The head of Israel’s probe into a May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine people dead said he will call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the first witness and determine whether the naval action complied with international law.
Jacob Turkel, a former Supreme Court justice, opened the first session of the panel today at the Yitzhak Rabin youth hostel in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff, will appear as witnesses at the first public sessions, said Ofer Lefler, the commission spokesman. It isn’t clear when they will testify because of Netanyahu’s travel schedule, he said.
“We are all determined that the inquiry will be rigorous and will thereby make a contribution to peace,” said David Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland who is a non-voting observer on the panel.
Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved the Israeli commission June 14 after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an international investigation and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the raid was “barbaric.” Israel relaxed its blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in the face of increased international criticism of the policy following the deaths of the nine Turks on the flotilla ship.
The Turkel Commission, which will hold all its sessions in the youth hostel’s basement auditorium, also includes 93-year- old Shabtai Rosenne, a former law school professor, and retired General Amos Horev, 86. The other non-voting international observer is Ken Watkin, former judge advocate general of Canada’s armed forces. The Israel Defense Forces named Major General Giora Eiland June 8 to lead a separate military investigation.
“We will be looking at whether the government’s actions to stop the flotilla met the norms of international law,” Turkel said.
All the hearings will be open to the public unless the panel needs to hear about specific security details that are secret, Lefler said. “We want to show the world that everything is open,” he said.
The hearings won’t begin until after Netanyahu returns from his White House meeting with President Barack Obama, scheduled for July 6, Lefler said.
Erdogan said June 12 that having Israel conduct its own investigation into the raid was “laughable.” A spokesman for the UN chief said June 14 that he continued to back an international investigation.
Israel imposed its blockade of Gaza after the Islamic Hamas movement ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control of the territory in 2007. Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
Palestinians, backed by the UN and human-rights groups, say 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 were also concerned about weapons being hidden in food packaging.
The Israeli government said June 20 it would loosen the blockade for shipments by road so that all food will be let in and only weapons and items with a military use are kept out.
Israel says its blockade is legal because it is in “a state of armed conflict” with Hamas. Some countries, such as Turkey, dispute the legality of the blockade. Legal scholars such as Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland, say the legality turns on whether the conflict is a full-fledged war and whether the military benefit is proportionate to civilian suffering.
Israel said it issued numerous warnings to the Gaza-bound flotilla to change course for the port of Ashdod and unload there. It said its 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 said they threw the firearms into the sea and that the Israelis instigated the violence.
Israel launched a three-week military offensive in Gaza in December 2008 that it said was meant to stop the firing of rockets by Hamas and other Palestinian militants into its territory. More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the conflict.
More than 400 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the end of the 2008 military operation, killing one foreign worker in March, the Israeli army said.