Israeli military sets up panel to examine deadly raid on Gaza-bound flotilla

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Israel military investigating deadly flotilla raid

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military said it will have its own experts examine what caused a naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla to turn deadly, while nations led by Turkey intensified demands on Tuesday for an international investigation.

The Israeli experts will review several internal military investigations already under way. The military said it expects findings by July 4 into what went wrong with last week’s naval operation.

In the May 31 raid, Israeli commandos rappelled onto the deck of one of the ships trying to break Israel’s three-year-old blockade of Gaza. The soldiers were intercepted by a crowd of activists, setting off a clash that killed nine men — eight Turks and a Turkish American.

Israel says its soldiers began shooting only after a mob of pro-Palestinian activists attacked them — a version backed up by video footage released by the army. But the activists and their supporters say Israeli commandos needlessly opened fire.

The incident triggered a storm of criticism of Israel. Russia’s powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, added Moscow’s weight to the calls for an international probe.

“It has to be investigated specially,” Putin said at a news conference in Istanbul with Turkey’s prime minister, a fierce critic of Israel since its war in Gaza 18 months ago.

Israel has so far failed to defuse the calls as well as pressure to end the blockade, part of a landslide of diplomatic fallout that has included serious damage to its relations with Turkey, once the Jewish state’s most important Muslim ally. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent the ruling Hamas militant group from importing weapons.

While Israel and Turkey still have strong military ties, Turkey’s government has been building closer alliances over the past year with some of Israel’s most bitter enemies, including Iran and Syria.

Israel has so far failed to defuse the calls for an international investigation or reduce pressure to end the blockade. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Gaza’s Hamas rulers from importing weapons.

In Istanbul Tuesday, Turkey pushed a security summit of 22 nations to jointly condemn the May 31 raid and won Russia’s backing.

“We condemn this act,” Putin said. “The fact that it was conducted in neutral waters evokes special regret and requires separate consideration.”

A final joint declaration, however, included no condemnation. A Turkish government official said earlier that Israel was trying to block strong language. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with Turkish rules that bar civil servants from speaking to journalists without authorization.

A day earlier, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood side-by-side with Syrian President Bashar Assad — whose country plays host to Palestinian militant groups — and accused Israel of state terrorism.

In addition to the military inquiry, Israel’s government is seeking a formula for a broader probe that would defuse calls for an impartial investigation.

Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers on Monday proposed establishing a commission of Israeli jurists, joined by foreign observers, whose mandate would be to examine the legality of the Gaza blockade and the commandos’ conduct.

The proposal has been shown to U.S. and international officials to see if it meets their criteria for an impartial probe, government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been officially announced.

The U.S. Embassy had no comment on the details of the proposal.

International mediator Tony Blair appeared to back the Israeli outline in an interview on Israel’s Channel 10 TV. “Any investigation has to be full and impartial, and there may be some international element that can be part of it,” he said.

At the U.N., where the Security Council called for an investigation, spokesman Faran Haq said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “understands that Israel is still considering how and if to bring an international element into the investigative process.”

Past experience has made Israel wary of letting outside powers lead an investigation.

A U.N.-appointed panel headed by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone accused Israel of war crimes in the Gaza offensive in the winter of 2008-2009. Israel rejected the accusations.

In Gaza Tuesday, Palestinians said they retrieved the body of two more militant divers killed in a clash with Israeli sailors off the coast a day earlier. Israel’s navy said Monday that it had opened fire on Palestinians in diving suits whom it spotted in the waters off Gaza. The military claimed, without providing details, that its forces prevented an attack on Israel.

Four bodies were retrieved on Monday and Gaza health official Dr. Moiaya Hassanain said two more bodies had been found Tuesday.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades said Monday that members of its marine unit were training in Gaza’s waters.

Hacaoglu reported from Istanbul, Turkey. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.

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