By ISABEL KERSHNER and FARES AKRAM
Published: June 13, 2010
JERUSALEM — In an effort to dampen international criticism and stave off calls for an international inquiry, Israel’s cabinet unanimously approved a government-appointed commission with foreign participation to investigate the circumstances surrounding its deadly commando raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza in late May.
The Lede: Unedited Video of Israeli Raid Posted Online (June 11, 2010)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the move to set up an inquiry would demonstrate clearly “to the entire world that the state of Israel acts according to law, transparently and with full responsibility.”
On Sunday, the secretary general of the Arab League toured Gaza for the first time since the Islamist group Hamas took control of the Palestinian territory, underlining an urge for more Arab involvement in the issues raised by the raid on the flotilla, which was trying to breach Israel’s naval blockade.
Amr Moussa, the highest-ranking Arab diplomat to visit in the past three years, entered Gaza from Egypt through the newly opened border terminal at Rafah, and immediately called for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted.
The Israeli panel, to be called the Independent Public Commission, will be led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, Jacob Turkel. It will include two Israeli experts in international law and two foreign observers — Lord David Trimble, a Nobel Peace laureate from Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, former judge advocate general of the Canadian Forces — whose inclusion is intended to add credibility to the inquiry and to secure foreign support for it. The proposed commission is to be presented to the Israeli cabinet on Monday for its approval, which is expected.
In Washington, the White House press secretary issued a statement hailing the Israeli announcement as an “important step forward.” The statement added that “the structure and terms of reference of Israel’s proposed independent public commission can meet the standard of a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation,” as sought by the United Nations Security Council.
“But,” the White House cautioned, “we will not prejudge the process or its outcome and will await the conduct and findings of the investigation before drawing further conclusions.”
The commission will examine the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and whether the raid on the flotilla conformed with the rules of international law. It will also examine the actions taken by the organizers of the flotilla and its participants, as well as their identities, the Israeli prime minister’s office said in a statement.
Israeli commandos intercepted the six-boat flotilla in international waters, leading to a violent clash on a large Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, that left nine activists dead. The episode stirred international outrage and severely damaged Israel’s relations with Turkey, a once-close Muslim ally.
Mr. Netanyahu said last week that Israel’s inquiry “must also include answers to certain questions that many in the international community would rather ignore.”
He said those include: “Who is behind the radical group on the deck of the ship? Who funded its members? How did axes, clubs, knives and other types of blunt weapons find their way on to the ship?”
Critics in Israel questioned the powers of any panel less than a full state commission of inquiry. In an editorial published on Sunday, the liberal newspaper Haaretz said the government’s efforts at investigating itself looked increasingly like a “farce.”
“The truth that Netanyahu wishes to bring out involves the identity of the flotilla’s organizers, its sources of funding and the knives and rods that were brought aboard,” the paper wrote. “He does not intend to probe the decision-making process that preceded the takeover of the ship and the shortcomings that were uncovered.”
International calls for a change in policy toward Gaza have grown since the raid on the Turkish boat. In Gaza on Sunday, Mr. Moussa said, “The siege must be broken,” referring to the embargo imposed by Israel, with Egypt’s help.
Israel began to restrict the entry of goods into Gaza in 2006, after Hamas won Palestinian elections and then captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. The sanctions tightened after Hamas took full control of the territory in June 2007.
Israel argues that the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from smuggling in weapons or materials needed to make them, and to weaken Hamas control. But there is a growing consensus abroad that the blockade has taken a toll mainly on civilians.
Most Arab states hold Hamas at arm’s length, and Mr. Moussa was careful not to leave an impression that his visit was intended to give Arab legitimacy to Hamas. He met the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, at Mr. Haniya’s house rather than his office.
Mr. Moussa urged the Palestinians to end their internal division, calling on Hamas to respond to Egypt’s efforts to broker a reconciliation with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah party, whose authority is now limited to the West Bank.
But many Palestinians said that if Mr. Moussa was serious about the need for a lifting of the blockade and for reconciliation, he should have gone there earlier. A political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, Ibrahim Abrash, said Mr. Moussa’s visit “will not leave an effective mark.”
The Arab League “has not crystallized an Arab vision for lifting the closure,” Mr. Abrash said.
The international outcry over the flotilla raid has forced Israel to reconsider its Gaza policy, although Israeli officials insist that it had already been under review for several months.
Red Cross Condemns Blockade
GENEVA (Reuters) — The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip violated the Geneva Conventions and called for lifting it.
Israel is entitled to impose restrictions on military material for security reasons, but the scope of the closing is disproportionate, covering items of basic necessity, the Red Cross said.