Israel has, in the past, conducted some reasonably credible investigations of itself. Sure, there is always an issue of credibility when a country investigates itself, and on many, maybe most, occasions (most recently, the investigations Israel launched into its own conduct in Operation Cast Lead) such investigations have been whitewashes designed to cover up, rather than seriously examine, Israeli misdeeds.
Still, there have been some counter-examples, such as the Kahan Commission, which investigated the Lebanon War and Sabra-Shatilla massacre of 1982-83 and the Or Commission which investigated the killings of 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel and one other Palestinian at the beginning of the second intifada. Both of these commissions faced obstacles (especially Or), and many were less than satisfied with their results (again, especially Or), but rare indeed is it that any country investigates itself as honestly as these two commissions did. That’s back-handed praise for Israel; it is more illustrative of how the United States in particular (since it has the most to investigate by far) does so poorly in this regard.
So I’m willing to give an Israeli commission a chance if it is not an obvious sham. The Turkel Commission, investigating the killing of nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara at the end of May, did not begin as an obvious sham. There was plenty of reason for skepticism (not the least of which is the consistency with which Israel has turned to such shams with regard to Gaza), but some seriousness was possible.
That benefit of the doubt has not been whittled away, but blown out of the water.
Several human rights groups were called to testify before the commission. But given the obvious hostility toward them expressed by the commission, the slim chance that the Turkel Commission would be at all serious is now down to none.
The Jerusalem Post reported on the testimony:
The tenor of the hearing was set early on, when the first speaker, B’Tselem director- general Jessica Montell, used the word “siege” to describe the government’s closure policy toward Gaza, which was introduced in September 2007.
“Why do you use the term ‘siege’ rather than ‘closure?’ panel member Maj.-Gen (res.) Amos Horev asked. “Words are important. Semantics are important.”
Former Foreign Ministry director-general Reuven Merhav asked Montell to differentiate between Gazan civilians who were killed when they were used as human shields by terrorists firing at Israeli targets and when they were killed in other circumstances.
“Either present these figures or acknowledge that there is a lacuna in your information,” Merhav told Montell.
After presenting the background leading up to the closure policy and explaining B’Tselem’s view that even after 2005’s disengagement, Israel was still responsible for the Palestinians in Gaza to the same degree, as it continued to control key aspects of its life, such as access to it by land, air and sea, Montell began to give examples of the effects of the closure policy on Gaza’s economy.
She started by charging that Israel had expanded the no-go zone that Palestinians are forbidden to enter, close to the Israeli border, from 50 meters according to the Oslo Accords to 300 meters today.
She added that according to UN figures, Israel maintains a strict no-go zone of 500 meters from the border and a less strict one of 1,500 meters.
Horev intervened, saying, “There are reasons given for the expansion of the zone. It isn’t a matter of papers [a reference to the Oslo agreement – DI]. You are presenting facts that are not in the context of reality. You ignore that.”
Merhav added, “You must ask yourself these questions before you make such statements. The situation has changed since Arafat signed the Oslo agreements. Hamas is not such a great supporter of Oslo. Perhaps the expansion is because of mortar fire.”
When another member of the panel asked Montell to stop presenting the background and get to the matter at hand, Montell replied, “This is the matter at hand. We are a human rights organization.”
Merhav replied, “You are not giving us background. You are giving us your presumptions.”
It’s worth noting that the Post aids the commission in their blatant attack on human rights organizations by printing the questions leveled at Montell, but not her responses. Yet the Post report on the testimony also begins by agreeing that the tenor of the questioning of the human rights groups makes it clear how the commission was going to decide on this incident. Is there a clearer definition of “sham?”
The human rights groups, which included B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel and Gisha, were summoned to the commission specifically to testify on the matter of the legality of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
When I asked Montell about her responses to these questions, she told me that, while she didn’t want to argue semantics, she did respond by making it clear that Israel still maintains control over Gaza and therefore has responsibilities toward it. She also told the commission, regarding Merhav’s point about Hamas using Gazan civilians as human shields that this question was precisely why, among other reasons, B’Tselem has been consistently calling for a credible investigation of Operation Cast Lead.
The commission’s line of questioning could virtually have been scripted by Gerald Steinberg, of NGO Monitor, who was, according to their press release, quite pleased with this outcome. No surprise there. When human rights are ignored or even attacked, Steinberg’s a happy guy.
But other than him, who really comes out ahead? Not the people of Gaza, obviously, nor those who are seeking some answers and redress for those killed on the flotilla. Nor do those who have defended Israel’s actions that morning, as this sort of dishonesty and pre-determination of the outcome of this investigation will not help their case.
And Israel loses more broadly. The results of the Turkel Commission are unlikely to be taken seriously outside of Israel, so it won’t address the serious hit Israel has took in its place in the international community after this incident. It will no doubt look very different from the recent report of the investigation of the UN Human Rights Council. If Turkel comes to a very different conclusion, though, from the one that comes from the UN Secretary General’s separate report, that could be a major blow to Israel’s credibility.
And, ultimately, everyone here is coming out behind, with the truth becoming another casualty of war again.