The Israel Defense Forces was responsible for deciding how to carry out the raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla of ships that ended in bloody clashes and the deaths of nine people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday told an Israeli commission of inquiry into the incident.
On May 31, Israel Navy commandos boarded the six ships that made up the flotilla, which was primarily made up of activists from a Turkish organization, in an effort to prevent them from breaking through an Israeli marine blockade and reaching Gaza. The naval commandos who boarded the sixth ship - the Mavi Marmara - were met with violence and the nine were killed in the subsequent clashes.
The incident exacerbated tensions between Israel and Turkey, whose formerly friendly relations had been strained by a three-week Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
When asked by the head of the panel, retired chief justice Jacob Turkel, whether or not it was the IDF which decided the means by which to halt the flotilla, Netanyahu said, "Yes, that's standard procedure." He added that it is the role of politicians "to determine policy" while "it is up to the military to execute it."
"The IDF had always decided on the ways in which to enforce the blockade [on Gaza] and has done its job well," the prime minister said, saying that this was the "division of labor."
When asked by the commission how the decision on military action was received, Netanyahu said that that all of those involved "felt that the raid was a last resort, and the instructions were to conduct it with as little friction as possible."
"The IDF had looked into several options, as per my instructions, but also according to the instructions of the defense minister and the chief of staff," Netanyahu said.
When panel member Amos Horev's asked which options were considered, Netanyahu evaded the question, instead asking to discuss the matter behind closed doors.
When asked by former justice Turkel who Netanyahu had put in charge of the operation during his trip to the United States a few days prior to the flotilla's arrival, the PM named Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
"I want there to be one person," Netanyahu said, adding that Barak had been "that person, I had a very important meeting with [U.S. President Barack] Obama."
The prime minister also told the commission that the implications of a military operation was discussed during the May 26 meeting of senior cabinet members known as the Forum of Seven, but said that the discussion had centered more around the public relations fallout the operation might have.
"We didn't discuss the details of the operation, except for the media impact," Netanyahu said. He declined to answer several questions from panel members, saying he would only respond to them behind closed doors.
Regarding the information Israel had received prior to the flotilla's arrival, Netanyahu said that Israel had known that the convoy had been organized by the IHH, which was declared a terror organization more than a year prior by the defense minister.
According to the PM, It was obvious that the "flotilla organizers were interested with clashing with the IDF," adding that that was the information "that I had as well as that which every other member of the Forum of Seven had as well as any official who dealt with the matter."
Netanyahu's opening statement: Panel will find Israel had acted within the law
In opening remarks given prior to the panel's questioning, Netanyahu praised the mission set forth by the panel saying, "no country or army examines itself more thoroughly than Israel and the IDF."
He continued by reiterating what he saw as the importance of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, saying that the measure was intended to stop shipments of arms from arriving at the Hamas-ruled Strip.
"Hamas has transformed the Gaza Strip into a terrorist enclave sponsored by Iran," Netanyahu said, describing the "thousands of rockets and missiles" Iran supplies as well as the "military training and funding" that Iran gives to Hamas.
Netanyahu said he hoped the panel would emphasize in its report Hamas's violations of international law: "inciting to genocide; systematically and intentionally firing on civilians; using civilians as human shields; and preventing visits by the Red Cross to kidnapped IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit."
Netanyahu added that the world was bent on considering the situation in Gaza as a humanitarian crisis, even though there had been photos published of Gaza market stalls filled "to the brim" with food. Food and medicine had all been allowed into Gaza, the Prime Minister noted.
"While we did prevent a humanitarian crisis, we did not succeed in preventing the image of a humanitarian crisis – an image that was entirely false," Netanyahu said.
The Karin A, a ship intercepted by Israel carrying Iranian weapons, was used as evidence by the Prime Minister to denote the danger of an "open sea lane to Gaza."
Netanyahu described efforts that the government made in the month before the flotilla left for Gaza.
"During the month of May, a continual diplomatic effort to this end was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs vis-a-vis many countries, including countries whose citizens were on-board or whose harbors could be used by the flotilla at any stage of its voyage – including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Britain, the United Nations, and above all with Turkey," Netanyahu said.
Elaborating on the political contacts that were made, Netanyahu said that on May 14, his office contacted some of the "highest ranking" Turkish officials. The ensuing conversation was on preventing a violent confrontation, Netanyahu noted. He said that on May 27, four days before the raid, he personally appealed to a senior official in Egyptian government and requested that they work in conjunction with the government of Turkey.
"Nonetheless, it became clear that these political efforts would not stop the ship," Netanyahu said. "Given the lack of effective pressure by the Turkish government and the lack of any desire on the part of the flotilla organizers to redirect their ships to alternative ports, none of the diplomatic efforts were effective."
Netanyahu wrapped up his statement by saying the IDF soldiers had the right to defend themselves against the violent activists who, as seen in the videos released, attacked them with clubs, knives, and live weapons.
The Turkel comission's mandate
The panel investigating the raid on a the Turkish Gaza flotilla was recently granted greater authority after Turkel told the government the committee could not do its job without expanded investigative powers.
Until the change in the committee's mandate, the panel was only supposed to determine whether Israel's efforts to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza accorded with international law, and whether the soldiers' use of force was proportionate.
It had no power to subpoena witnesses and could not draw personal conclusions against those involved in the raid.
However, following Turkel's demand to turn the panel into a full-fledged governmental inquiry committee with real teeth, the committee was granted the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, warn those who testify before it that the panel's findings could harm them, and hire outside experts in relevant fields.
The committee does not, however, have the authority to subpoena IDF soldiers.
Soldiers and officers instead testified before the internal army probe into the raid's operational aspects that was headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who is scheduled to present his findings to the Turkel Committee.
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