Israel approves raid inquiry


Israel's cabinet has approved the establishment of an Israeli inquiry into its raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in which nine people were killed.

The decision coincided with growing signs that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was poised, under world pressure, to ease the flow of goods into the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians and run by Hamas.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair said he hoped Israel would begin softening the blockade within days.

The commission will examine "the security circumstances surrounding the imposition of the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip," as well as "the conformity of the naval blockade with the rules of international law" and how Israel's actions during the raid conform to that law, a statement from Mr Netanyahu's office said.

"The cabinet's decision this morning to establish a special, independent public commission will make it clear to the entire world that Israel acts according to law, transparently, and with full responsibility," Mr Netanyahu said.

The panel will be headed by former Israeli supreme court judge Jacob Turkel. Nobel Peace Prize winner and former UUP leader David Trimble, and Ken Watkin, former judge advocate general of Canada's armed forces, will serve as foreign observers. Mr Trimble and Mr Watkin won't have the right to vote.

Demands for an international inquiry began after Israel's May 31 raid in international waters on six ships that were attempting to breach its three-year blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called for an international investigation and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the raid "barbaric".

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said that the Israeli enquiry into a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla "doesn't correspond to the demands" of a UN security council resolution. Speaking in Paris after a meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Abbas also said Israel's blockade on Gaza "must be lifted."

Turkey's foreign minister said the inquiry said was insufficient and may lead to a re-examination of relations. "We have no belief whatsoever that Israel can conduct an impartial inquiry," Ahmet Davutoglu said. If there's no international inquiry then "there are a set of unilateral steps that Turkey can take. We may decide to review our relations with Israel entirely."

Israel last year refused to participate in a United Nations investigation of the 2008 Gaza war, an inquiry its leaders rejected as one-sided, and Mr Netanyahu turned down a proposal for a UN-led inquiry into the ship incident.

The White House and Downing Street welcomed today’s announcement as "an important step forward."

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated the administration's support for "a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation."

British foreign secretary William Hague, speaking in Luxembourg, stressed the need for "a truly independent inquiry and a thorough investigation that the international community can respect."

The commission will also investigate "the actions taken by the organisers of the flotilla and its participants, as well as their identity." Israel has alleged that some members of the flotilla had links to radical Islamic terror groups.

The panel will have the authority to request information from any Israeli government official, including Mr Netanyahu and "including through testimony before the commission," the statement said.

Soldiers will not testify before the committee, the prime minister said today. The army said June 8th that it had appointed Major-General Giora Eiland to lead a separate military investigation of the raid.

Israel said it issued numerous warnings to the Gaza-bound flotilla to change course for the port of Ashdod and unload there. It says that soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs and seven were wounded, including by gunfire, after people aboard one of the ships managed to grab Israeli firearms.

Activists have said they threw the firearms into the sea and that the Israelis instigated the violence.

Israel has imposed restrictions on Gaza since Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group and seized full control of the territory in 2007. Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and Israel.

Palestinians, backed by the UN and human-rights groups, say the restrictions on food imports and construction materials have created a humanitarian crisis. Israel denies that such a crisis exists, saying it restricts imports of building materials to Gaza because they can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs. Officials said they also were concerned about weapons being hidden in food packaging.

Israel says its raid on the flotilla was in line with international law because it acted to enforce a legal blockade that prevents the Hamas-controlled enclave "from becoming a giant arsenal."

Yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the blockade violated the Geneva Conventions and called for it to be lifted. "The whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility," it said.