Four flotilla activists have filed a civil suit against Israel to seek compensatory damages for injuries sustained during a 2010 Israel raid on a boat carrying humanitarian aid for the besieged Gaza strip.
The attorneys of three American and one Belgian nationals said on Tuesday that US laws should be applied on board because the aid flotilla “Freedom Flotilla” was flying a US flag.
"We are arguing that this US-flagged vessel is the United States and therefore the injuries inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces on the ship were inflicted in the United States," Steven Schneebaum, US Counsel for the plaintiffs, said.
The activists state that the US flagged Gaza Freedom Flotilla vessel was not returned by Israel after it was attacked and seized in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea.
Israeli forces have also attacked other civilian ships of the Freedom Flotilla, including a Comoros flagged ship named Mavi Marmara which is owned by a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). The attack on Mavi Marmara had caused the death of 10 Turkish activists, including a 19-year-old dual Turkish-US citizen, Furkan Dogan.
Israel’s deadly raid on the passenger ship owned by IHH - along five other civilian vessels has caused international outrage. Israel refused to claim responsibility for the attacks yet agreed to pay compensation to victims aboard the Challenger I.
United Nations Human Rights Council committee said, after the attacks, that Israeli operation on Freedom Flotilla was “disproportionate” and the “unacceptable level of brutality” was condemned.
Israeli raids on aid vessels have been cases of several law suits in past five years.
In 2015, the family of the American-Turkish national, Furkan Dogan, filed a lawsuit against former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for war crimes.
Also, in the same year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) decided to hear the testimony of relatives and attorneys of the Mavi Marmara victims after Turkish attorneys appealed against the previous decision by the court’s prosecutor, not to pursue the case.
The latest lawsuit is the first Freedom Flotilla related case brought upon in the United States.
“States are generally immune from suit in United States courts. But that immunity is waived in a number of circumstances. When agents of foreign governments commit wrongful acts in the United States that cause personal injury, and egregious acts against US nationals anywhere in the world, they are not entitled to immunity," the lawyer Steven Schneebaum told Turkish Anadolu Agency.
He noted that both exceptions apply to the facts of Challenger I case because a US flagged ship falls under US jurisdiction.
The case is ground-breaking as it relies on an exception in American law that allows lawsuits to be brought against foreign states, in limited cases.
According to professor Ralph Steinhardt, a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, Israel's sovereignty does not allow it to attack American flagged civilian ships and attack those on it.
"The attack on Challenger I was a patent violation of international law, including the laws of war, human rights, and the law of the sea," according to the George Washington University international law professor.
A UK-based international lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Sir Geoffrey Nice, described the case against Israel as "a real test” for the rule of international law.
"This case alongside the others, the one in the International Criminal Court and the one in California would have the following very clear political outcome: If Israel has enjoyed special privileged status of impunity because of protection by the United State of America, then that impunity is on the way out," he said.
One of the plaintiffs, Huwaida Arraf, said she has been intimidated by Israeli and US authorities on several occasions since she began to seek redress for her grievances.
A dual US-Israeli national and human rights activist, Arraf said she was physically abused by Israeli soldiers who slammed her head against the deck of the ship and stood on it before they handcuffed and placed a hood over her head.
"In 2014, for example FBI came to my house while I was at work while my child and my parents were at home," she said, noting that there was no reason for FBI agents to go to her home. She believes her activism work was the reason behind the visit.
She added that she has to endure hours of interrogation by airport officials whenever she travels to Israel.
Another plaintiff, David Schermerhorn, said the group wants "Israeli authorities to be held accountable” for what they did.
"They should not get away with needless violence against unarmed civilians and with stealing humanitarian aid and our belongings," he said via conference call.
Schermerhorn claims he was injured when a stun grenade thrown at him exploded one foot from his head, causing permanent partial vision loss in his right eye.
Hakan Camuz of Stoke & White LLP based in London represents the passengers on the flotilla told Anadolu Agency that he hopes US courts will uphold the case.
He implied that it would be a political decision if the court failed to uphold the case.
“The plaintiffs, like all those on the flotilla, were trying to do the right thing by bringing to the world's attention the cruelty of the blockade and its dire humanitarian consequences for the ordinary people of Gaza," he said.
"They wanted to bring the residents of Gaza food, medical supplies, the necessities to survive, but were stopped with unjustified, brutal force, for which we now seek a just remedy,” he added.