Netanyahu Questioned by Flotilla Investigators
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Netanyahu Questioned by Flotilla Investigators

Israeli prime minister takes the witness chair to outline the decision process prior to deadly raid on Gaza bound flotilla

JERUSALEM ““ Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a public inquiry into the deadly, late May raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that he left the matter in the hands of his defense minister and military leaders.

“We did not delve deeply into the details of the operation, except for the ramifications it may have in the media,” Netanyahu told the Israeli commission in reference to the decision making process prior to the May 31 raid that left nine Turkish activists dead.

The Israeli premier, who agreed to testify before the commission only after its chairman former Israeli supreme court judge Jacob Turkel threatened to quit, was visiting Canada at the time of the raid, which led to a diplomatic disaster for Israel.

“I requested that the minister of defense coordinate it,” he said in response to a direct question about his absence from Judge Turkel. “I wanted there to be one address everyone could turn to.”

In the first day of public inquiries into the affair, Netanyahu appeared for three hours before a civilian panel led by Turkel and including two foreign observers. Speaking from the witness chair in a makeshift courtroom in the dining hall of the Yitzhak Rabin Guest House in Jerusalem, in 90 minutes of public testimony Netanyahu repeated previous defenses of the raid, saying Israeli commandos “defended themselves against real threats to their lives.”

“The State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces conducted themselves in accordance with international law,” he told the commission. “The IDF fighters who boarded the Marmara displayed a rare courage in fulfilling their mission and in defending themselves against a real threat to their lives. I have full confidence in our soldiers, and the State of Israel is proud of them.”

“The Marmara, to say the least, was not exactly a love boat,” he said, referring to the largest boat of Turkish activists, whom he said came armed with “clubs, metal rods, knives and live weapons… The IHH [Turkish] activists not only did not try to avoid a confrontation, they sought it out.”

Netanyahu spoke extensively about claims that there is a humanitarian crises in Gaza, which he depicted as a “mendacious propaganda campaign that began to undermine international support for our policy to prevent the entry of weapons into Gaza.”

“There is no humanitarian crises in Gaza,” said the Israeli leader, who is understood to have been preparing his testimony with his staff for two days. “Though the territory in question is controlled by a hostile terrorist force that calls for our destruction, Israel did not stop supplying electricity, water or fuel to Gaza, and we enabled the entry of food, medicine and other basic goods.”

“We also continued to accept patients from Gaza in our hospitals in both life-threatening cases or to treat unique medical problems,” he continued. “On average, 1,500 patients and accompanying family members come into Gaza each month. There is nothing that more clearly proves the absurdity of the claim that Israel is acting inhumanely toward Gaza.”

“There may not have been luxuries, this is true, but there was no deprivation of commodities and basic food stuffs,” Netanyahu said in response to retired Canadian Brig.-Gen. Ken Watkin, who asked the only question from the two international observers. “The international community kept repeating that there is a humanitarian crises, as if it was a self evident truth.”

While half of his testimony was made behind closed doors, the Israeli leader billed his public appearance before a committee of inquiry as highly significant.

“The appearance of Israel’s Prime Minister before this committee today is the best evidence of the high standards by which Israel’s democracy functions,” he told the commission, whose mandate is to examine the political and military decision making prior to the Israeli raid, as well as its legality. “Israel is a liberal, democratic country governed by the rule of law. We are constantly examining our own actions. There is no country or army which examines itself as thoroughly as Israel and the Israeli Defense Foreces.”

“How many countries would be willing to establish a truly independent commission such as this one?” he asked rhetorically. “How many countries would invite foreign observers to participate in such a commission? How many Prime Ministers and Presidents would appear before such a commission?”

Quearied if he or other senior Israeli civilian and military leaders had discussed the option of simply allowing the flotilla to enter Gaza, Netanyahu said he would give a more detailed answer in the session held behind closed doors. But he added that he had made extensive personal efforts to avoid the incident.

