IDF chief Gabi Askenazi, L, and PM Benjamin Netanyahu, June 7, 2010
IDF chief Gabi Askenazi, L, and PM Benjamin Netanyahu, June 7, 2010 Photo by Reuters
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The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday that it will conduct its own internal investigation into last week's botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has appointed Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland to head the probe.

The panel is charged with analyzing the failures of, and learning lessons from, the commando raid on a Turkish-flagged ship, which left nine Turkish passengers dead and several dozen people wounded.

Meanwhile, the government is awaiting a "green light" from the United States and other sources on a separate proposal for how to investigate the incident.

The government's seven senior ministers agreed yesterday to establish a panel of jurists to probe the raid, whose work would be independent of the IDF probe. But a senior government source noted that if the type of panel proposed, and its mandate,

is not acceptable to Washington and does not enjoy the backing of the Obama administration, "there is no point in establishing it."

The proposed panel must ultimately be approved by the full cabinet, but a vote will be held only after the U.S. promises to back it.

Discussions over the nature of the committee were conducted all day yesterday between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the White House, continuing well into the night. Dan Shapiro, who holds the Middle East portfolio at the U.S. National Security Council, was in Israel to discuss an investigation of the raid with Netanyahu's advisers.

A senior source in Jerusalem said the panel would be comprised of top jurists with experience in international and marine law. Two international jurists - at least one of them American - would be invited to participate as observers, the source added.

In addition to investigating the circumstances surrounding the navy's seizure of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the committee would also be charged with examining the legality of Israel's naval and land blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The panel would also examine whether the navy used proportionate or disproportionate force during its takeover of the ship. Israel says the deaths occurred after the naval commandos were viciously attacked by the passengers and were forced to open fire in self-defense.

However, the forum of seven ministers decided, the panel will not be allowed to interrogate soldiers or officers who took part in the commando raid. It is not yet clear whether it will be allowed to interrogate senior IDF officers such as Ashkenazi and Israel Navy commander Adm. Eliezer Marom.

An official announcement of the panel's proposed composition is awaiting approval from the attorney general, who must first ensure that none of the committee members have potential conflicts of interest.

"We want to announce the makeup of the committee and its mandate only after we receive legal authorization, and also a positive response from the U.S.," a senior official in Jerusalem said yesterday.

The ministers' decision comes on the heels of a United Nations proposal to establish an international committee comprising representatives of Israel, the U.S., Turkey and one or two other states to investigate the incident. Despite growing international pressure, Netanyahu has balked at that proposal, saying Israel has the right to investigate itself.

During yesterday's meeting of the "septet" forum, some ministers pressed Netanyahu to announce the establishment of an inquiry committee in order to ease the international pressure on Israel.

"We must finish this quickly," one of the ministers said. "We have already dragged it out for too long."

Earlier yesterday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak pledged that Israel would examine ways to minimize friction in enforcing its blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza. "We intend to investigate the events," he said in response to a no-confidence motion in the Knesset.

Barak gave no details about the format of the probe, other than to say that the state panel would operate alongside the separate military investigation, and that it would seek to establish whether both Israel's four-year blockade of Gaza and last week's raid "met the standards of international law."

"We will learn lessons at the political level [and] in the defense establishment," Barak said. "Since the incident, we have heard and read mountains of statements and questions, and without a doubt, in the coming months we will discuss the lessons ... perhaps additional ways to achieve the goals of the blockade, by reducing the potential for friction as far as possible."

In the IDF probe, Eiland and his team will gather new material of their own in addition to considering testimony from navy personnel that has been gathered in the week since the raid. Ashkenazi decided to appoint the inquiry panel due to the "great importance with which the IDF views a comprehensive clarification of the facts related to its operational activities," the army said in a statement.