PM Netanyahu: Our soldiers faced a very real danger to their lives from brutal attacks, and acted in self-defense. We made tremendous efforts to prevent injuries, but the IDF soldiers have the right to defend themselves.

 PM Netanyahu's statement before the Turkel Commission


PM Netanyahu prior to his testimony to the Turkel Commission (Photo: Reuters)

(Communicated by the Prime Minister’s Media Adviser)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement today (Monday, 9 August 2010) before the Turkel Commission:

"Members of the Commission, 

I am the first person to appear before this distinguished commission. Many others will appear after me, and I am sure that you will uncover all the facts and bring the truth to light.

I am convinced that at the end of your investigation, it will be clear that the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces conducted themselves in accordance with international law and that the IDF fighters who boarded the Marmara displayed a rare courage in fulfilling their mission and in defending themselves against a real threat to their lives. I have full confidence in our soldiers, and the State of Israel is proud of them.

The appearance of Israel’s Prime Minister before this committee today is the best evidence of the high standards by which Israel’s democracy functions.

In the Middle East, democracy remains an endangered species. Unfortunately, in this region, governments shoot their political opponents in broad daylight, brutally repress women and stone them to death, and systematically deny their minorities and entire populations the most basic human rights. 

In these countries, there is no free press to expose such crimes, no genuine parliaments to hold hearings, no independent courts to give the accused a fair trial, and no local human rights organizations to file reports. There is only tyranny and terror.

Israel has always been different – very different. Israel is a liberal, democratic country governed by the rule of law, with independent courts, a bona fide parliament, and a free press.

Israel is an example of a democratic nation subject to unprecedented threats of war and terrorism that simultaneously defends the security of its people and protects its democratic values. Democratic nations that in recent years have had to address the challenge of maintaining their values in the face of increasing terrorism can learn much from Israel, a democracy that has been successfully meeting this challenge for 62 years.

One of the reasons why we are so successful at meeting this challenge is that we constantly examine our own actions. My testimony here today, as well as the upcoming appearances of the political and military leadership of Israel before this committee, is the best answer to those who raise questions about the readiness and willingness of Israel to examine itself. No country or army examines itself more thoroughly than Israel and the IDF.

To those who would point an accusatory finger at Israel, I ask: How many countries would be willing to establish a truly independent commission such as this one? How many countries would invite foreign observers to participate in such a commission? How many Prime Ministers and Presidents would appear before such a commission?

To those who argue that Israel does not investigate itself according to accepted international standards, I say: It would be good if many countries around the world were investigating themselves according to the high standards set by Israel.

Gentlemen, in order to answer the Commission’s questions, I would first like to clarify our policies concerning the Hamas regime in Gaza, on which we based our actions regarding the flotilla.

Hamas is a terrorist organization that calls for and works toward the destruction of Israel. The Hamas charter calls for the annihilation of the Jewish people.

Over the past decade, Hamas has received increasing assistance from Iran, which also calls to wipe Israel off the map. Iran has equipped Hamas with thousands of rockets, missiles, and other weapons. Hamas has transformed the Gaza Strip into a terrorist enclave sponsored by Iran, which I referred to in January 2006 as "Hamastan". In addition, Iran provides Hamas with intelligence assistance, military training, political support and significant funding.

Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 through military force. It expelled the Palestinian Authority and denied it any effective presence there. Since that time, Hamas has increasingly fortified its hold on the Gaza Strip and has turned it into a huge weapons depot and a base from which to attack Israel.

From the Gaza Strip, Hamas fired thousands of rockets, missiles and mortars that harmed Israel’s towns and citizens. At first, the fire rained down on Sderot and the communities abutting Gaza. Later on, Ashkelon, Beer-Sheva and Ashdod were also attacked. Today, Hamas has stockpiled weapons that can reach Tel Aviv and other distant areas inside of Israel.

Despite a significant decrease in the number of rocket and missile attacks over the past 18 months, the firing has not stopped. Just a few days ago, without any provocation, Hamas permitted the firing of a Grad missile at residential areas of Ashkelon and covertly dispatched a terror cell from Gaza into the Sinai that fired missiles at Eilat and Aqaba.

Much of the time, the firing at Israel emanates from populated areas in Gaza – from homes and schools, from sites adjacent to hospitals, mosques, UN facilities, etc.

In 2006, Hamas kidnapped our soldier Gilad Shalit, and for the past four years has held him in a cruel captivity, complete isolated, without even a single visit by the Red Cross, in blatant violation of international law and the most basic human values.

