Monday, June 14, 2010

Iranian aid ships head for Gaza

Illustration: Part of the Gaza siege prevents Gaza from fishing beyond three nautical miles from shore, which contributes to the starvation of civilians in the area.

By Jeffrey Heller JERUSALEM, June 14 (Reuters) - Israel's cabinet approved on Monday an Israeli inquiry into a deadly raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, a commission set to include two foreign observers after international calls for an impartial investigation. Angered by the killing of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists, Turkey said the proposed inquiry would be biased and reiterated demands for a U.N.-controlled investigation. "Israel's one-sided inquiry is not valuable to us. We want a commission to be set up under the direct control of United Nations," Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara on Monday. "If Israel does not heed Turkey's demands, Turkey has the right to review its relations and take measures," he said. The White House, wanting to soothe relations between Israel and Turkey, two key U.S. allies in the Middle East, has welcomed the proposed Israeli inquiry, and said Israel was capable of conducting a fair probe. The May 31 Israeli commando raid to stop the six-ship aid flotilla from breaking a blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip has stretched already strained relations between the once close allies to breaking point. Turkey has withdrawn its ambassador, cancelled joint military exercises, and called for Israel to end its blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel said its commandos killed the activists when they boarded a Turkish-flagged vessel and were attacked by passengers with metal rods and knives. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet voted unanimously to set up an "independent, public commission" headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court judge, Jacob Turkel, Netanyahu's office said. It will include two other Israelis -- an international law expert and a former general -- and two non-voting foreign observers: David Trimble, a Northern Ireland politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Canadian jurist Ken Watkin. The panel's mandate, as stipulated in an official statement issued on Sunday, did not appear to pose a threat to Netanyahu's political survival as it did not include an examination of his government's decision-making role in the raid. Instead, it will examine whether Israel's Gaza blockade and the flotilla's interception conformed with international law and also investigate the actions taken by the convoy's organisers and participants, the statement said. Netanyahu has said soldiers and officers who took part in the raid or planned the operation, which was seen by Israelis as a fiasco, would not testify before the commission. The panel would be able to use testimony given to a separate military board reviewing operational details of the assault. The civilian commission will publish a report, but it was not immediately clear when it would issue its findings. Israel rejected a proposal by U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon for an international inquiry panel, saying it had the right to investigate the interception on its own. VIOLATION "While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly," a White House statement said. "We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community." Israel, which has faced mounting pressure to ease or lift the blockade, says it has a right to stop Gaza-bound ships to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, an Islamic militant group shunned by the West. Hamas, which won a Palestinian election in 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip from fighters loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction in 2007. On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the blockade violated the Geneva Conventions and called for its lifting. It said "the whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility". "Nobody will hide anything, as the prime minister has announced, the senior political echelon or anybody else in the government whom the commission will want to invite will come and will tell things as they are," cabinet minister Benny Begin told Israeli Army Radio. (Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore in Istanbul, Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Caren Bohan in Washington; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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