Netanyahu: Action against Gaza aid ship was ordered as 'last resort'

By Joel Greenberg
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday told an Israeli commission investigating a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May that the action was ordered as a "last resort" after diplomatic efforts failed, and that the army was told to make every effort to avoid casualties.

Netanyahu, the first witness to testify before the inquiry panel, said that the Israeli government had anticipated resistance aboard the largest ship carrying Turkish activists and tried to plan for the public relations fallout of a confrontation.

Statements by the flotilla organizers indicated that they wanted to break Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip by "creating a provocation" and instigating "media-covered friction at sea with the Israel Defense Forces" that would create "international pressure to remove the naval blockade," Netanyahu said.

Yet in a ministerial consultation a few days before the raid, the consensus was that "despite the expected propaganda damage, the blockade must be enforced because of the matter's importance for Israel's security," Netanyahu said.

Late Monday, Israel threatened to stop cooperating with a U.N. inquiry into the raid if it tries to call Israeli soldiers to testify, the Associated Press reported.

A statement from Netanyahu's office said the prime minister "makes it absolutely clear that Israel will not cooperate with and will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers," according to the Associated Press. The statement came in response to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's comment at a news conference that there was no agreement to exempt Israeli soldiers from questioning before the panel.

The raid disrupted Israel's relations with Turkey and sparked an international outcry that eventually compelled Israel to ease its land blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas.

The five-member Israeli inquiry panel, headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, is looking into the legality of the flotilla raid May 31 and of the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Two foreign observers are taking part in the commission hearings: Northern Ireland politician David Trimble and Kenneth Watkin, a former chief military prosecutor from Canada.

During the pre-dawn raid, nine Turks, including one with dual Turkish-American citizenship, were killed by commandos in violent clashes that erupted after they landed on the largest flotilla vessel, the Mavi Marmara, from helicopters. The raid was carried out in international waters after the aid ships ignored warnings not to continue to the Gaza Strip.

The flotilla was organized by the Turkish charity IHH, or Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which has close links to Turkey's Islamist governing party.

"Beginning on May 14, my office held contacts with the highest levels of the Turkish government," Netanyahu said. "These contacts . . . were intended to prevent any confrontation with the Marmara flotilla. . . . But as we got closer to the date of the flotilla's arrival, it became clear that diplomatic efforts would not stop it. . . . Apparently the Turkish government did not see possible friction between Turkish activists and Israel as something that contradicts its interests."

At a meeting with senior ministers to prepare for the repercussions of a confrontation, "I asked that the friction be minimized as much as possible, and that a supreme effort be made to avoid harm to life and limb," Netanyahu said. "I know that the defense minister and army chief of staff gave the same directive."

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