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Michael Ratner: Palmer report wrongly states Israel’s Gaza blockade is legal

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from Toronto. On September 1, the panel of inquiry established by the secretary-general of the United Nations into the events that transpired when Israeli commandos attacked a flotilla of partly or mostly of Turkish ships on their way to break the blockade of Gaza, the inquiry found that while Israel did use what they said was excessive force, they found that the boarding of the ships was legal, because they found the blockade was legal. This was met with great objection by Turkey and many other countries. Now joining us to talk about all of this is Michael Ratner. Michael is president for the Center for Constitutional rights. He’s also a board member of The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us again, Michael.


JAY: What’s your take on the inquiry’s findings?

RATNER: I think the inquiry’s findings were really bad and actually wrong on the question of whether the blockade was legal or not. On the other hand, they were good or at least acceptable on the fact that excessive force was used by the Israelis. It’s clear that excessive force was used. Nine people were killed. One of the people–an American citizen as well as a Turkish citizen–was actually apparently executed. He had close bullet wounds to the head. So that part of the report is right, it makes sense, and it’s actually what happened: excessive force was used by the Israelis when they boarded the ship. On the other hand, that this panel upheld the legality of a blockade that is four years old now against Gaza that is choking off every kind of human right, every kind of foodstuff, making the water system completely unacceptable, is an outrage that they upheld that blockade. And it’s completely an illegal blockade. And the panel’s findings are contrary to international law. They’re contrary to many findings of the United Nations itself, the Human Rights Council. And most international experts that say that that blockade was flatly illegal [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. Let me–Michael, let me read you what the inquiry wrote. [incompr.] summary of the findings, part two says the fundamental principle of 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. So their argument is: if weapons are coming in, they have a–under international law they have a right to stop them.

RATNER: You know, that’s a complete obfuscation of what’s actually going on. What’s going on is a blockade against humanitarian goods into Gaza, and it’s a form of collective punishment. Why else would there be these special kind of lists of what can be brought in and what can’t be brought in? Why else would cocoa that you make hot chocolate with be on a prohibited list? Why until recently was jelly or jam on a prohibited list? This is a blockade that’s not about stopping weapons; it’s about collective punishment of the people of Gaza, because Israel doesn’t like the fact that even though Gaza is an occupied territory, there is some resistance, and they want to break the backs of both Hamas, which is the ruling party in Gaza, as well as of the Gazan people. A million and a half people are under a humanitarian blockade. So what you read me is such a misdirection and obfuscation of what’s going on that it’s almost like they’re not in the real world.

JAY: Well, the argument the Israelis would make is–and in fact they did make at the time is: how did they know there weren’t weapons on those boats?

RATNER: Right. Well, first of all, they don’t have a right to do a blockade of a territory they occupy. Legally you can only do a blockade of a territory of the enemy, and Gaza’s occupied territory. Secondly, you can’t do a blockade if it winds up being a humanitarian disaster and collective punishment. So at best, at best it’s completely illegal. At worst, let’s concede that they had some–let’s give them the point that they might have a right to go on ships to check for weapons. They certainly didn’t have that right on the high seas–maybe once they entered territorial waters. I don’t think they had that right, but that would be the best argument they could make. But it’s not a very good one, because this is a blockade about humanitarian goods, and it’s illegal, whether it was looking for weapons or something else. Israel has no right to do a blockade of Gaza in any way whatsoever. It’s an occupied territory. And, obviously, even if you accept their justification, I mean, these boats were checked in Crete where they left from, in other places where they left from, to see if there were any weapons on them. There were not. There was a point in which the boat said, if you’re worried about weapons, we can have independent UN people and others go on the boats to inspect. The Israelis rejected that. What they wanted to do was, obviously, for whatever reasons–and they’ve been violent before–was to use violence to stop this blockade and send a message to other people who want to send humanitarian aid to Gaza: you take your life in your hand if you do it. There was a neutral way of looking for weapons if that was their real concern.

JAY: Right, because once they knew there were no weapons on board–what you’re saying–they would have known even before the ships reached anywhere near where they boarded them. What the real objective was to stop the boats breaking the blockade at all. The point was defend the blockade, not stop weapons.

