expressed her belief that Israeli commandoes had been briefed before the assault was launched, meaning they were “primed to attack us”. The ICC has since determined that the attack on the ship amounted to a war crime.
The panellists also rejected Israel’s attempts to paint them as violent, with the latest filing citing the presence of knives in the kitchen as evidence that the group were “armed to the teeth”. Whilst a few of the passengers attempted to use tools on hand to defend themselves against the disproportionate assault, McDonald Stewart said Israeli soldiers who were disarmed during the confrontations were left unharmed.
“We always hear that Israel has a right to protect itself, so did the people on the ship not have a right to protect themselves?” she asked.
The ICC Prosecutor determined in 2014 that all of the passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara, including those who resorted to violence against Israeli forces, qualify as protected persons under international law.
“One of the Israeli soldiers was being held just where I was treating wounding people, and he wasn’t being harmed in any way […] anything could’ve been done to those soldiers, but it wasn’t because we are humanitarians and not like them,” McDonald Stewart concluded.
Qashoo also recounted how he had managed to disarm an Israeli soldier alongside a former US marine who was also travelling on the boat, after which they threw the gun into the sea, stressing that they had no intent to use any weaponry.
The survivors also highlighted that whilst Israel still has more than 6,000 mobiles and cameras taken from passengers with footage from the attack in its possession, it had not used any video evidence to support its claim of the activists having violent intent.
“We want the ICC to actually obtain this material and use it as evidence,” Qashoo said. “We had CCTV cameras fitted all over the ship; every single second of this journey was documented. There is nothing to hide. Let us use these pictures, this evidence – this is with Israeli soldiers.”
McDonald Stewart also decried the inaction of the British government, who she said valued ties with Israel over the safety of its own citizens.
Having appealed to the UK Foreign Office and Middle East and North Africa Minister, Alistair Burt, she said that authorities had contacted Israel only to arrange the return of passports taken from UK citizens, fearful that they could be used by Israeli intelligence for operations, as in the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in 2010.
“You feel very vulnerable when you realise that your own government has ties with Israel that are more important to them than their own citizens,” McDonald Stewart said. “You realise you are completely helpless to change things, and our only hope going forward is that the ICC will take on this case and that some justice can be done.”
All of the survivors mentioned the ongoing psychological impact of their ordeal, which they said was heightened by the continued lack of justice almost nine years after the attack. However, they reaffirmed their commitment to pursuing the case, however long it may last.