Israel, Turkey and the Gaza flotilla, 2010:
The UNs Palmer Report key points

Published: 30 October 2011
Briefing Number 301

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Summary:  This Briefing highlights key points from the UN’s Palmer Report of July 2011 into the flotilla incident of May 2010.   The Palmer Report was commissioned by the UN Secretary-General and concluded that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza “complied with international law”.  The Report also found that the flotilla was a “dangerous and reckless” action, but that the way in which Israel’s forces intercepted the flotilla vessels was “excessive and disproportionate”.  Israel publicly challenged this final finding.     

The Palmer Report

In the flotilla incident of 31 May 2010, nine Turkish passengers on the Turkish-registered vessel the Mavi Marmara were killed, and several Israeli naval commandoes were wounded, when Israeli forces boarded the vessel at night, 72 miles off the coast of Gaza, in order to enforce its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Following a global outcry against Israel’s actions, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon ordered an enquiry into the events.  The enquiry was chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, and his vice-chair was President Alvaro Uribe, who served as President of Colombia from 2002-2010.  Israel and Turkey each had a representative on the four-person commission of inquiry.

The Palmer Commission published its detailed, 105 page report in July 2011, after interviewing senior officials from the governments of Turkey and from Israel, and after reading the separate investigations into the event issued in both countries.

The full title of the Palmer Report is ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Enquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident’ (United Nations, July 2011)

Some key findings of the Palmer Report

Israel’s naval blockade complied with international law

“The fundamental principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas is subject to only certain limited exceptions under international law.  Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza.  The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea, and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.” (Summary, para (ii))

It is permissible to enforce a naval blockade in international waters

“For Israel to maintain its blockade it had to be effective, so it must be enforced.  That is a clear legal requirement of a blockade.  Such enforcement may take place on the high seas [ie in international waters] and may be conducted by force if a vessel resists.” (para 109) 

Israel made genuine efforts to facilitate the bringing of humanitarian supplies into Gaza

“Exchanges between Israel and Turkey [before the flotilla’s arrival] were particularly intense.  There were at least twelve diplomatic discussions, including at ministerial level, that were aimed at reaching a solution.  The Panel is satisfied that extensive and genuine efforts were made by Israel to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies from the flotilla to Gaza thus obviating the need to challenge the blockade and thereby avoiding the prospect of violence.” (para 100)

The flotilla organisers acted recklessly and in a way liable to cause escalation

“Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.... the actions of the flotilla needlessly carried the potential for escalation” (Summary, para (iv)).  “To deliberately seek to breach a blockade in a convoy with a large number of passengers is in the view of the Panel a “dangerous and reckless act” (para 92).

A primary motivation of the Mavi Marmara was to break Israel’s naval blockade and generate publicity

“On the basis of public statements by flotilla organisers, and their own internal documentation, the Panel is satisfied that as much as their expressed purpose of delivering humanitarian aid, one of the primary objectives of the flotilla organisers was to generate publicity about the situation in Gaza by attempting to breach Israel’s naval blockade.” (para 87)

The Mavi Marmara did not have humanitarian supplies on board

“There were some foodstuffs and medical goods on board the Mavi Marmara, although it seems these were intended for the voyage itself.  Any “humanitarian supplies” were limited to foodstuffs and toys carried in passengers’ personal baggage” (para 89)

There were no port facilities in Gaza capable of receiving a ship the size of the Mavi Marmara

“No adequate port facilities exist in Gaza capable of receiving vessels the size of the Mavi Marmara.  It appears that arrangements had been made to offload the cargo onto smaller vessels at sea, which no doubt would be awkward and inefficient.  Yet the flotilla rejected offers to unload any essential humanitarian supplies at other ports and have them delivered to Gaza by land.” (para 90)

IDF personnel faced significant, organised and violent resistance when they boarded the Mavi Marmara

“Israeli Defence Forces personnel faced significant, organised and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, requiring them to use force for their own protection.  Three soldiers were captured, mistreated and placed at risk by those passengers.  Several others were wounded.”

NOTE: On this see Beyond Images Briefing 285 dated 21 May 2011 called Testimonies of Israeli soldiers who intercepted the Gaza flotilla where we provide extracts from the testimony of various Israeli soldiers, clearly supporting this conclusion of the Panel.

Israel’s decision to board the flotilla vessels in the way it did was “excessive and unreasonable”

“Israel’s decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable. Non-violent options should have been used in the first instance.  In particular, clear prior warning that the vessels were to be boarded and a demonstration of dissuading force should have been given to avoid the type of confrontation that occurred.  Also, the operation should have reassessed its options when the resistance to the initial boarding attempt became apparent.” (Summary, para (vi))   

Separate statement of Israeli member of the Panel

The Israeli member of the Panel, Mr Joseph Ciechanover, issued a statement which was attached to the published Report, expressing disagreement with this final Panel finding. He writes in his statement that:

- Israel actually gave repeated warnings regarding its intent to board the vessels  in the flotilla

- The Panel gave insufficient weight to the operational limitations which determined the manner and timing of the boarding of the vessels

- Israel’s soldiers’ lives were in immediate danger and they acted in self-defence and responded reasonably, proportionally and with restraint, including by the use of less-lethal weapons where feasible.  The Panel’s account of the events leading to the deaths of nine passengers did not take into the account the complexities of what was clearly a “chaotic combat situation”

Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 264 – 23 July 2010
“Hamas now accepts Israel....”. Really? Mahmoud al-Zahar exposes the doublespeak

Briefing 260 – 19 June 2010
“Israel’s interception of the Gaza flotilla violated international law.....”