UNITED NATIONS, (AFP) – UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Monday announced a four-member panel, including an Israeli and a Turk, to probe Israel’s deadly raid in May on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.
The panel, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and with outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as vice chairman, will begin work August 10 and submit a first progress report by mid-September.
After weeks of insisting it would not cooperate with any international probe of the May 31 raid, in which nine Turkish activists were killed, Israel announced Monday that it would work with the UN panel.
The Jewish state had rejected calls for an international independent investigation into the commando assault, and instead launched two internal inquiries.
The about-turn followed diplomatic contacts and consultations with a seven-member Israeli ministerial forum to ensure that “this was indeed a panel with a balanced and fair written mandate,” Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday.
“Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true,” the Israeli leader said. “It is in the national interest of the state of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world and this is exactly the principle that we are advancing.”
Ban thanked the leaders of Israel and Turkey “for their spirit of compromise and forward-looking cooperation” which made possible what he called “an unprecedented development.
“I hope that today’s agreement will impact positively on the relationship between Turkey and Israel as well as the overall situation in the Middle East,” he added.
The announcement came as the United States presses Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks next month.
On Friday, the UN boss discussed the make-up of panel with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak here.
Ban said he also held last-minute consultations with Israeli and Turkish leaders over the weekend.
He did not immediately identify the Israeli and the Turk who will sit on the panel but said the team would give him recommendations “for the prevention of similar incidents in the future.”
The May 31 Israeli commando raid on the aid flotilla sparked a deep crisis in already strained relations between Turkey and Israel, once close allies.
Ankara has urged the Jewish state to apologize, compensate the families of the victims and lift the blockade of Gaza to repair the relations.
Israel says its commandos used force only after they were attacked with sticks and stabbed as soon as they landed on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara.
In the wake of the incident, Israel significantly eased its blockade of Gaza, barring only arms and goods that could be used to create weapons or build fortifications, but it has maintained a naval blockade of the Strip.
Israel imposed the siege in June 2006 after its soldier, Gilad Shalit, was captured by Gaza militants and tightened it a year later when Hamas seized power in the coastal strip.
Last month, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council named its own panel of experts to probe whether the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla breached international law.
But Israel has signaled it will not cooperate with that probe because it views the Council as “biased.”