Four Israeli soldiers arrested for flotilla theft 19Aug10 August 20, 2010

Palestine Note -  19 August 2010

Investigators have arrested four Israeli soldiers, including one officer, suspected of stealing property from the confiscated May 31 flotilla ships, adding further scandal to a crisis that has already worsened Israel’s international image, Ynet reported Thursday.

“This matter is very problematic in terms of values, as the incident allegedly took place after it was clear that the flotilla was a serious international affair,” a military source told Ynet. “An officer who under such circumstances steals equipment which does not belong to him, and then tries to sell it – it’s almost incomprehensible.”

The arrested officer is suspected of having stolen between four and six laptops from the ships while they were docked in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Police say the officer then sold them to another Israeli soldier, who in turn sold them to two others. All three have been detained and admitted during questioning that the officer had told them they were from the flotilla. Police have confiscated the laptops, which are reportedly brand new and not meant for sale in Israel.

Police added that more soldiers are set to be arrested but gave no further details.

Attorneys for the detained soldiers have emphasized their innocence in the matter, saying they had no idea they were stolen when they bought them. “[T]he soldier bought a computer from a childhood friend. He had no idea that it was stolen property, especially not from the flotilla,” said Shlomi Rechavi, who is representing one of the soldiers who bought the laptops.

“Only later he found out from a friend that it was stolen equipment. He cooperated with the investigators, admitted to his mistake and expressed regret. I have no doubt that after the officer’s arrest, my client will be released from detention.”

Israeli military and police are still investigating whether the laptops did actually come from the flotilla ships. An army spokesperson said Wednesday that they were still “not at all certain the equipment was taken from the flotilla”.

Investigators have said they received no complaints of stolen laptops from flotilla participants.

‘Weeds which must be uprooted’

In June, activists who were onboard told British daily The Guardian their credit cards had been stolen and later used by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers reportedly used the credit cards to buy various electronics. Activists also accused soldiers of using confiscated cell phones for calls.

The Israeli military responded to those claims at the time, saying all confiscated property had been returned, but that audio and video materials had been seized for security reasons.

The laptop scandal has brought embarrassment to a controversy that has already brought global condemnation, and Israeli authorities have been quick to malign the theft.

“If the suspicions prove to be true, there must be a serious problem in the [Israeli army] in terms of values,” a senior army official told Ynet. “In such a case, we will not be able to say that these are just weeds.” The officer’s remarks were seemingly in response to former Defense Minister Amir Peretz comments that the soldiers are “weeds which must be uprooted.”

The ignominy has also reached the halls of the Knesset. “This is an embarrassing, humiliating and infuriating act,” said MK Eitan Cabel (Labor). “The IDF must handle this affair according to the strict letter of the law.”

Palestinian MK Hanin Zoabi, who took part in the flotilla, also spoke out about the theft. “People who come to kill have no problem stealing,” she said, via Ynet reports. “I’m not surprised at all.” Zoabi added that she had sent letters to several Israeli ministers demanding they investigate allegations of theft onboard. She said none had responded.

“[T]he state cultivates a culture of criminality. If such culture grants legitimacy to killing people, is it any wonder that belongings are being stolen from passengers?” Zoabi continued. “We’ve heard about incidents that took place in the West Bank; dozens of incidents involving Palestinians who were robbed and whose homes and businesses were looted. So I’m asking: Is this the society that claims that its army is the most moral in the world?”

Zoabi has been censured by her fellow MKs for her participation in the flotilla. The MK has also come under renewed criticism for recently released footage showing her in the same area, though not actually standing with, passengers carrying pipes.

The six ships, from which the laptops were allegedly stolen, were raided by Israeli commandos on May 31 as they were sailing to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza and deliver aid supplies to the Strip. The raid broke out in violence between soldiers and passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara, killing nine Turkish passengers and injuring several Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army says soldiers only opened fire after being attacked by passengers carrying knives and pipes, but many onboard say the soldiers fired the first shots.

Several commissions have been set up to investigate the legal and military facts of the raid, including one by the Israeli military, one spearheaded by Turkey, a UN-backed probe, and Israel’s internal Turkel commission. Only the military probe has produced results, saying though upper levels of communication were uncoordinated, the use of lethal force was justified.

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