Israeli Cabinet Approves Probe of Gaza Flotilla Raid

Israel’s Cabinet approved a public probe into a raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine Turks dead, a step that Turkey’s foreign minister said was insufficient and may lead to a reexamination of relations.

“We have no belief whatsoever that Israel can conduct an impartial inquiry,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said today. If there’s no international inquiry then “there are a set of unilateral steps that Turkey can take. We may decide to review our relations with Israel entirely.”

Demands for an international probe began after Israel’s May 31 raid in international waters on six ships that were attempting to breach its three-year blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an international investigation and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the raid “barbaric.”

The independent panel will be headed by former Israeli supreme court judge Jacob Turkel. Nobel Peace Prize winner and Northern Ireland politician David Trimble, and Ken Watkin, former judge advocate general of Canada’s armed forces, will serve as foreign observers. Trimble and Watkin won’t have the right to vote, Benny Begin, a minister without portfolio, said on Army Radio.

The commission will examine “the security circumstances surrounding the imposition of the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip,” as well as “the conformity of the naval blockade with the rules of international law” and whether Israel’s actions during the raid conform to that law, a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.

Goldstone Report

Israel last year refused to participate in a UN investigation of the 2008 Gaza war, an inquiry its leaders rejected as one-sided, and Netanyahu turned down a proposal for a UN-led probe into the ship incident.

The UN inquiry into the Gaza war, led by former UN prosecutor and South African judge Richard Goldstone, accused Israel and Hamas of war crimes and called on them to investigate the charges.

“The Cabinet’s decision this morning to establish a special, independent public commission will make it clear to the entire world that Israel acts according to law, transparently, and with full responsibility,” Netanyahu told his ministers.

The Obama administration and the U.K. both welcomed the announcement as “an important step forward.” In a statement, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated the administration’s support for “a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation.”

Links To Terror

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking in Luxembourg, stressed the need for “a truly independent inquiry and a thorough investigation that the international community can respect.”

The commission will also investigate “the actions taken by the organizers of the flotilla and its participants, as well as their identity.” Israel has alleged that some members of the flotilla had links to radical Islamic terror groups.

The panel will have the authority to request information from any Israeli government official, including Netanyahu and “including through testimony before the commission,” the statement said. Soldiers will not testify before the committee, the prime minister said today.

The army said June 8 that it had appointed Major-General Giora Eiland to lead a separate military investigation of the raid.

Iranian Ship

Israel said it issued numerous warnings to the Gaza-bound flotilla to change course for the port of Ashdod and unload there. It says that 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 have said they threw the firearms into the sea and that the Israelis instigated the violence.

More ships intending to breach the blockade are planned. Iran will send a ship carrying aid to Gaza that will set sail next week, the state-run Fars news agency said today, citing Mohammad-Ali Nourani, head of the Iranian Society to Protect the Palestinian People.

Israel has imposed restrictions on Gaza since the Islamic Hamas movement, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control of the territory in 2007. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.

Humanitarian Crisis

Palestinians, backed by the UN and human-rights groups, say the 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 also were concerned about weapons being hidden in food packaging.

Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, the envoy of the so-called Quartet group on Middle East peace, said he was working to ease the restrictions on imports without endangering Israel’s security and expected to reach a solution within days. The Quartet is made up of the U.S., Russia, European Union and United Nations.

“We change from the so-called permitted list of items where things only come in when they’re on that list to the prohibited list where things come in unless they’re on that list,” Blair said in Luxembourg today.

‘Giant Arsenal’

An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said this was one idea being discussed and that no agreement had been reached yet. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in an interview yesterday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” television program that the government is easing its import restrictions on Gaza to allow in more types of foods.

Israel says its raid on the flotilla was in line with international law because it acted to enforce a legal blockade that prevents the Hamas-controlled enclave “from becoming a giant arsenal.”

Israel has a “duty to maintain the safety of citizens who have been under attack for many years by the terrorist organizations,” the Ministry of Justice said June 1 in a filing to the country’s High Court of Justice.

The legality of Israel’s blockade turns on two issues, said Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the University of Dundee in Scotland: Whether Israel’s conflict with Hamas is a full-fledged war and whether the military benefit is proportionate to the suffering it imposes on the civilian population.

Rocket Attacks

The San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, a 1994 code of conduct accepted globally, allows naval blockades, provided there is a state of war between the parties, according to Churchill.

The declining number of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza undermines Israel’s argument that it is in a virtual state of war with Hamas, he says.

About 3,200 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza in 2008, according to the Israeli army. The number of projectiles fired from Gaza totaled 708 last year and about 160 so far this year, the army said June 8.

Anthony Aust, a former legal adviser to the U.K. Foreign Office, said the blockade may still be covered by international law because Israel can make a case of self-defense, even though it appears to have used “excessive” force in the May 31 raid.

Israel launched a three-week military offensive in Gaza in December 2008, saying that it 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.

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.

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