Head of UN Panel: Gaza Flotilla Probe Faces 'Challenging' Task

As he prepares to travel to New York to begin international inquiry, former New Zealand premier Geoffrey Palmer warns of difficulties ahead.

Chairing a United Nations inquiry into Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound international convoy will be a "very challenging and demanding task," New Zealand's former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said Tuesday.

Geoffrey Palmer

The panel will investigate the events of the Israel Navy's May 31 commando raid of a six-ship flotilla, which left nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists dead. Israel had balked at the UN request in the past, but has faced international pressure to allow for an external probe into the matter.

In his announcement of the review panel earlier Monday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also announced Palmer as the designated head of the panel,  adding that  outgoing Colombian President  Alvaro Uribe would serve as vice-chair.

"The Panel will have two additional members, one each from Israel and Turkey. It will begin its work on August 10th and submit the first progress report by mid September," the UN chief added.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand on Monday, Palmer said that he didn't "underestimate how difficult it will be."

Israel Navy forces approaching the Mavi Marmara bound for Gaza, May 31, 2010.

"I can't say anything of substance on the details of this inquiry or indeed its procedures until I've been to New York and discussed the issues with both the Secretary General [Ban Ki-moon] and my colleagues on the inquiry."

Palmer, an international lawyer who briefly headed the former New Zealand Labour Party government in 1990, said: "This is a very sensitive matter. It's a quasi-judicial inquiry, so it is really very important to maintain a sense of detachment."

Palmer said he would go to New York to start work on the inquiry on the May 31 incident, in which Israel raided a six-ship convoy carrying humanitarian goods and activists heading for Gaza. Nine civilians died and at least 30 others were injured in the raid, which took place in international waters.

Palmer's comments came as U.S. envoy to the UN Susan Rice said earlier Monday that Israel's participation in the United Nations Review Panel formed to probe an Israel Defense Forces raid on a Turkish Gaza-bound flotilla eliminates the need for other international inquiries.

In a statement released Monday, Rice said that the United States expected "that the Panel will operate in a transparent and credible manner and that its work will be the primary method for the international community to review the incident, obviating the need for any overlapping international inquiries."

"The Panel, which has the support of both Israel and Turkey, will receive and review the reports of each government’s national investigation into the incident and make recommendations as to how to avoid such incidents in the future," Rice said.

Rice also expressed her hopes that "the Panel can serve as a vehicle to enable Israel and Turkey to move beyond the recent strains in their relationship and repair their strong historic ties."

The U.S. envoy to the UN added that Washington wished to "thank both governments for the constructive and cooperative spirit they have shown and the Secretary General for his leadership and determination," adding that "the focus of the Panel is appropriately on the future and on preventing such incidents from recurring."

In officially announcing the UN panel, Ban officially called Israel's participation in it an "unprecedented development."

Ban said that he had "engaged in intensive consultation with the leaders of Israel and Turkey on the setting-up of a Panel of Inquiry on the flotilla incident," saying he was very pleased to announce the launch of the Panel."

"I thank the leaders of the two countries with whom I have engaged in last minute consultations over the weekend, for their spirit of compromise and forward looking cooperation," Ban said.