Israeli inquiry says navy obeyed law in deadly flotilla raid

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; A07

JERUSALEM - An Israeli commission of inquiry into a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May concluded Sunday that the Israeli navy acted in accordance with international law when it intercepted the ships in international waters, and that Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory is legal.

"The Israeli armed forces' interception and capture of the Gaza Flotilla vessels in international waters - seaward of the blockaded area - was in conformity with customary international law,'' the first part of a lengthy report released by the government-appointed panel said.

A second part, which will judge decision-making by Israel's leaders with regard to the raid, will be released in the coming weeks.

Nine Turks, including one Turkish American teenager, were killed in violent clashes with Israeli naval commandos as the commandos boarded the largest ship of the convoy in a pre-dawn raid off Israel's coast May 31 in an attempt to prevent it from reaching the Gaza Strip.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara on Sunday that the report has "no value or credibility'' and was "made to order.''

Turkey's own National Inquiry and Investigation Commission established to look into the raid said it was "surprised, appalled and dismayed" that the report exonerated Israel.

The incident soured ties between Israel and Turkey - the vessel's origination point - and sparked widespread international condemnation of Israel and its policy of closing the Gaza Strip. Israel says the policy was designed to weaken the Hamas-led government that rules the territory and to prevent Hamas's leaders from obtaining weapons.

Israel is at war with Hamas, a Palestinian organization that the United States and Israel both define as a terrorist group. Hamas also is a popular Palestinian political party that won elections in 2006.

The Israeli commission, led by retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel, found that the elite Israeli commando unit boarded the Mavi Marmara - from speedboats and from a hovering helicopter - in a manner that "was consistent with established international practices.''

The force used by Israeli commandos was "proportionate'' and in accordance with law enforcement norms, the commission said.

The Israeli commission's findings contradict those of the United Nations Human Rights Council's international fact-finding mission, which concluded in September that Israel's interception of the Mavi Marmara was "clearly unlawful.'' That panel's report found that the Israeli military had acted with "brutality'' that "constituted grave violations of human rights law and international law.''

During the raid, commandos carried paintball and salt-bullet guns used in riot control, but under the rules of engagement they were allowed to use live ammunition if they thought their lives were in danger, Israel's army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, testified in August.

The Israeli commission said that activists aboard the ship - armed with iron bars, axes, clubs, slingshots, knives and other metal objects - organized into groups as the Israeli commandos prepared to board and then violently assaulted the commandos. The commission also said the activists used firearms, but it could not determine whether they had brought the guns with them or had fired weapons seized from the Israelis.

"Overall, the IDF personnel acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence,'' the commission said.

The panel included two nonvoting international observers, who, as part of the report, wrote, "We have no doubt that the Commission is independent.''

A separate, U.N.-backed international panel headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer is conducting its own inquiry into the incident.

zachariaj@washpost.com Special correspondent Gul Tuysuz contributed to this report

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