Liberty veterans fight for justice

US navy survivors seek a new inquiry 40 years after Israel attacked their ship.

    Ernest Gallo survived the Liberty attack and has 
    called for a new inquiry [Picture: Ernest Gallo]

    On the morning of June 8, Israeli reconnaissance planes flew over the Liberty on a dozen occasions, flying so close to the boat that the sailors could wave to the pilots of the planes, who in turn waved back.

     

    Ernest Gallo, vice-president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association and chairman of the Liberty Foundation, was a petty officer on the vessel.

     

    "We were sailing off the coast of Egypt, near Port Said in international waters," he says.

     

    "We were more than 13 miles off shore and our mission was to provide naval intelligence on what was happening in the war."

     

    Unexpected attack

     

    Shortly after that, in the early afternoon three Israeli jets started strafing the ship with rockets and 20mm cannon.

     

    "We felt very assured that the Israelis knew [the Liberty was] there and that they would help us if we got in a jam… [but] from the get-go, it was a turkey shoot"

    Ernest Gallo, vice-president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association and chairman of the Liberty Foundation

    "They dropped napalm bombs. That continued for a while. Then three motor torpedo boats arrived at the scene," he recalls.

     

    At least two torpedoes were launched toward the Liberty. One of the missiles tore a hole in the side of the boat, behind which a team of researchers normally worked.

     

    Twenty-five were killed by the torpedo strike, in addition to those killed by Israeli machine-gun fire.

     

    Gallo says no communication was received from the Israeli torpedo boats and no order was given to surrender.

     

    "We felt very assured that the Israelis knew we were there and that they would help us if we got in a jam… [but] from the get-go, it was a turkey shoot."

     

    Inquiry conclusions

     

    A US navy court of inquiry after the incident concluded after 10 days of hearings that the attack was accidental and was due to mis-identification of the ship.

     

    The sustained Israeli attack tore holes
    in USS Liberty [Picture: Ernest Gallo]

    Three separate Israeli investigations also drew similar conclusions, saying the ship had been mistaken for El Quseir, an Egyptian enemy ship.

     

    The issue of culpability is what the veterans feel the US navy court of inquiry failed to address, yet the chances of courts martial against Israeli officers over the attack remain extremely slim.

     

    "The anatomy of the Liberty incident is very complicated," says Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem who has written about the USS Liberty attack.

     

    "It took a lot of errors ... Most of those reconnaissance planes were not reconnoitering the sea – they were going over Sinai. It wasn't their job to report various ships."

     

    The Israeli investigations found that those most at fault were in charge of a war map at the Israeli naval headquarters in Haifa.

     

    Every two hours, this map or 'war board' - which is used to show the position of various ships – was to be swept clean and updated with new positions.

     

    When a new shift of officers took over responsibility for the war board at the naval headquarters, the Liberty was not added at the time of its update.

     

    The US ship was now invisible to Israel's naval commanders.

     

    "It was definitely a gross human error, there is no question about that," Oren says.

     

    Investigation appeal

     

    Most of the crew members were killed by
    a torpedo strike [Picture: Ernest Gallo]

     

    Gallo says the Liberty Veterans Association has not made any attempt to challenge Israel directly, but has focused on chipping away at the US government for a new public inquiry.

     

    "The US navy court of inquiry officers never talked to any of the sailors who were wounded," he says.

     

    "They had vital information – a lot of them were on deck or on the bridge.

     

    "They could have given additional, or more precise, evidence to the court."

     

    Petitioning of the US navy judge advocate general has failed to lead to a new investigation.

     

    US position

     

    For its part, the US navy news desk confirmed to Al Jazeera in a statement that the case was closed.

     

    "The government of Israel formally communicated its sincere expression of deep regret and subsequently paid US claims in full for the deaths, injuries and damages caused in the attack, thus closing the matter between the two governments," the statement said.

     

    "Why did [the US] send a warship – a spy ship – in the middle of someone else's war, without informing either side, to carry out a mission that was already outdated?"

    Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem who has written about the USS Liberty attack

    The Liberty survivors feel the apology is merely a convenient exercise to maintain US-Israeli relations and appease the American public.

     

    Most US and Israeli documents have been declassified but one series has not been made public – the documents that detail the mission of the Liberty that day.

     

    "If I were a survivor of the Liberty attack, or the son of someone who was killed on the Liberty, I would sue the US government," says Oren.

     

    "Why did they send a warship – a spy ship – in the middle of someone else's war, without informing either side, to carry out a mission that was already outdated?"

     

    The veterans insist they will continue their fight.

     

    "The bottom line is that no Israeli was court martialed, jailed, fined, or found in dereliction of duty," says Gallo.

     

    "We all feel that until our dying day, we are going to keep hammering at this until the truth is told."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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