Victims of Israel’s fatal storming of Gaza Strip-bound aid ships have said they are concerned that “unprecedented external pressure” is being put on the International Criminal Court prosecutor.
Nine civilians were killed as Israeli commandos boarded the flotilla carrying more than 10,000 tonnes of aid, including building materials, in May 2010.
The deaths occurred on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara, with almost 700 activists from various countries, including Britain, seized in the Israeli operation in the Mediterranean.
After an investigation request was made to the International Criminal Court (ICC), in 2014 the prosecutor refused it on the grounds it would not be of “sufficient gravity” to justify further action.
But she did conclude there was a “reasonable basis” to believe war crimes under the ICC jurisdiction were committed on the Mavi Marmara when Israeli forces intercepted it. She made the same decision not to investigate in November 2017.
Following appeals, the ICC pre-trial chamber has recommended the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, reconsider her decision, with a final deadline of May 15.
Speaking at a press conference in London on behalf of victims, British citizen Alexandra Lort Phillips, who was on board the Mavi Marmara, said: “We are victims from 37 different nationalities who had a simple humanitarian mission and did not deserve to suffer the way we did.
“As victims of this horrific attack, we remain steadfast in our belief the ICC will push forward with an investigation into what we believe are appalling crimes handed out to decent humanitarians.”
But she said they are “profoundly concerned” that the ICC prosecutor is “facing unprecedented external pressure”.
She drew attention to an “intervention” last month by an Israeli non-governmental organisation (NGO), Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Centre, in the form of an official legal submission to the ICC.
Ms Phillips said the public document contains the “most extraordinary and unfounded accusations” and is a “clear attempt” to undermine the ICC’s impartial work.
She said it comes amid threats from Washington that if certain ICC cases go against US interests and those of its ally Israel, there will be severe repercussions for the court.
Another activist who was on board the Mavi Marmara, Paveen Yaqub, from Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, said the campaigners believe in what the ICC stands for, but “Israel has the power of impunity and has had for decades”.
“The ICC, one of the key tenets they stand for is to challenge impunity, and that’s what we believe they will do,” she said.
“My message to them is to not to succumb to the threats and to the pressure.”
The flotilla was organised by the Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish group called the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), after an Israel-imposed naval blockade off the coastline of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government has said previously said the IHH is linked to Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist movement, and has branded it a terrorist organisation.
The submission from the NGO says “hardcore IHH activisits were armed to the teeth”, with an image of a pile of knives, wooden poles and tools.
Osama Qashoo, a film-maker who was on the Mavi Marmara, said the knives were from the kitchen and used to prepare food.
UK national Laura Stuart said the Mavi Marmara was “completely surrounded by battleships”, with drones and helicopters also involved. She said the Israelis “sent a massive army to attack that boat”.
“The fact that people picked up a knife out of the kitchen, or a screwdriver, or whatever they picked up to defend themselves, is wholly understandable,” she added.
Ms Phillips said the NGO is trying to paint the activists as “radical with violent intent”, adding: “It is a false picture to paint of us as individuals and as a group.”
A UN Human Rights Council report in September 2010 found the intercepting of the Mavi Marmara was “clearly unlawful” and could not be justified.
Israel has previously said its troops were left with no choice after they came under attack from activists armed with knives and iron bars after they were dropped on to the ship by helicopter.
Ms Stuart said the group will get justice one way or another, even if the ICC does not push forward with an investigation.
“Even if we have to fundraise and take a case from here. We won’t stop, there’s always an avenue, there is always hope.”