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Israel releases new video of flotilla raid, but Turkey remains defiant

Giora Eiland, a retired major general in the Israeli military, leaves a press conference after announcing the results of his investigation. Photo: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Update | July 16 The videos have been updated with English translations.

The Israeli Defense Forces released new video on Tuesday of a deadly naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla six weeks ago, an incident which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists and stirred international condemnation. The footage comes on the heels of an Israeli military report released Monday that found the operation plagued by planning errors and miscommunication, but held that the killings themselves were justified.

The new video attempts to trace the progress of the six ships in the flotilla, as well as the events that led to the nine deaths aboard the largest passenger ship, the Mavi Marmara. Most of the claims in the report had already been made publicly by Israeli officials. But the sections released to the public also contained some new information. Israeli military leaders now claim to have recovered at least one handgun from the hull of the Mavi Marmara, and say the naval commandos who rappelled onto deck of the ship from a helicopter in the dark of night were met with live fire from the passengers.

The investigation was led by Giora Eiland, a retired major general in the Israeli military, and was restricted to the technical and operational aspects of the early-morning raid. A larger panel with two foreign observers is examining the political and diplomatic implications of the incident, as well as the possible involvement of Israeli government officials.

“The team concluded that not all possible intelligence gathering methods were fully implemented and that the coordination between Navy Intelligence and the Israel Defense Intelligence was insufficient,” said the report’s official summary. “The report further determines that the use of live fire was justified and that the entire operation is estimable.”

The report also found that military officials relied too heavily on the strategy of boarding the ship in order to halt its progress toward Gaza’s coastal waters. In a statement, the Israeli military’s chief of the general staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said: “Neither I nor the examination team identified a failure or negligence, but nonetheless an examination as thorough as this brings up mistakes which must be corrected for future incidents.”

As Need to Know has reported, initial claims that Israeli naval commandos were carrying lists of passengers to target with live fire, dubbed “hit lists” or “assassination lists,” have been debunked. Nonetheless, the task of investigating its own soldiers remains a delicate one for the Israeli military, which has sought to avoid the possibility of international criminal charges. Activists have told Need to Know that they may petition the International Criminal Court to investigate the incident, and claim that United Nations prosecutors have jurisdiction to do so.

The report is likely to further inflame tensions between Israel and Turkey, which has called for an international investigation into the incident and threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Israel, once among its closest allies. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed the Israeli military report on Tuesday, but vowed to continue pushing for an international probe and formal apology, telling reporters that Israel’s killing of nine Turkish citizens constituted a “crime.”

The Turkish organizations involved in the flotilla also dismissed the report, particularly claims that the passengers used violence against Israeli soldiers. A representative of the Turkish Organization for Human Rights, which is planning to sue Israeli officials in Turkish court, told Al Jazeera in an interview that the findings were “totally groundless.” Some observers have speculated that the Turkish Ministry of Justice is more likely to allow the suit to move forward if Israel’s findings fail to appease Turkish officials.

Meanwhile, the report was met largely with a collective shrug in Israel, where public opinion is overwhelmingly on the military’s side. David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview from Israel that the findings were unlikely to shift the broad consensus among Israelis that the Navy was justified in its use of force, regardless of the operational errors identified in Eiland’s report.

“The mandate of his commission was more limited, in terms of looking at the technical aspects of the operation itself. And therefore I don’t think that it’s going to be a game-changer in any way,” Makovsky said. “Here, more people are focused on the World Cup results.”

David Cuthell, executive director of the Institute for Turkish Studies in Washington and professor of international affairs at Columbia University, said Turkey was using the flotilla incident primarily as a way to reassert its political authority in the Middle East.

“What you’ve seen within the Turkish administration is, they figure that the Israeli relationship at this stage is really secondary or tertiary to a longer-term view within the region that they are the honest brokers, and that they can deliver the goods,” Cuthell said.

He added that Turkey might even manage to supplant the United States in its role as chief mediator of the Middle East process, a major diplomatic coup. “If there’s going to be a peace, it’s going to be brokered by the Turks,” Cuthell said.

He cautioned, though, that a breach of ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv could ultimately destabilize the entire region, an outcome few would welcome. “Behind the scenes, I think there are any number of people who are concerned that if this leads to a complete rupture, no one wins,” Cuthell said. “It’s a slow-motion collision.”