As the President of the Supreme Court, Justice Dorit Beinish, said: "The Gaza Strip is controlled by a murderous terrorist organization which acts tirelessly to harm the State of Israel and its residents and which, through its violent actions directed indiscriminately at citizens – men, women and children – violates every possible rule of international law."

Since this Commission is dealing with the question of international law, I would like to point out that Hamas is guilty of at least four war crimes: inciting to genocide; systematically and intentionally firing on civilians; using civilians as human shields; and preventing visits by the Red Cross to kidnapped IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit.

These are not merely past crimes. They are being committed today as well, and I hope this Commission will deem it appropriate to emphasize these points in its report. I ask this only because other commissions, which claimed that the question of human rights and international law were so dear to their hearts, for some reason almost entirely ignored these central issues. I am convinced that a credible investigation like yours – independent, transparent, impartial and responsible – will certainly not ignore them.

As the Prime Minister of Israel, responsible for the security of the state and its citizens, I certainly cannot ignore the true character of Hamas and the threat it presents Israel.

When I began my tenure as Prime Minister, I determined Israel’s policy with regard to this threat according to the following principles:

  1. Acting to secure the release of Gilad Shalit
  2. Immediately responding to firing on Israel from the Gaza Strip
  3. Acting to prevent the entry of weapons and war materiel into Gaza
  4. Preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Let me begin with Gilad Shalit.

This is a subject which touches the hearts of all the people of Israel. When I began serving as Prime Minister, I appointed Hagai Hadas to head the efforts to secure Gilad’s release and I welcomed the appointment of a German mediator with proven experience.

Within six months, we made a deal in which received a video that showed Gilad talking and functioning both physically and cognitively. I attribute great importance to this tape because the entire world now knows that Hamas is holding Gilad and is responsible for his welfare. Three months later, I agreed to the mediator’s proposed deal in which 450 Hamas prisoners would be released, along with an additional 550 Palestinian prisoners, in exchange for Gilad’s release. At the same time, I insisted on security demands that would prevent dangerous prisoners who would be released from harming Israeli citizens again. 

Eight months after we agreed to accept the mediator’s proposal, we are still waiting for Hamas’s answer. At the same time, we are working on various other ways to secure Gilad’s release.

Regarding our policy of responding to missile attacks: It has always been my belief that a policy of not responding to attacks would soon turn a trickle of missiles into a rain, and that the rain would eventually become a storm. That is why I instituted a policy in which the IDF would respond to each missile strike on our territory and, as much as possible, close to the time of attack.

Regarding preventing the entry of weapons: We continued the previous government’s policy of preventing the entry of weapons and war materiel into the Gaza Strip. Our efforts include intelligence and operational activities, as well as extensive diplomatic activities vis-à-vis many countries, the most important of which is Egypt.

I attribute great importance to strengthening Israel’s ties with Egypt, first and foremost to strengthen the forces of peace and stability in our region and also to increase the efforts to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Sinai into the Gaza Strip. I raised this subject in each of my five meetings with President Mubarak over the past 18 months. I would like to note that during the past year, Egypt has increased its efforts to prevent the entry of weapons into territory controlled by Hamas.

As part of the effort to prevent the entry of weapons into the Gaza Strip, my government has continued the naval blockade that was imposed by the previous government during "Operation Cast Lead" in January of 2009 as well as continuing the limitations and oversight on the movement of goods at land crossings that was put in place in September 2007. I will have more to say on this point later.

The fourth principle of our policy was to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

When I began serving as Prime Minister, I quickly understood that many of our friends around the world were repeating the Hamas claim that the limitations imposed in 2007 and the naval blockage imposed in January of 2009 had created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

However, the information we obtained clearly proved that this claim was baseless. There was no hunger in Gaza and there was no lack of medicines or other essential items.

Though the territory in question is controlled by a hostile terrorist force that calls for our destruction, Israel did not stop supplying electricity, water or fuel to Gaza, and we enabled the entry of food, medicine and other basic goods. We also continued to accept patients from Gaza in our hospitals in both life-threatening cases or to treat unique medical problems. On average, 1,500 patients and accompanying family members come into Israel each month.

There is nothing that more clearly proves the absurdity of the claim that Israel is acting inhumanely toward Gaza. If only Hamas’s terrorist regime would act towards Israel’s population and our kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, with a fraction of the humane sentiment Israel has shown towards the population of Gaza and towards the prisoners of Hamas.

