Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a government-appointed inquiry that Israeli commandos acted in self-defense when they opened fire after boarding a ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, killing nine Turkish activists.
Netanyahu also said during an hour of public testimony today that he tried in vain to persuade Turkey to stop the ship from confronting Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza and avoid the prospect of violent conflict. Once Israel’s strongest ally in the region, Turkey has frozen diplomatic and security ties with Israel since the raid.
“Apparently, the Turkish government didn’t see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests,” Netanyahu said at the hearing in Jerusalem. He later testified for two hours behind closed doors.
Netanyahu was the lead-off witness as the five-member panel began its review of the May 31 raid, which provoked widespread international condemnation and led Israel to loosen its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the shootings “barbaric.”
The commission, which is led by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel and includes two foreign observers, will examine the interplay of military and political decision making before the raid and its legality. Israel agreed last week to cooperate with a United Nations investigation into the incident, reversing its previous refusal to work with an international investigation.
The UN panel, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, will hold its first meeting tomorrow in New York. UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon said there are no constraints on the panel’s ability to interview Israeli soldiers.
“The panel may decide what steps they need to take.” Ban told reporters at a press conference in New York today.
An Israeli military inquiry concluded July 12 that faulty planning and intelligence failures contributed to the violence. The panel, headed by reserve Major-General Giora Eiland, said commandos from the elite “Shayetet 13” unit dropped from helicopters onto the aid ships before dawn, expecting little resistance from passengers.
That was how it turned out aboard five of the ships. On the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli forces were beaten, stabbed and shot after hitting the deck, according to Eiland’s report. Seven were wounded, including by gunfire, after people aboard one of the ships managed to grab Israeli firearms, the report said.
Pro-Palestinian Turkish activists aboard the ship said they threw the firearms into the sea and that the Israelis instigated the violence.
In the course of his testimony, facing the inquiry panel while sitting at a desk on a small raised platform, Netanyahu insisted that Israel adhered to international law in its blockade of Gaza and interception of the flotilla.
“The political echelon imposed the blockade and the military echelon enforced it,” he said. “I asked that the confrontation be minimized as much as possible and that a supreme effort be made to avoid harming anyone.”
Because he was visiting Canada at the time of the raid and was heading to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama -- a meeting that was postponed to handle fallout from the killings -- Netanyahu said he left Defense Minister Ehud Barak as the “single address” to deal with all aspects of the mission. The two leaders once served in the same elite commando unit.
Netanyahu’s office issued a clarification two hours after he finished testifying, saying that “as prime minister, the overall responsibility is always my own, whether I’m in the country or abroad and thus it was in this incident.”
Israeli engaged in intense diplomatic efforts throughout May with several countries that had citizens aboard the flotilla, or those with ports that the ships might use, to try and prevent the vessels from heading to Gaza, Netanyahu told the commission.
“Because of the importance I placed on Turkey’s central role in the flotilla, my office worked directly to assist in the diplomatic effort with Turkey,” Netanyahu said.
Turkey has demanded an apology for the deaths of its citizens.
Netanyahu said the soldiers who boarded the Mavi Marmara acted “in self-defense out of genuine danger to their lives.”
Following Netanyahu in the witness chair tomorrow will be Barak, with Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israel military chief of staff, appearing before the panel the next day.
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.
Israel earlier shunned a UN panel led by former UN prosecutor and South African judge Richard Goldstone that investigated the 2008 Gaza war. Goldstone’s panel, appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, accused Israel and Hamas of war crimes and called on them to investigate the charges.
Netanyahu yesterday named Joseph Ciechanover, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and chairman of El Al Israel Airlines Ltd., as the government’s representative to the UN panel, which also includes former Turkish diplomat Ozdem Sanberk.
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, said restrictions on food imports and construction materials created a humanitarian crisis. Israel says 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.
Netanyahu told the commission that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He said while the May 31 raid wasn’t the main cause of Israel lifting its restrictions on the Palestinian enclave, “obviously the flotilla incident and the international discourse in its wake expedited the decision.”