Israel grants wider powers to Gaza flotilla inquiry
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's cabinet granted wider powers on Sunday to a commission investigating a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, enabling the panel to compel witnesses to appear and testify under oath.
But the decision did not constitute a broadening of the inquiry's mandate to include an examination of Israeli political leaders' decision-making in ordering the May 31 interception in which nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists were killed.
A government statement said the cabinet granted the five-man panel led by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel subpoena powers and that witnesses would be sworn in, effectively exposing them to perjury charges for any false testimony.
Turkel had asked the government for those specific powers and has said he would summon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel's military chief, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi to appear.
Netanyahu has said he, Barak and Ashkenazi would testify. Other military personnel are not due to appear before the panel but will be questioned in a separate military investigation.
Amid an international outcry over the raid, Israel had rejected a proposal by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an international inquiry, but appointed two foreign observers -- David Trimble, a Northern Ireland politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Canadian jurist Ken Watkin -- to the panel.
Turkel has said the commission's mandate calls for an examination of whether Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the flotilla's interception conformed with international law.
It also will investigate the actions of the convoy's organizers and participants.
Due to the limited scope of the inquiry, it is seen as unlikely to pose any political threat to Netanyahu's government.
The flotilla incident has soured Israel's strategic ties with Turkey, an important Islamic ally, which recalled its ambassador and canceled joint military exercises.
Israel has said its commandos were enforcing a blockade necessary to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip and that they opened fire when activists with knives and clubs assaulted a boarding party.
In response to Western criticism, including from its biggest ally, the United States, Israel has since eased a land blockade of Gaza where 1.5 million Palestinians live, allowing most civilian goods through, while continuing to enforce the naval embargo of the coastal territory.