“My office was in contact with the highest echelons of the Turkish government,” he said. “I personally appealed to a senior official in the Egyptian government on May 27 so that he would intervene with the Turkish government… During a more closed forum, I will explain why our diplomatic efforts did not succeed in stopping the flotilla.”

Netanyahu gave another 90 minutes of closed-door testimony to the panel following the public session.

Judge Turkel was joined by four Israeli colleagues: Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Horev, former Foreign Ministry Director General Reuven Merchav and professors Miguel Deutch and Shabtai Rosenne, 93, who fell asleep at one point during Netanyahu’s opening statement.

The two foreign observers, retired Canadian Brig.-Gen. Ken Watkin and Northern Ireland’s Lord David Trimble, sat at a separate, somewhat lower table.

The panel, referred to by Israel as an “Independent Public Commission”, was set to question Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday and the Israeli Army’s Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday.

Judge Turkel made his participation in the inquiry conditional upon his ability to question the three Israeli leaders at the hearings.

The Turkel commission’s powers have been significantly broadened since its formation was first announced. At first, the commission was not considered a legal entity, and therefore not granted the powers of inquiry traditionally given to government-appointed committees of examination, meaning the panel could not order witnesses to appear nor compel them to testify under oath.

Following a threat by Turkel to resign, however, the Israeli cabinet granted the Turkel commission some of the powers of a government-appointed committee of examination, with the one exception being the ability to call soldiers or security officers to testify before the panel.

Earlier this month, Turkel sent letters to a number of military and government officials, including Defense Minister Barak, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland (who ran his own military approved investigation for the IDF), demanding access to all documentation relating to the flotilla incident as well as all correspondence that led to the decision to impose a maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli High Court further empowered the commission last week with a decision that should the panel reach a point at which Turkel and his colleagues felt it necessary to question soldiers or security officers involved in the incident and the government refused, the commission could petition the court.

On May 31, 2010, Israeli naval forces intercepted, boarded and seized a flotilla of six ships carrying 663 people from 37 countries attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip by delivering tons of humanitarian aid and building supplies to Gaza.

Israel had demanded that the ships have their cargo inspected at the Israeli port of Ashdod, offering to delivery permitted items to Gaza by land. The ships refused and at a pre-dawn raid Israeli naval commandos seized the ships at the high seas about 80 miles off the Gaza coast.

In the ensuing takeover of the Mavi Marmara ship, activists violently assaulted the Israeli commandos with knifes and clubs. The Israelis killed nine Turkish activists and wounded dozens more. Seven Israeli commandos were injured and hundreds of activists were arrested, held for a short period, and then deported.

The incident sparked a global propaganda war over versions of the event and led to a major diplomatic crisi for Israel. Turkey, Israel’s best ally in the region, withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv, suspended joint military exercises with Israel, demanded a public apology and called for an international investigation into the attack.

Beyond the Turkel commission there are a number of other probes into the incident.

An internal Israeli military inquiry into the flotilla raid concluded on July 12 that failures in Israeli intelligence and military planning contributed to the deadly incident but vindicated the commandos’ actions, which the army investigators found to be fitting given the circumstances. “The use of live fire was justified,” the investigators said.

Israel initially refused to participate in a United Nations probe into the flotilla raid run by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. But in a surprise reversal earlier this week Netanyahu announced that Israel would indeed take part in the inquiry.

Joseph Ciechanover, a former senior official at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, will represent Israel on the U.N. panel, while Turkey will be represented by Ozdem Sanberk, a senior Turkish diplomat. The committee is set to convene its first meeting on Tuesday and expects to release an initial progress report by mid-September.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has also set up its own three-person flotilla commission. They are also expected to release a report next month.

The coming two days of the Turkel commission testimony are likely to be overshadowed in Israel by an internal scandal over the appointment of the Israeli army’s next chief of staff.

A number of Israeli columnists have also speculated that Defense Minister Barak, set to testify before the committee on Tuesday, was nervous that IDF chief Ashkenazi will criticize the defense minister during his testimony on Wednesday.

Some have predicted that Ashkenazi could be a potential challenger to Barak should he enter the Labor Party after he leaves his army post next year.

The Media Line

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