x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

'Toothless' Gaza raid inquiry as Israel eases blockade

Weak probe into attack on Gaza aid ship denounced by Palestinians and Turkey as lacking credibility.

Israel's cabinet yesterday approved a commission of inquiry into its May 4 attack on a flotilla headed for Gaza. The defence minister Ehud Barak listens at left as the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at right, speaks during yesterday's meeting in Jerusalem.
Israel's cabinet yesterday approved a commission of inquiry into its May 4 attack on a flotilla headed for Gaza. The defence minister Ehud Barak listens at left as the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at right, speaks during yesterday's meeting in Jerusalem.

TEL AVIV // Israel yesterday named the team who will conduct an internal inquiry into its botched commando attack on a Gaza-bound aid ship two weeks ago, in which nine people died. The investigation was welcomed by the United States, but immediately denounced by Palestinians and by Turkey as toothless and lacking credibility, despite the inclusion of two foreign observers.

Meanwhile Tony Blair, the international envoy to the Middle East, said Israel has indicated it will ease its crippling three-year-old blockade of Gaza within days. The former British prime minister spoke during a summit of European Union members in Luxembourg, during which the 27-member bloc demanded that Israel lift the "unacceptable and counterproductive" siege. Mr Blair said Israel has agreed to allow more supplies into Gaza, including food and building materials, while maintaining a ban on arms, armaments and explosives. The major change is that a list of specifically banned goods will replace the current restrictive list of permitted items.

Israel said its inquiry panel will be headed by Jacob Turkel, a retired Israeli supreme court judge, and will include an Israeli international law expert and an ex-army general. David Trimble, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland and a Nobel peace laureate, and Ken Watkin, Canada's former chief military prosecutor, will observe the proceedings but will have no voting rights on the panel's proceedings or findings. Their access to some confidential documents is also likely to be restricted.

Israeli commentators said the panel was part of a deal with the US under which Israel would agree to loosen its restrictions on Gaza in exchange for backing from Barack Obama, the US president, for an internal and weak Israeli investigation into the aid ship attack. Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said: "The transaction is that Israel will go further than it was initially prepared to in order to lift the blockade on Gaza, without losing control over the import of war materials into the territory, and in return will have a commission with few powers."

An easing of Israel's siege is likely to divert attention from what appears to be a powerless investigation. The panel will look at the legality of the raid and examine whether the blockade conforms with international law, but it will not question the commandos, relying instead on summaries of the army's internal investigation. The choice of Mr Turkel also appeared to be convenient for Israel's political echelon. The former judge told Israeli radio in an interview after the attack on the ship that he is not a believer in drawing conclusions about individuals in such inquiries, or dismissing those responsible for failure. Furthermore, some Israeli commentators yesterday also questioned the speed and efficiency at which the commission will work, given the ages of its Israeli participants. While Mr Turkel, at 75, is the youngest of them, he will be joined by Shabtai Rosen, a 93-year-old British-born professor and former diplomat, and Amos Horev, an 86-year-old retired army major general and a former president of an Israeli university. The Israeli government also appeared to be in no hurry for the commission to launch its work, setting no deadline for it to publish its findings. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, insisted yesterday that the committee will give a "convincing and credible response" to the world. Suggesting that Israel needed the panel in order to salvage its image, he told his right-wing Likud faction: "This committee strengthens our ability to fight in the international political arena. There is a certain price that we are paying, but under the current circumstances this is the best move." The creation of the internal Israeli commission, however, drew condemnation from Palestinians and from Turkey. Eyad Sarraj, a prominent Gaza-based commentator and psychiatrist, who is also a campaigner for Israel to end its three-year-old blockade of Gaza, said: "Israel should not investigate itself. You cannot commit the crime and then also be the policeman, the judge and the executioner. This inquiry is an American-supported cover-up for Israel to get away with carrying out this attack." Mr Sarraj also claimed that Mr Trimble's presence makes the inquiry biased towards Israel because he is known to be close to Dore Gold, a confidant of Mr Netanyahu. Mr Trimble also last month became one of the prominent co-founders of the pro-Israel, Paris-based advocacy group "Friends of Israel" - which was established just one day after the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said after a meeting in Paris with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, that the Israeli inquiry "does not correspond to the request of the United Nations security council" for an impartial and credible investigation. Turkey also reacted angrily to the Israeli move, with Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, saying in Ankara: "Israel's one-sided inquiry is not of value to us. We want a commission to be set up under the control of the United Nations." He threatened that Turkey may "take measures" in its relations with Israel should its demands not be heeded. Turkey, until now Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world, has already withdrawn its ambassador from Tel Aviv and cancelled military drills with Israel. Yesterday, Turkish papers reported that the country had suspended talks with Israeli defence companies on a US$180 million (Dh660m) deal for unmanned aircraft. In Gaza, Hamas dismissed the possibility that Israel may ease its blockade and condemned its announcement of an investigative panel. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said: "The international community should strive for a complete halt to the Gaza siege and not give Israel the opportunity to escape from its responsibility for the crimes it has committed." foreign.desk@thenational.ae