Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an inquiry panel that he tried to dissuade Turkey from allowing a flotilla to challenge Israel’s Gaza blockade and that Israeli commandos acted in self-defense when they opened fire after boarding one of the ships.
“Apparently, the Turkish government didn’t see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests,” Netanyahu said yesterday at a public hearing before the government-appointed commission in Jerusalem. He later testified for two hours behind closed doors.
Netanyahu was the lead witness as the five-member panel, which also includes two international observers, began its review of the May 31 raid. The commando operation left nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists dead and provoked widespread international condemnation, leading Israel to loosen its restrictions on supplies entering Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak testifies before the commission today and Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israel military chief of staff, is scheduled to appear tomorrow. Netanyahu described Barak in his testimony as the “single address” responsible for the mission while he was away at the time on a visit to Canada. The prime minister later issued a clarification to emphasize that he was still in charge of the government while traveling.
“As prime minister, the overall responsibility is always my own, whether I’m in the country or abroad and so it was in this case,” Netanyahu said in the statement.
Netanyahu said during an hour of public testimony 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. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the shootings “barbaric.”
The commission, which is led by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel, 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 today in New York. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday there are no constraints on its 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.
Won’t Allow Questioning
Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefez responded by saying Israel wouldn’t cooperate with the UN probe if it tries to question soldiers who took part in the raid. “Israel will not cooperate with, or take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers,” he said a text message.
Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved establishment of the Turkel commission June 14 with the proviso that soldiers would not be called to testify. It said, though, that the panel could request information from any government official.
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.
Passengers aboard five of the ships reacted with non-violent resistance. On the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli forces were beaten, stabbed and shot after hitting the deck, according to Netanyahu. Pro-Palestinian Turkish activists aboard the ship said the Israelis instigated the violence.
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 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.”