Israel Adds Two Members to Commission Investigating Gaza Aid Flotilla

The Israeli Cabinet approved adding two members to a commission investigating the May 31 naval raid on a flotilla of ships bringing supplies to the Gaza Strip in which nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists were killed.

Reuven Merhav, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, and Miguel Deutsch, a Hebrew University law professor, will join the panel, which originally consisted of three Israeli members and two international observers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said today on its website.

Jacob Turkel, the retired Supreme Court Justice who chairs the commission, sought the two extra members after declaring that the panel didn’t have sufficient authority to fulfill its mission. The Cabinet gave Turkel broader powers to subpoena witnesses and require them to testify in a July 4 decision.

Netanyahu’s Cabinet initially approved the Israeli probe on June 14 after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an international inquiry into the raid, which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described as “barbaric.” Israel relaxed its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza in the face of increased international criticism of the policy following the deadly clash aboard one of the ships.

Today’s Cabinet decision came in response to a request by Turkel “to authorize the justice minister to give the panel additional powers,” Netanyahu’s office said.

David Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of Canada’s armed forces, are on the commission as non-voting international observers.

Hamas Takeover

Israel and Egypt imposed a 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 the previous year, 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 possible military use are kept out.

Question of Legality

Israel says the blockade is legal because it is in “a state of armed conflict” with Hamas. Some countries, including 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.

Rockets From Gaza

Palestinians fired 3,278 rockets and mortars at Israel in 2008, according to army statistics. 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.

Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Hamas leaders say they will renounce violence when Israel withdraws from territory occupied in 1967 and allows Palestinians to return to areas in Israel from which they fled in 1948.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferziger@bloomberg.net.

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