Israeli inquiry clears soldiers over Gaza flotilla raid

Mon, Jan 24, 2011, 00:00

THE ISRAELI inquiry commission has defended the actions of Israeli troops during last year’s commando raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

Naval commandos killed nine Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara ship on May 31st when passengers resisted the takeover of the vessel.

The panel, comprised of four Israelis and two non-voting international observers – including former Northern Ireland first minister David Trimble – concluded both Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and the interception of the flotilla “were found to be legally pursuant to the rules of international law”.

The commission heard testimony from prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, defence minister Ehud Barak and army chief, Lieut Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, but not from commandos who took part.

The chairman of the commission, retired supreme court judge Jacob Turkel, read out a summary of the 300-page report yesterday at a news conference in Jerusalem.

The panel concluded that the soldiers acted in self-defence and in a professional manner when surprised with violent resistance from about 40 Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, the only one of the six vessels in the flotilla on which clashes occurred.

“This professionalism was evident in the fact that they continued to exchange their lethal weapons for the less lethal option and visa versa in order to give a response that was appropriate to the nature of the violence directed at them,” the commission said.

It concluded that the activists who fought the commandos, some using knives, metal bars and even guns, were “direct participants in hostilities”.

The panel did criticise Israel’s land blockade on Gaza, urging the government to find ways to target Gaza’s Hamas rulers without inflicting harm on the civilian population. There was also criticism over the lack of an intelligence warning that hostile activists who were prepared to use violence were with the flotilla.

Yesterday’s report was the first of two parts by the commission. The second, to be released in March, will deal with the government decision-making process ahead of the raid.

Mr Trimble, together with the other international observer, retired Canadian Brig Gen Ken Watkin, endorsed the panel’s findings. “We are glad the commission made ongoing efforts to hear both sides. We have no doubt the commission was independent,” Mr Trimble said.

Yesterday’s report was submitted to the United Nations panel that is inquiring into the incident, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer. The panel includes Israeli and Turkish representatives.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel stood behind the commandos. “The soldiers defended their country and themselves. This is not only their right, but their obligation as well.”

Mr Barak welcomed yesterday’s findings.“The report proves Israel is a law-abiding state which is able to examine itself, and respects international norms and rules.”

Turkey said it was “appalled and dismayed” at the findings. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara the Israeli report had “no value or credibility”. Hamas dismissed the report as “a desperate attempt to legitimise the crimes of occupation and improve Israel’s image by covering up their crimes”.