What is a human life worth? Perhaps that that’s what it will come down to in the Istanbul High Criminal Court this week when British barrister Rodney Dixon QC appears on behalf of more than 700 of the men and women aboard the Gaza flotilla that was intercepted in 2010 by Israeli military forces who killed 10 of the passengers.
A new state gas deal between Israel and Turkey – who will be partners in a plan to exploit Mediterranean gas fields to their countries’ mutual economic benefit — includes an ex gratia payment of $20m (£16m) by Israel for the families of the dead. This comes without any acknowledgement of responsibility for the killings and, presumably, no further criminal court case by those who wish to “bring to justice” four named Israeli generals who were allegedly behind the bloody operation.
“If governments are permitted by agreement to prevent criminal investigations and prosecutions of allegations of serious international crimes,” Mr Dixon says, “it will undermine the entire international justice system.” He should know. Mr Dixon QC is an international law and human rights lawyer who was a legal adviser to the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Now he is waiting to see if the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has applied to the Istanbul court to annul the case in the interest of the new Israeli-Turkish gas deal. Three Turkish judges are due to preside.
The four generals accused by the 740 plaintiffs were originally named in Turkey’s own indictment over the Israeli detention of the ships and the killings of 10 men aboard the vessel Mavi Marmara, nine of them Turks and a 10th an American-Turkish citizen: then Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former naval commander Eliezer Marom, ex-head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate Amos Yadlin and the former commander of naval intelligence Avishai Levy. Mr Dixon told The Independent that if the generals were convicted in a criminal case, “they should be extradited – or international arrest warrants should be issued to prevent them travelling abroad. No one is looking for money in this case”.
The vessels were carrying humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Israeli-besieged Gaza strip when they were boarded by the Israeli military in international waters. The killing of the 10 men created an immediate – and predictable – international outcry, with Turkey and the UN demanding international enquiries. Israel eventually instituted its own investigation, which concluded – equally predictably – that its troops had been assaulted by passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara and that they had used legitimate force in response. It also claimed that the boarding of the vessels outside Israeli territorial waters was legitimate under international law.
This is not a conclusion that commended itself to the passengers on theMavi Marmara and the other vessels. Among the 13 UK citizens involved in the legal case, Paveen Yaqub – a friend of the youngest man shot dead by the Israelis, 18-year-old Furkan Dogan – feels deeply disappointed by the Turkish deal that could end her legal action. “I feel a sense of betrayal because the Turkish government had [originally] stepped up when this massacre occurred – more than our own government did,” she says. “Six years waiting for justice is a long time and it’s been an arduous journey and I’ve come here and I looked after the 10th person, who died two years ago after living in a coma. I was hoping Turkey would take a stand against this constant Israeli impunity. Now I feel embarrassed for the Turkish government – because this puts the power of politics above people and life.”
Laura Stuart, another of the British plaintiffs, is equally angry. “I don’t see how the Turkish government can unilaterally decide that we have no case any more,” she says. “Politics is trampling on justice. Israel seems to have complete international immunity. I was trained in first aid before we left for Gaza – so I could teach the Palestinians first aid. But I never thought I’d have to use it on the Mavi Marmara. I was on the lower deck and was called to help after people were shot by the Israelis at close range, multiple times. We didn’t expect that.”
In a legal opinion published in The Law Society Gazette, Rodney Dixon writes that the Turkish-Israeli agreement “leaves all victims of the Gaza flotilla attack brazenly sidelined in the interests of politics and a gas deal… Diplomacy always involves compromise. But justice does not: it is about what is legally right and wrong. Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla was unlawful, without justification, and a crime against hundreds.” The victims, Mr Dixon adds, must receive “recognition of Israel’s accountability”. One UN mission would later describe six of the nine passengers’ deaths as “summary execution”.
The passengers en route to Gaza – which, of course, they never reached after their ships were taken to Ashdod port in Israel – came from 36 countries and included MPs, from Israel itself as well as from Germany, Kuwait, Ireland, Sweden, Greece, Cyprus, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria. Twelve US citizens were also among the passengers.