Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is being sued in the US over his nation's deadly raid on six Turkish boats trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza in 2010, an event that still affects relations between Turkey and Israel.
The Turkish parents of 19-year-old Furkan Doğan, among nine killed in the raid, sued Barak in federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 16, claiming unlawful death and torture. Barak, Israel's defense minister at the time of the raid, was served with the papers on Tuesday after giving a speech near Los Angeles.
The Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles was unable to immediately provide a contact for Barak, who is still in the area.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, based in Jerusalem, said in a statement that the lawsuit "is yet another attempt to abuse otherwise legitimate legal tools for the cynical, political purpose of attacking the State of Israel."
"We are confident that the United States will not lend its hand to such abuse," said Nahshon, who does not speak for Barak.
On May 31, 2010, Israeli forces raided a Gaza-bound flotilla of mainly Turkish activists, killing eight Turks and Doğan aboard the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the six vessels in the flotilla. Doğan was a US citizen born in New York who lived in Turkey with his parents.
A United Nations panel found the raid was "excessive and unreasonable," but it also blamed Turkey. The panel said Israel's naval blockade of Gaza was legally imposed as a legitimate security measure to prevent weapons smuggling but added that the killing of the nine activists was unacceptable.
The deaths deteriorated once-close ties between Turkey and Israel, but the countries have been discussing reconciliation in recent months.
Attorneys for Doğan's parents said Wednesday that they have been pursuing Barak for years to serve him with litigation, coming closest in France in 2010. "It's been an ongoing process ever since this happened to get accountability," said Rodney Dixon, a London-based attorney in Los Angeles for the litigation. "It's a major breakthrough."
Dan Stormer, a Los Angeles attorney also working on the case, said Barak is a "war criminal who led a massacre" and that Doğan's family deserves justice.
Doğan's parents have an uphill battle with the litigation, said Douglass Cassel, who teaches international human rights law and international criminal law at the University of Notre Dame. "All down the line, the hurdles are daunting," said Cassel, especially because a 2013 Supreme Court ruling imposed limits on the ability of foreigners to use American courts to seek accountability and monetary damages for human rights abuses.
The case also could be thrown out for political reasons and Barak may qualify for immunity, Cassel said.
Interview: 'We Are Not Terrorists,' Gaza Activist Says
May 31, 2010
Greta Berlin, co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement, an organizer of the convoy, spoke with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service correspondent Anna Zamejc about the deadly event.
RFE/RL: What happened this morning?
Greta Berlin: We were attacked by Israeli militaries. We were flotilla, six civilian ships and about 4:30 this morning Israeli "commandos," if that's what you want to call them, rappelled down off a helicopter and landed at least on the deck of the Turkish [ship], not sure about the other one, looked around and started to shoot at us.
They have killed 10 people that we know of -- that's the number I'm going to stick with right now until I get further confirmation. Then they commandeered the ships and forced them to go in the Ashdod port. They were several members of parliament on board, including MPs from Sweden, Norway, and Germany. We were 70 miles off the coast of Israel, they attacked us. That is a crime; they committed a crime on international waters.
RFE/RL: The Israeli officials say there were weapons aboard the flotilla to be smuggled into the Gaza Strip, which was the reason Israeli commandos stormed the ship. Is that true?
Berlin: I suppose, if you consider the paper and wheelchairs and crutches weapons, then the Israelis might have a point. Look, everyone on those ships was inspected before we left. The only weapons that were on board belonged to the Israelis. They might have planted them -- after all they stormed us and they killed us.
All you have to do is to look at the statistics what actually happened. We have at least 10 people dead, they were civilians! They stormed our boats! We have manifest on every one of those boats that say what is on those boats. And it was 4:30 in the morning when everybody is sleeping.
I will venture to say that Israel is lying about this, because the weapons that I saw coming on board this morning belonged to Israel.
RFE/RL: So you claim Israel planted the weapons after they stormed the ship?
Berlin: If there were weapons, they planted those weapons.
RFE/RL: You said that so far 10 people have been confirmed dead. What nationalities were they?
Berlin: I don't know yet, we have heard nothing. We have heard nothing from the ships, they've jammed all our communication, they took all our cell phones away, we have not been able to communicate with anybody since 3:30 this morning, Cyprus time.
