Israel threatens to quit U.N. Gaza flotilla probe

The country's prime minister says it "will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldier"

Published August 9, 2010 9:15PM (EDT)

Israel says it will pull out of an inquiry into a bloody raid on a Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza, after the U.N. chief said there is no agreement to keep Israeli soldiers from testifying.

A statement from the Israeli Prime Minister's Office late Monday said, "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes it absolutely clear that Israel will not cooperate with and will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers."

This followed an answer by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a news conference to question about whether had agreed to exempt Israeli soldiers from questioning before the panel.

"No, there was no such agreement behind the scenes," Ban said.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's prime minister defended the deadly commando raid on an international flotilla protesting the Gaza blockade before an internal inquiry commission Monday, suggesting that Turkey had sought the violent confrontation on the high seas.

Benjamin Netanyahu told the commission that Ankara had rejected Israel's prior appeals to halt the flotilla and refused to intervene despite the prospect of violence between Israeli troops and the Turkish Islamic charity that organized the mission.

"As we got closer to the date it became clear our diplomatic efforts would not stop it," Netanyahu said. "Apparently the government of Turkey did not see potential friction between Turkish activists and Israel as something that goes against its interests."

The six-ship flotilla was trying to deliver aid to Gaza when it was intercepted by Israeli naval commandos enforcing the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the seaside strip. When troops encountered unexpected resistance on one of the vessels, the Mavi Marmara, they opened fire and killed nine Turkish activists, one of them a dual American citizen.

The bloody crackdown sparked wide international outcry and pressured Israel to loosen the blockade of Gaza, imposed with Egypt after Hamas militants seized control of the coastal territory in June 2007.

The five-member Israeli commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court justice and joined by two foreign observers, is looking into the government's decision-making leading up to the raid. Although it does not have the power to mete out punishment, its findings could be politically damaging to Netanyahu and other top officials.

Israel's defense minister and military chief of staff will also face the commission. The United Nations has announced an inquiry of its own.

A separate Israeli military inquiry found that military intelligence had failed to predict the violent response on board the Turkish vessel, and troops went in unprepared, expecting only passive resistance. But it said the commandos had acted properly.

Israel has released video footage showing the commandos being pummeled with wooden planks and metal rods as they landed on the ship. The pro-Palestinian activists on board the Mavi Marmara have said they acted in self-defense after Israeli troops boarded their boat in international waters.

Turkey's Islamist-oriented government has harshly criticized Israel for the raid and ties have cooled considerably since. Turkey recalled its ambassador and demanded Israel apologize for the raid. Israel has refused to do so.

Suat Kiniklioglu, A member of the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee, charged that Netanyahu's contention that Turkey was interested in a confrontation "is not only ridiculous but constitutes an affront to our intelligence." Kiniklioglu said the real problem, which still remains, is Israel's "inhumane blockade of the Gaza Strip."

During his testimony, Netanyahu refrained from answering some security-related questions -- such as Israeli intelligence assessments -- and promised to do so later in a closed hearing. The commission later refused to release details of that testimony.

Netanyahu defended Israel's action on board the vessel and accused the pro-Palestinian activists of provoking the violence. He said the Israeli soldiers displayed "exceptional bravery in carrying out their mission and in defending themselves."

Netanyahu said he instructed the military to make every effort to avoid bodily harm to the protesters and contrasted these instructions with the activists, whom he quoted as saying that the "Jews need to go back to Auschwitz."

The IHH is an Islamic charity that has close ties to the Turkish government as well as the Hamas government in Gaza. Israel outlawed the group in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas. The group is not listed by the U.S. State Department or the European Union as a terror organization. IHH vehemently denies ties to radical groups.

The international activists had sought to draw attention to the blockade, which Israel says is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up its arsenal.

Critics have noted that the blockade has failed to weaken Hamas, while it harmed the impoverished coastal strip's economy. In the wake of the outcry over the flotilla raid, Israel eased the blockade to allow almost all consumer goods into Gaza. But restrictions on construction materials, badly needed to rebuild damage from an Israeli military offensive last year remain in place.

The five-member commission is headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. Beside Turkel, 75, the commission includes a retired general, Amos Horev, 86, and Shabtai Rosenne, a 93-year-old international jurist and diplomat.

International pressure led Israel's government to include two foreign observers: David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, Canada's former chief military prosecutor.


Associated Press writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.

By Associated Press

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