For both my government and the previous government, preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza was both an obligation and a desire. While we did prevent a humanitarian crisis, we did not succeed in preventing the image of a humanitarian crisis – an image that was entirely false.

Even though there was not a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, I decided to gradually ease the limitations and the movement of goods through the land crossings.

I did so because gradually these limitations turned into a diplomatic and public relations burden. They were used in a mendacious propaganda campaign that began to undermine international support for our policy to prevent the entry of weapons into Gaza.

Accordingly, we expanded the list of food items in 2009 and we increased the number of trucks entering Gaza by approximately 30% over the five months preceding the flotilla incident.

However, our decision to ease limitations on the entry of civilian goods had little impact on the international discourse. Despite these steps and the photographs of the marketplaces of Gaza filled with goods which we distributed to the world, the perception in the international community that there was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza increasingly took root.

Forces hostile to Israel used the baseless allegation of a humanitarian crisis to try and break the naval blockade. This was and remains the primary motivation of Hamas in its efforts to encourage the various flotillas. From time to time, these things are even said explicitly, as a spokeswoman for the flotilla said on May 27, 2010: "Our mission is not to provide humanitarian aid, but rather to break the blockade."

It is worth mentioning that it was Israel, through the UN, and not the flotilla organizers, that sought to ensure that the goods aboard the flotillas were ultimately transferred to Gaza.

At the meeting of senior ministers called "the Seven" that was held before the flotilla arrived on May 26, 2010 – I presume you will read the protocol of that meeting – I stressed the need to clarify Israel’s policy in light of the attempts to undermine the security blockade through the false claim of a humanitarian crisis.

The discussion in "the Seven" was a continuation of a discussion held that same morning by the same forum regarding our general policy towards the Hamas regime in Gaza, during which I determined the need "to examine the blockade policy and its security and diplomatic ramifications."

In the discussion held by "the Seven", I said that the principle that should guide us is "the prevention of weapons smuggling." I also said that this was the only explanation that will be understood by the international community and that the right policy would be one in which Israel would "screen and inspect" goods to prevent the entry of weapons into the Gaza Strip.

After the flotilla, we continued this discussion and made the decision in the Cabinet – the direction of which was already clear in the discussion of "the Seven" – to complete the removal of the limitations on civilian goods and leave the security blockade in force.

Obviously, the flotilla incident and the international discourse that followed accelerated this decision. However, as you can see from the discussions held by "the Seven", the direction of the decision was already clear beforehand.

Our policy, therefore, is intended to maintain the naval blockade which supports the security blockade.

I would like to explain how dangerous an open sea lane to Gaza is for the security of the State of Israel. On one ship, the Karine A, Iran tried to send dozens of tons of weapons to Gaza. On another ship, the Francop, Iran tried to send Hizbullah hundreds of tons of weapons, approximately two-thirds of the total ammunition fired at Israel during the Second Lebanon War.

Due to all these security considerations, my government continued to enforce the naval blockade imposed by the previous government. We did so for the flotilla in question, as well as with the two ships that followed – the Irish ship and the Libyan ship.

Before this flotilla, the IDF prepared to enforce the blockade, as it had during previous flotillas.

Given the number of ships, their size, the number of passengers on board and their stated intentions, we saw the need to make a special diplomatic effort to try and prevent the flotilla’s arrival to the shores of Gaza – or at the very least to convince its organizers to dock at Ashdod or El-Arish and from there to direct the goods through land crossings after the appropriate security checks.

During the month of May, a continual diplomatic effort to this end was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs vis-a-vis many countries, including countries whose citizens were onboard or whose harbors could be used by the flotilla at any stage of its voyage – including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Britain, the United Nations, and above all with Turkey. The Minister of Defense even participated in these efforts.

Given the importance I attributed to Turkey’s central role in this flotilla, my office worked directly to assist in the diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Turkey.

Beginning on May 14, my office was in contact with the highest echelons of the Turkish government. These contacts, and later on the contacts of our Minister of Defense with the Turkish Foreign Minister whom he has known for many years, were intended to prevent any conflict with the Marmara flotilla. They continued up until the eve of the flotilla’s arrival off the coast of Gaza. I too personally appealed to a senior official in the Egyptian government on May 27 so that he would intervene with the Turkish government.