RFE/RL: They were also rumors that Muslim leader Raed Salah is among the casualties. But this is something you haven't confirmed yet, right?
Berlin: Yes, it's what I've heard but we haven't confirmed it. Nobody has any firm information about people who were killed and wounded.
RFE/RL: This was not the first time you went to Gaza with aid. How many times have you sent those ships to the Gaza Strip and why was the last convoy stormed by Israel?
Berlin: Since August 2009 the Free Gaza Movement has gone nine times to Gaza. The first five we entered Gaza, we took members of parliament on our yard and nothing was done to us. There were many, many threats. Israel has threatened us all along, the last thing they want is for the people of Gaza to be free and to be able to rebuild their society. We went in five times, the last three were brutally stopped and we only had one boat.
Israel is terrified that if we open up a sea route to Gaza, Gaza eventually will be free and will have its own might to do its own trade. Gaza is the only territory in the world that has no access to its sea. Every other territory that borders water or an ocean has the right to its territory except for Gaza. We were trying to say to the world: a million and half people who live in Gaza are in outdoor prison and Israel has no right to do it.
RFE/RL: What kind of supplies do you carry on the ships and what goods were onboard the last flotilla sent to Gaza?
Berlin: That's another reason Israel is terrified. Because the small amount of supplies we brought in on the yard was very small, they were just tokens. We're coming in with 10,000 tons of supplies Israel refuses to allow into Gaza. Israel only allows 81 items into Gaza. They won't allow any rebuilding supplies, they don't allow paper, they don't allow crayons for the children, they don't allow jam, they don't allow chocolate.
We didn't bring anything in on those ships except items that were already forbidden by Israel and were forbidden for the people of Gaza could not rebuild their infrastructure. We had cement, water-purification systems, prefab homes, 20 tons of paper -- Israel doesn't allow the people of Gaza to print their own books.
So there wasn't any way that Israel was going to take this easily because we have said to the world that Israel occupied Gaza and they are treating people as so they have the right to commit a slow-motion genocide on them and it hasn't gotten in and we will still continue to try to do that, then we will be successful opening a sea lane from Gaza to the rest of the world.
RFE/RL: When it comes to people on board the ships, do you have full control over who enters them? There were six ships in the flotilla; Israeli media claim that people related to terrorism were on board one of the ships. What's your response to that?
Berlin: I can only speak for the Free Gaza Movement, we are one of five partners. Every single one of our passengers has been vetted. They had to have two recommendations before they get on board and we know exactly who was on board. But frankly, as far as I'm concerned, the only terrorist we saw this morning was Israel.
RFE/RL: So can you acknowledge from your side, that there were no people on board you would know of who had any links to terrorism?
Berlin: I'm the wrong person to ask, you need to ask the Turks. Because the people Israel is accusing of being terrorists, were on the Turkish ship. We are responsible only for our own passengers.
No, I don't acknowledge any of that. The terrorists that came on board that boat last night were Israelis. They came armed to the teeth, they killed at least 10 of us, none of them were killed.
For all I know, there was one wounded in some kind of a scuffle. But they do this all the time, they kill a hundred Palestinians to every one Israeli.
Now they're killing 10 peaceful activists who were showing up in blue jeans. That is no excuse. If they thought there were any terrorists on board, they could have boarded the boat the way they did last summer, arrested the passengers, taken them off to jails. They did not need to have this kind of force.
RFE/RL: What kind of consequences will this morning's event have?
Berlin: I do think that Israel is becoming ostracized among the world community the way South Africa was. Between the Lebanon war, Operation Cast Lead last year, and now attacking civilians on board what I call "ships of mercy," I think it's probably high time for the governments of the world to tell Israel, "You can't do this anymore."
We're doing this because the governments have refused to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes. So when governments don't do that, then civil society has an obligation do that.
This is why the Free Gaza Movement has been, in fact for the last two years to begin with, is to tell the world that Israel has no right to practice collective punishment on a people that are occupied. And Israel in fact is occupying them because they don't get anything that doesn't go through Israel first.
So this is a real challenge for Israel, because we are challenging their status quo of being able to hold 1.5 million people in prison.