RATNER: That’s completely correct, Paul, because there were, as I said, not only an inspection before the boats left, but there was an offer for independent people to go onto those boats and look and see if there were weapons. The Israelis, obviously, objected [to] it because they don’t want anything going through their illegal blockade. They don’t want anything that can actually end the misery of the people of Gaza, because they do want to impose collective punishment on the people of Gaza as their means, as the Israeli means of toppling Hamas. They’re trying to say Hamas is responsible for this; we’re not.

JAY: Now, it’s–I think it’s important for people who aren’t following this story to know who actually made up this commission. This was not some sort of apolitical technocrats looking into some legal case. These were quite political people on the commission. Can you talk a bit about that?

RATNER: Well, there were four people on the commission. There was one Israeli appointed and one Turk appointed, so those people obviously voted in the direction of their own country. The other two people, one was named Uribe, who was the former president of Colombia, a very close ally of Israel, has won awards from groups that are very close to Israel, and was considered, I think, a given that he was never going to find against Israel on the issue of the blockade. And the other is the former prime minister of New Zealand, a man named Palmer. Palmer, of course, had no expertise in international law, particularly the Law of the Sea, and he also does not have exactly a sterling reputation as a person who calls the shots as he sees them. He’s a neoliberal, clearly a supporter of Israel. And so the question for me and the question I guess for all of us is: why did Turkey go along with this panel of four people–two of whom were for sure going to vote against it, and a third very likely, being Palmer–when they were going to lose? And I don’t have a good answer for it. It’s conceivable that because there were so much negotiations going on between Turkey and Israel over these killings that they hoped that this would be another means of pressuring Israel to do only two things, two minimal things. One was compensation for the victims, the nine people killed and the many that were injured, and the second was a real apology, saying we’re sorry we did it. And, incredibly, Israel cannot speak the words–Netanyahu can’t, and no one there can speak the words which we’ve all spoken to our friends many times: we’re sorry, that shouldn’t have happened, we apologize. They can’t do it. So it’s a real shock. Israel’s just digging in for a hard line: violence, violence, violence against others.

JAY: Now, the finding of the inquiry that the blockade is legal is actually at odds with other UN bodies, who have taken quite the opposite position, that say it’s illegal. Can you talk a bit about that?

RATNER: Well, the UN bodies have consistently said that the blockade is illegal. The Human Rights Council said it was illegal. And just recently, in fact, today, five experts from the United Nations, including Richard Falk, who is the special UN rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, have come out with a report saying the blockade is completely illegal. And, you know, it’s an interesting argument on the blockade. There’s first the question of is it legal under military law, assuming this was really an enemy. And the answer is: it wouldn’t even be then, because it’s disproportionate. You can’t blockade an entire country’s foodstuffs, etc., even allowing some of it in, on the claim that you’re looking for weapons, and yet starve the population, even if it was somehow a legal blockade. But it doesn’t even fit a legal blockade. You can’t do a blockade of an occupied territory. And it amounts in this case to really one of the worst human rights crimes under the Geneva Conventions, the crime of collective punishment. And if you look at the statistics on Gaza, you’re seeing it: 40 percent unemployment, 90 percent of the factories completely shut down, 90 percent of the water undrinkable unless it’s treated. The place has really been stripped of any human dignity and of any ability to feed their own population. So it’s an utter tragedy.

JAY: Since the release of the report, there’s been a complete breakdown of relations between Turkey and Israel. There had been certain military cooperation, but if I understand it correctly, Turkey has even suspended diplomatic ties at the moment. What’s happening with that?

RATNER: I mean, it’s extremely serious. I mean, Turkey is, after the United States, probably Israel’s–and maybe Egypt, but probably Israel’s most important ally in the Middle East. It’s a Muslim country. They supported Israel a lot with military maneuvers, and likewise. And yet Israel is apparently, for the question–on the question of compensation and an apology, willing to risk that close relationship with its ally, suspended military exercises and aid, as you said. Turkey has reduced its embassy in Israel from a regular embassy to having it staffed by a second secretary. You don’t get any lower than a second secretary, unless it’s the guy who cleans the embassy. So you’re really talking about a serious breakdown. And what’s interesting to me is there may finally be–and it’s hard to know, Israel is so recalcitrant–but between what’s happening in Egypt and what happened with the Israeli embassy there, what’s happening with Turkey and the downgrading of the relationships, with the move by Palestine in the UN for statehood, you may be seeing enough pressure on Israel that–ultimately I’d like to be a little optimistic–it’ll force some change in Israel. It’s the first real movement we’ve seen.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you for having me, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.