The Israeli government is seeking immunity for former Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak in a civil lawsuit filed last October by the parents of Furkan Doğan, an American teenager killed on May 31, 2010 by Israeli commandos who violently raided a six-boat flotilla in international waters. The flotilla carried over 700 civilians from nearly 40 countries who sought to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians suffering under the Israeli government’s illegal closure of the Gaza Strip and to break the blockade. The Israeli commandos killed 10 civilians, including 18-year old Doğan, while dozens more were injured. To date, there has been no meaningful accountability for the victims following the attack.
In a letter recently sent to the U.S. State Department, the Israeli government calls the case against Barak “part of an orchestrated and politically motivated effort to invoke and abuse the judicial processes of other nations, including of the United States, to achieve political ends antagonistic to the interests of the State of Israel,” and requests that the U.S. government file a “suggestion of immunity” on his behalf. Barak’s lawyers attached the letter as an exhibit in their motion seeking to dismiss the case.
Evidence of the brutal and criminal nature of the raid is substantial: a United Nations report found that Doğan was shot five times, including one shot to the face “at point blank range,” and the International Criminal Court found that war crimes were committed during the raid. (The prosecutor declined to move the case forward towards full investigation – a decision currently on appeal.) The Doğan case is not the only recent effort to seek accountability for these crimes. Earlier this year, four civilians who were injured on the U.S.-flagged ship Challenger I during the raid– and thus on what is considered U.S. territory – also filed civil suit against the government of Israel.
While to date the U.S. government has yet to express its position on the case against Barak, it has a dismal record of supporting impunity for Israeli officials, even when it concerns the serious injury or killing of American citizens. The U.S. government has previously supported immunity for Avi Dichter, the former director of Israel’s Internal Security Agency, in a war crimes case arising out of his approval to drop a one-ton bomb on a Gaza apartment building, killing 15 people – including eight children – and injuring over 150 others. The U.S. also supported the dismissal of a case against Caterpillar corporation. The case alleged the company aided and abetted war crimes by providing Israel specialized bulldozers that it knew were used in the demolition of houses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and that civilians had been killed and injured during these operations. It was brought by the parents of American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by a Caterpillar bulldozer while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza, and four Palestinian families who had members killed or injured during home demolition operations.
Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, the Center for Constitutional Rights has sought to find out what the U.S. knew about the flotilla attack, and what actions it took in the aftermath. This litigation has compelled the production of more than 15,000 pages, including documents demonstrating that despite the killing of an American citizen and the forceful boarding of U.S.-flagged ships by a foreign military, the United States declined to conduct an independent investigation into Furkan Doğan’s death and directly blocked efforts for accountability.
The illegal closure of the Gaza Strip continues to this day, forcing over 1.9 million people to live in what amounts to an open-air prison and in conditions that have quickly deteriorated since the 2014 Israeli military attacks that destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed over 1,500 Palestinian civilians.
Through the Doğan case and the Challenger I lawsuit, U.S. courts could be the place where the cycle of war crimes followed by impunity is stopped— or at least seriously challenged. That is, unless the U.S. steps in and asks for the cases to be dismissed. Let us hope that history will not repeat itself, and that the U.S. allows the cases to proceed to be decided on their merits.
UPDATE 5/31/16: The United States has indicated its "potential participation," including the possibility that the U.S. will file a "Suggestion of Immunity" in the civil action brought by U.S. teen Furkan Dogan's parents against Ehud Barak, and that any such filing will be submitted no later than June 10, 2016.