June 29, 2010 / 1:29 AM / 9 years ago

Israeli inquiry into Gaza flotilla raid opens

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s prime minister and defense chief will be called to testify in an investigation into a deadly raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, the leader of an Israeli commission of inquiry said in an opening statement Monday.

One of six ships bound for Gaza is seen in the Mediterranean Sea, May 31, 2010. REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool

An international observer on the commission said everyone involved was determined the inquiry would be rigorous.

Turkey, angered by the killing by Israeli commandos of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists in a melee aboard a Gaza blockade-running vessel intercepted on May 31, has said the Israeli probe would be biased.

Rejecting U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s proposal for an international inquiry, Israel’s cabinet set up the panel, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel.

The panel includes two other Israelis — an international law expert and a former general — and two non-voting foreign observers: David Trimble, a Northern Ireland politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Canadian jurist Ken Watkin.

“The commission has decided to summon soon the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff, along with other senior officials, as it deems fit,” Turkel said in opening remarks before the session was closed to the media.

Trimble said everyone on the panel was “determined the inquiry be rigorous and hope that it can, thereby, make a positive contribution to peace.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he would be prepared to testify, along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s armed forces chief.

Turkel said the panel’s mandate calls for an examination of whether Israel’s naval blockade and the flotilla’s interception conformed with international law and also investigate the actions taken by the convoy’s organizers and participants.

U.S. CHIEF BACKS ISRAEL

Israel has said the blockade was necessary to prevent arms from Iran reaching Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers. Following world outcry, it eased the land blockade on June 20, saying all goods except weapons and material that could be used to make them would be admitted to the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians.

The United States has welcomed the new policy.

The top U.S. military officer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, held talks about Israel’s naval measures during a one-day visit to Tel Aviv Sunday.

“They (Israel) have opened up Gaza for humanitarian aid but they cannot allow in weapons, and we totally agree,” a U.S. diplomat told Reuters.

Mullen and his Israeli hosts “discussed ways to communicate a strategic message to the world, that Israel is not making this stuff up, that aid flotillas can end up becoming weapons flotillas,” the diplomat said.

Israel is bracing for new Gaza-bound flotillas. Lebanon has said it would allow a ship called the Julia to sail to Gaza, via Cyprus, despite warnings by Israel that it would intercept the ship.

Iran’s Red Crescent Society Monday canceled a plan to send a shipload of aid to Gaza, saying Egyptian authorities had denied it access to pass through the Suez Canal. The Society said it was looking at other ways of getting aid to Gaza.

Although Netanyahu will face questioning by the commission, its narrow mandate meant that its findings, which Israel has said would be made public, were unlikely to pose a threat to his governing coalition.

Israeli leaders have said their troops, on boarding the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara ship, opened fire in self-defense after being set upon by activists wielding cudgels and knives.

Turkey, once Israel’s close strategic ally, called the bloodshed Israeli “state terrorism,” withdrew its ambassador from Israel and canceled joint military exercises.

Public opinion polls in Israel have shown wide support for the operation, amid questions over whether military planners had underestimated the type of resistance the commandos could face.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Joseph Nasr; editing by Matthew Jones

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