Israeli inquiry into flotilla raid gets under way


THE ISRAELI commission of inquiry into last month’s naval attack on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla held its inaugural meeting in Jerusalem yesterday with the head of the panel declaring that prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, would be the first person to testify.

Committee chairman, retired supreme court justice Jacob Turkel, speaking at the opening of the investigation, said defence minister Ehud Barak and Israel defence forces chief of staff Lieut-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi would also be called to testify shortly before the five-member commission.

Former Northern Ireland first minister David Trimble, one of the two non-voting foreign observers on the panel, said the members “are determined that the inquiry be rigorous” and expressed the hope “that the investigation will make a good contribution to peace in the region”. Israel decided to set up its own investigation earlier this month in response to fierce international condemnation after nine Turkish activists were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos who boarded the biggest of the six-vessel flotilla, the Mavi Marmara.

Last week, Mr Barak asked United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon to shelve plans for an international investigation into the incident, urging him to give the Israeli inquiry a chance.

Mr Turkel said he hoped the commission could complete its work quickly and he confirmed that most sessions will be open to the public, except when classified security information is being discussed.

The inquiry was mandated to examine the security circumstances leading to the imposition of the Israeli maritime blockade on Gaza and the conformity of the blockade to the rules of international law. The committee will also investigate the legality of the actions taken by the navy on May 31st to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza, and examine the actions taken by Turkey and the flotilla organisers.

Mr Netanyahu has already expressed confidence “that revealing the evidence will prove that our aim was an appropriate defence operation of the highest standard”. But some Israeli observers noted that the inquiry lacked the stature and powers of a state commission of inquiry. There was also criticism over the relative old age of the panel members, particularly 93-year-old professor Shabtai Rozen, an expert in international law.

Meanwhile, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that Ankara had closed its airspace to Israeli military flights after the raid on the aid flotilla.

Earlier this month, a plane carrying Israeli officers on its way to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland was forced to divert after Turkey refused permission to fly over its airspace.

Israel refrained from publicly criticising the Turkish move but foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that “unilateral actions are not the way to mend relations and to settle differences”.

Turkey, until recently Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world, withdrew its ambassador and cancelled joint military drills in response to the raid.

It threatened not to return its ambassador and to reduce military and trade ties unless Israel apologises for the attack.