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Mavi Marmara survivors condemn Israeli group's interference in ICC probe

Activists accuse Israeli NGO of 'smears' as they seek Israel's prosecution for deadly Gaza flotilla incident in 2010
Protesters hold placards about Mavi Marmara in October 2016 during protest outside Istanbul courthouse (AFP)
By Alex MacDonald in London

Activists who survived a deadly Israeli assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 have slammed efforts to block the prosecution of Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the incident.

Comoros requested in May 2013 that the ICC investigate the killings of 10 Turkish and Turkish-American activists and injuries sustained by others when Israeli forces boarded the Mavi Marmara vessel as it attempted to break the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip.

While the case has stalled amid attempts by Israel to derail the prosecution, the Israel Law Centre made an official submission to the ICC last month stating that pursuing a case against Israel would "bring the court's reputation into disrepute".

The Israeli group, known as Shurat HaDin, also described the passengers of the Mavi Marmara as "radical activists".

'As victims of this horrific attack, we remain steadfast in our belief that the ICC will push forward with an investigation into what we believe are appalling crimes'

- Alexandra Lort Philips, UK activist aboard the Mavi Marmara

Alexandra Lort Philips, a British citizen who was aboard the flotilla, said on Wednesday that the Israeli group's comments amount to "smears".

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"As victims of this horrific attack, we remain steadfast in our belief that the ICC will push forward with an investigation into what we believe are appalling crimes handed out to decent humanitarians," she said at a news conference in London.

"Yet we abhor the attempt to influence and [pressure] the court through what can only be described as accusations of a highly political nature [and that] have no legal basis and are without foundation."

Shurat HaDin aims to use legal means to fight boycotts of Israel. The group "is utilising court systems around the world to go on the legal offensive against Israel's enemies", it says on its website.

Israel, which is not a signatory of the ICC, also has repeatedly attempted to block potential prosecutions over what happened on the Mavi Marmara, which had 581 passengers on board when it set off from Antalya, Turkey, towards Gaza in 2010.

That effort continues despite a 2014 judgment by the ICC, which stated that the court had "a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes were committed by some members of the Israel Defence Forces". The ICC reaffirmed that finding in 2017.

Still, the probe has been closed and reopened repeatedly, with ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda given a 15 May 2019 deadline to hand down a final decision. Bensouda has repeatedly argued the case did not merit investigation.

'Israel does what they want'

The ship was owned by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish charity banned in Israel after the Israeli government accused it of funnelling money to Hamas.

According to Shurat HaDin's submission, "hardcore IHH activists were armed to the teeth" on the Mavi Marmara and attacked Israeli soldiers with knives and wooden poles.

However, Mavi Marmara activist Osama Qashoo said on Wednesday that the items had been for domestic use.

The knives, for example, were used in the kitchen, he said.

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Qashoo told Middle East Eye that the political climate globally and the rise of US President Donald Trump's vehemently, pro-Israeli administration has made it more difficult for Palestine advocates around the world.

"I think Donald Trump and [US National Security Adviser] John Bolton aren't good news for human rights activists. It's not good news for protesters; It's not good news for freedom," he said.

"However, I think the system as a whole is changing into the hands of citizens who are actually sincere and committed to their message, so I think justice will prevail in the end."

Another activist, Laura Stuart, said there has been a lack of support from the British government in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident.

"'Israel does what they want' - That's literally what they said. So in other words [London] couldn't really help us," she told MEE.

12-year blockade

The Mavi Marmara was attempting to break the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was imposed by Israel following the election and subsequent takeover of the coastal Palestinian territory by Hamas.

Thousands of Palestinians have been killed during Israeli military operations in the territory since that time, including a 2014 war in Gaza that killed at least 2,200 people, mostly civilians.

A number of flotillas have attempted to break the blockade by sea since 2010. However, the Israeli navy has routinely blocked such efforts, including last month, when it intercepted a vessel off the Gazan coast.

Mavi Marmara activists held a news conference in London Wednesday (Alex MacDonald/MEE)
Mavi Marmara activists held a news conference in London Wednesday (Alex MacDonald/MEE)

At Wednesday's news conference, Stuart said the Israeli authorities took all the activists' belongings when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, including hours of video and photographic evidence detailing events on board the ship.

Those items have yet to be returned, she said.

Stuart said the activists were invited to the UK Foreign Office for a meeting following the incident.

Still, aside from some activists having lost their passports, she said it "didn't feel that they were interested at all in our story or what had happened to us, or how they might hold the Israelis to account for their actions".

Stuart, who said she has since been banned from both Egypt and Israel as a result of her campaigning, said all she was told by Alistair Burt, UK minister of state for the Middle East, was that the UK's travel advice stated it was "very dangerous" to travel to Gaza.

"I did say to him [that] the lack of action by the British government in holding Israel to account and holding them to international laws means that civilians like us will always continue to take what actions we can," she said.

Turkey-Israel agreement

Turkey broke off diplomatic ties with Israel in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara killings.

In 2015, those relations were restored after Israel promised to compensate the victims to the tune of $20m and allow Turkey to advance projects in the Gaza Strip.

The move was condemned by IHH at the time as "unacceptable".

On Wednesday, Phillips said the Israeli Law Centre's submission to the ICC made reference to an "understanding" between Turkey and Israel reached in 2013.

She said that agreement, which has not been publicly disclosed, was not binding on the activists.

"If an understanding between the two states exists, we hereby declare that that understanding also has no binding effect on us in any way whatsoever," she said.

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