However, as the date of the flotilla’s arrival neared, it became clear that diplomatic efforts would not stop it.

In contrast, diplomatic efforts did assist in preventing violent confrontations with the two ships that came after this flotilla – because the Irish government and parties in Libya acted responsibly and helped prevent a confrontation and also because the organizers of those flotillas did not have any intention of confronting our forces – unlike the organizers of the flotilla in question, or more precisely, unlike the IHH activists on the flagship, the Mavi Marmara.

In fact, even in that flotilla, the passengers on the other five ships did not want a violent confrontation, and therefore there was no such confrontation. That was not the case on the Marmara.

Despite our ongoing diplomatic efforts, ultimately the Turkish government did not prevent the Marmara’s attempt to break the naval blockade. All our suggestions to re-route the ship’s cargo to undergo a security inspection in Ashdod and then be transferred to Gaza through the land crossings were in vain. We also did not hear a public message from the Turkish government to cool the heated tempers of the activists onboard.

Apparently the Turkish government did not see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests, and certainly not something that justified exerting effective pressure of the IHH activists.

I must point out that on the 17th of that month, the Turkish prime minister met with Iranian president Ahmadinejad and with the Brazilian president to make a joint statement regarding an Iranian nuclear that was opposed by the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Turkey thereby strengthened its identification and cooperation with Iran just days before the flotilla.

Regarding the IHH activists, not only did they not prevent a confrontation, they announced their intention to seek one – they announced that they wanted to break the blockade and that "the Jews need to go back Auschwitz."

Given the lack of effective pressure by the Turkish government and the lack of any desire on the part of the flotilla organizers to redirect their ships to alternative ports, none of the diplomatic efforts were effective:

  • We tried to prevent the launch of the flotilla at the diplomatic and security levels. We did not succeed.
  • We suggested transferring the goods through the Ashdod and El-Arish ports. We did not succeed.
  • We held continuous contacts vis-à-vis and with the most senior levels of the Turkish government. We did not succeed.

During the closed forum, I will expand on my statement and explain why none of our diplomatic efforts would have prevented the Marmara’s desire to try to break the blockade.

When it became clear several days before the flotilla’s arrival that this was the situation, I decided to convene "the Seven" in order to prepare for the event in a coordinated manner in terms of the media, public relations and diplomacy. Since this would be a media event surrounding a military operation, in addition to the Ministers, I invited the Chief of General Staff, representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and members of the National Information Directorate to the discussion.

I asked to receive an update regarding recent diplomatic and communication efforts, and to hear additional ideas as to how to minimize the public relations and diplomatic costs of a confrontation that already seemed inevitable.

At the end of the meeting, I authorized diplomatic and communication assignments as I was about to leave for a very important meeting with the President of the United States.

I asked that the confrontation be minimized as much as possible and that "a supreme effort be made to avoid harming anyone." I know that the Minister of Defense and Chief of General Staff gave the same order.

I also authorized a number of actions in order to reduce the damage to Israel’s public diplomacy efforts.

I would like to call your attention to one of those directives: embedding foreign reporters with IDF forces so that they could record and film the unfolding events in order to prevent the dissemination of false reports.

I wanted to ensure that there would be complete coverage of what would happen when our soldiers boarded the ships because I was afraid that, once again, there would be an attempt to try to slander IDF soldiers as part of the ongoing propaganda war against Israel.

Unfortunately, slandering the IDF and the State of Israel happens time after time. It happened during "Operation Defensive Shield" when a mass slaughter in Jenin was invented. It happened during the Second Lebanon War and during "Operation Cast Lead", when Israel was falsely accused of intentionally harming civilians.

It started to happen on the morning of May 31. Preliminary reports of the event published around the world claimed that our soldiers killed innocent peace activists.

It was only when videos were distributed several hours later that this lie began to be exposed. Imagine what would have happened if we did not have these videos.

Once they were published, fair-minded and honest people around the world began to understand that the Marmara was no love boat and that the IHH activists were not exactly innocent peace activists.

It was only then that many people understood that our soldiers faced a very real danger to their lives from brutal attacks with clubs, metal rods and knives and – as you have no doubt learned – from live weapons. IDF soldiers acted in self-defense. We made tremendous efforts to prevent injuries, but the IDF soldiers have the right to defend themselves.

I have no doubt that once the Commission uncovers all the facts and the whole truth comes to light, all the slanders related to the flotilla that have been directed at Israel and the IDF will dissipate."