JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel on Tuesday threatened to pull out of a UN probe into its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla to keep the panel from grilling its soldiers, as Defence Minister Ehud Barak faced an Israeli inquiry over the same botched operation.
The bloody raid in which Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists sparked international outrage and led to the partial easing of a four-year blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who testified before the Israeli panel on Monday, insisted there was a “discreet” agreement to exclude military personnel from the UN probe, despite an earlier denial from UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
“The prime minister said Israel would not cooperate with any commission that would ask to question soldiers,” Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz told military radio.
“Before Israel gave the green light to its participation in the panel we had discreet negotiations in order to ensure that this commission would not harm the vital interests of Israel,” he added.
Ban on Monday denied he had struck an agreement with Israel that would bar the UN panel from interviewing troops involved in the operation.
Israel has said it would make available the results of an internal military investigation of the incident that found that mistakes were made at a “relatively senior” level but that the use of live fire was justified.
Netanyahu on Monday insisted that Israel had acted in line with international law and accused Turkey of seeking to gain from a high-profile confrontation that saw activists attack its commandos with iron bars and knives.
“I am convinced that at the end of your investigation, it will become clear that the state of Israel and the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) acted in accordance with international law,” he told members of the so-called Tirkel Commission, a panel of five investigators and two international observers.
Israel has said the border restrictions and the naval blockade imposed in June 2006 after the capture of an Israeli soldier by Gaza militants are necessary to prevent Hamas from importing rockets and other weapons.
The closures, which have been largely backed by neighbouring Egypt, were tightened in June 2007 when Hamas seized power.
The bloody raid caused a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey and sparked global calls for an inquiry — prompting Netanyahu’s government to set up the Tirkel Commission to look into the legality of the operation.
Panel members are not authorised to probe the decision-making process which led up to the operation, nor do they have the authority to question troops involved in storming the boats.
Israel says its commandos resorted to force only after they were attacked when they rappelled onto the deck of one of the ships, but pro-Palestinian activists on board say the soldiers opened fire as soon as they landed.
Barak took the stand on Tuesday, a day before armed forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, with both likely to be quizzed over the operational aspects of boarding the ships.
Last week Ban named his own panel, chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, to look into the deadly raid. It was due to begin work on Tuesday and includes representatives from Israel and Turkey.