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Middle East

Netanyahu fuels fears of flotilla inquiry whitewash

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday defended as lawful a deadly assault on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla amid concerns that a domestic commission of inquiry will whitewash Israel's conduct.

Giving evidence to a state-appointed panel, Mr Netanyahu sought to distance himself from the fateful chain of events that led to the death of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists. He said that Israel had repeatedly appealed to Turkey "at the highest level" to use its influence to stop or divert the flotilla, but its efforts ultimately failed.

"Apparently, the Turkish government did not see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests," he told the panel. The premier was opening the proceedings of a much-anticipated inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Jacob Turkel, into the events of 31 May, when Israeli commandos boarded the lead ship of a Turkish-led convoy trying to breach Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

The assault, which took place in international waters, quickly descended into a bloodbath after Israeli soldiers opened fire on club-brandishing activists. The incident led to vicious recriminations on both sides.

Many Israelis have been fiercely sceptical that the inquiry, established only after intense international pressure, will have the teeth to investigate fully the lead-up to the raid and the events of that night. Its mandate is limited to the legal basis for the raid, and for Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Moreover, the committee attracted unwelcome scrutiny over the advanced age of its members after an Israeli newspaper photographed a 93-year-old panel member dressed in his pyjamas with a dossier of the inquiry on his lap and his full-time carer at his side.

"I don't expect anything of real... substance to come of this," said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Middle East current affairs website bitterlemons.org. "This inquiry is asking the wrong questions. No one is asking: how did we get to this flotilla [incident], or to this naval blockade."

In a prepared address, Mr Netanyahu robustly defended Israel's three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, aimed at preventing the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, the Islamist group that seized control of Gaza in 2007. "Hamas has been raining thousands of rockets, missiles and mortar bombs on the state of Israel, striking at our communities and citizens," he said, adding that it poses a threat to Israel's existence.

He also vigorously denied claims of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and said that a "mendacious propaganda campaign" had undermined support for Israel. Human rights bodies have long lambasted Israel's policy as "collective punishment," putting the population at the mercy of the United Nations.

It was only when Mr Netanyahu moved to the events immediately preceding the assault that he deviated from the well-worn script. As a clash at sea loomed, Mr Netanyahu called a meeting of his senior ministers where they discussed how to manage the media fallout from a confrontation. There appeared to be no discussion of the military operation itself. Mr Netanyahu, who was shortly to leave for the United States for meetings at the White House, recalled that he requested a "supreme effort" be made to avoid casualties. Everyone present, he said, felt "the raid was a last resort, and the instructions were to conduct it with as little friction as possible".

Asked who was left in charge, Mr Netanyahu named the defence minister, Ehud Barak. "I wanted there to be one person," he said, adding that he had a "very important meeting" with US President Barack Obama. Mr Netanyahu confirmed that the military was responsible for deciding how to stop the flotilla. Politicians, he said, determine policy, while "it is up to the military to execute it".

His statements prompted an angry response from opposition party Kadima, which accused the premier of using his defence minister and the military as a "punch bag" to divert the blame from himself. The flotilla incident has had long-reaching repercussions for Israel, badly damaging relations with Turkey, once its staunchest Middle East ally, and forcing Israel to ease its blockade to allow in more goods.

Turkey was one of the loudest voices calling for an international investigation of the incident, and Israel hoped to avoid such a step by initiating the Turkel inquiry, alongside a separate military investigation. The latter, which has already reported its findings, cleared the military hierarchy of wrongdoing.

Since then, Israel has agreed to cooperate with a UN inquiry, which is set to meet for the first time today

Netanyahu's evidence

The raid

"I am convinced that at the end of your investigation, it will become clear that the State of Israel and the IDF (Israel Defence Force) acted in accordance with international law and that IDF combatants on the deck of the (Turkish-owned ship Mavi) Marmara displayed extraordinary courage in fulfilling their mission and in defending themselves against a clear lethal danger."

"I asked that, as much as possible, the friction be reduced and that supreme effort be made to avoid casualties."

The blockade

"Upon taking office as prime minister I learned that many of our friends in the world were repeating Hamas's claim that the curbs imposed in 2007 and the naval blockade in place since January 2009 had created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza... But the information in our hands showed clearly that this claim was bogus; that there was no starvation in Gaza nor lack of medication or of other vital goods."

The flotilla

"Elements hostile to Israel used the bogus rationale of a humanitarian crisis in order to try to break the naval blockade... This was and is the main aim of Hamas in its efforts to encourage the various flotillas."

Government contacts

"Despite our continuous diplomatic efforts, ultimately the Turkish government did not prevent the attempt by the Marmara to break the naval blockade. All our proposals to route the ships' cargo for a security vetting in Ashdod, and later for transfer through the land crossings to Gaza, were to no avail."