Whitewash? UN Names Panel to Probe Israeli Killings on Gaza-Bound Ship
Despite initial misgivings, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon received the tacit approval of the Israeli government to establish an international panel to probe the widely-condemned killings of nine Turkish civilians onboard a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza last May.
"This is an unprecedented development," Ban said Monday, virtually patting himself on the back.
But Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies who has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remains highly sceptical given the Jewish state's track record.
She told IPS that Israel has never accepted U.N. or international investigations of its human rights violations.
"Look how it rejected and condemned the U.N.'s Goldstone Report documenting possible war crimes during the 2008-09 attack on Gaza," Bennis said. "Look at the refusal to allow the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor Richard Falk, to enter the West Bank to carry out his mandate."
Instead, Israeli authorities arrested him at Tel Aviv airport, tossed him into a dirty prison cell overnight and deported him the next day.
"Look at Israel's refusal to allow Archbishop Desmond Tutu into Gaza to help conduct an international investigation," Bennis said. "Look at the one time Israel pretended to agree to cooperate with a U.N. investigation team, in 2002, when the U.N. was set to examine the killing of civilians in the Jenin refugee camp during Israel's re-occupation of the West Bank."
Israel agreed to accept the team, only to demand more and more concessions, finally reneging altogether on its promise, rejecting the team, leaving then U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan to shamefacedly disband the team, then cooling their heels in Geneva, and sending them home, said Bennis, author of 'Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's U.N.'
That ill-fated 20-member fact-finding mission was headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtissari.
Responding to questions, U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters Monday the current panel will not be involved in any criminal investigation.
"It has been tasked with making findings about the facts, circumstances and context of the incident, as well as recommending ways of avoiding similar incidents in the future," he added.
Last month Israel appointed its own panel of inquiry, widely criticised as a cover-up attempt, to probe the Gaza flotilla killings.
Mouin Rabbani, a widely-respected political analyst and contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, told IPS: "The Israeli report on the armed naval assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was a complete sham."
He said there was in fact no need to wait for the publication of the report to reach this conclusion.
"The concept that Israel is capable of investigating itself, and producing anything remotely credible, has been demonstrated as beyond the capacity of the Israeli system, time and time again," he said.
Israeli investigations of Israeli military conduct typically revolve around one issue: whether the military acted with sufficient proficiency to accomplish its objectives, and if not, to examine what went wrong - in the narrow, technical sense.
By design, the real questions are removed from the investigative agenda from the outset.
"Examining the legal questions surrounding this murderous assault, not least the question of criminal liability and consequences, do not enter into such exercises, apart from bland and general statements that Israel has the right to do whatever it damn well pleases," said Rabbani.
Thus the need for a credible international investigation as proposed by the secretary-general remains, and it is to be hoped that this is pursued even if the prospects, as with so much relating to Israeli accountability for criminal conduct, appear rather doubtful, he predicted.
In a statement released Monday, the secretary-general said that for the past two months, he was actively engaged in "intensive consultations" with the leaders of Israel and Turkey on the setting-up of the panel.
The panel will be chaired by the former prime minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, with the outgoing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, as vice-chair.
Scheduled to begin work on Aug. 10, the panel will have two additional members, one each from Israel and Turkey. The first progress report is expected to be released by mid- September.
In late May, following the Israeli attack on the flotilla, the 15-member Security Council issued a presidential statement - far short of a resolution - "taking note" of a statement by the secretary- general on "the need to have a full investigation into the matter".
The statement also called "for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards".
The panel is a result of Ban's proposal to the Security Council.
Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS: "How truly independent will this inquiry be?" That's the key question, he said.
"My initial concern is that the panel membership appears to be tied in with politically powerful interests - not a good sign. Whether this will be a clarifying or whitewashing effort remains to be seen," he added.
Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies told IPS that the irony, of course, is that the international and U.N.-backed team reflects Israel's continuing U.S.-backed influence at the United Nations.
Colombian President Uribe, Washington's closest ally and most reliable military dependent in all of Latin America, is hardly likely to challenge his patron's closest ally and military partner in the Middle East, said Bennis.
It may not be a complete whitewash, it may even turn into a good precedent for a future in which Israel really is held accountable for its violations of international law, but this first time isn't likely to go very far, Bennis added.