A Turkish court on Tuesday began the trial in absentia of four former Israeli military commanders over the killing of nine people in the raid of Turkish aid ship the mavi Marmara as it tried to break the Gaza blockade in 2010.
Prosecutors are requesting life imprisonment for the officers who directed the raid, while the trial of four of Israel's most senior retired commanders has been dismissed by Israel as a politically motivated "show trial" and threatens to further strain already fraught relations.
The four accused, identified by an investigation of the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, are former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff Gen. Rau Aluf Gabi Ashkenazi, Naval Forces Commander Vice Adm. Eliezer Marom, Israel's military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin and Air Forces Intelligence head Brig. Gen. Avishai Levi.
The first hearing in the trial took place at an İstanbul court on Tuesday with the attendance of a large number of attorneys from both Turkey and abroad, plus journalists, family members of the victims and activists.
Ann Wright, a former colonel in the US army, who was present on one of the smaller ships of the flotilla, described how Israeli troops had boarded their vessel, firing paint bullets and tossing stun grenades. “After serving 29 years in the US Army, I retired in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq war,” she told the court. “One of the reasons I went on the flotilla is that I felt compelled to challenge Israeli policy to impose an illegal blockade on Palestine and the US policy to support Israel's illegal actions,” she said.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the İstanbul criminal court, which planned to hear testimony from passengers who were onboard the Gaza-bound ship at the time of the Israeli raid, as well as relatives of those who were killed.
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, objected, saying, “The so-called accused were not even informed or served or notified that they were going to be charged, which makes this one big puppet show.”
However, Ümmügülsüm Yazıcı, one of the protesters outside the court building, stated: “We want nothing more than for those who are responsible to be punished. We want them to be brought to account for the violation of the Palestinian people's rights.”
Alexandra Lort Phillips, a British activist onboard the flotilla, traveled to Turkey for the hearing. Phillips, who has studied international human rights law, stressed that she was not physically injured during the raid by Israeli forces, but also noted that she was treated like a criminal and that her hands were bound with cable ties. “I witnessed the severely injured and dying and the dead. All of my things were taken and not returned, including computer, phones, camera, GPS, notes and personal paperwork,” she stated.
Asked if she has ever regretted taking part in the Mavi Marmara's aid mission, Phillips responded: “I have not regretted joining the Freedom Flotilla. However, I believe the loss of life was not the fault of the organizers. We took MPs and important people and members of the media; all of the cargo and people were security checked, and the mission was very open and clear in its intentions. … The vessels were covered with cameras to witness the voyage. I don't know what else the Freedom Flotilla could do to make sure it was clear it was a peaceful mission. After the attack, the passengers were trying to defend the ship and protect us from military aggression.”
Turkey disputes Israeli claims that its soldiers acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists when they boarded the ship. The commando operation sparked worldwide condemnation and led to an easing of Israel's blockade on the coastal territory.
The case symbolizes the rupture between Turkey and Israel, former allies whose diplomatic ties are effectively frozen. Israel has rebuffed Turkish demands for an apology over the incident and compensation for the families of those killed, which have been stated as preconditions for the normalization of ties.