Israel to probe Gaza ship raid
Jerusalem - Israel's cabinet convened on Monday to approve an Israeli inquiry into a deadly raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, a panel set to include two foreign observers after international calls for an impartial investigation.
"I am convinced the commission's uncovering of the facts will prove Israel's aims and actions and those of the Israel Defence Forces were proper acts of defence in accordance with the highest international standards," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters at the start of the cabinet session.
The White House welcomed the move as an important step and said Israel was capable of conducting a fair probe into the May 31 operation to prevent a six-ship aid flotilla from breaking its blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Israel said its commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists when they boarded a Turkish-flagged vessel and were attacked by passengers with metal rods and knives.
Retired judge to head panel
The bloodshed touched off a world outcry and damaged Israel's ties with Muslim ally Turkey.
An official statement on Sunday said a retired Israeli Supreme Court judge, Jacob Turkel, would head the committee.
It will include two other Israelis - an international law expert and a former general - and two non-voting foreign observers: David Trimble, a Northern Ireland politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Canadian jurist Ken Watkin.
Netanyahu asked his cabinet to give final approval to the formation of the "independent public commission".
The panel's mandate, as stipulated in the official statement, did not appear to pose a threat to Netanyahu's political survival as it did not include an examination of his government's decision-making role in the raid.
Instead, it will examine whether Israel's Gaza blockade and the flotilla's interception conformed with international law and also investigate the actions taken by the convoy's organisers and participants, the statement said.
Raid soldiers not testifying
Israel, which has faced mounting world pressure to ease or lift the blockade, says it has a right to stop Gaza-bound ships to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas.
Netanyahu has said soldiers and officers who took part in the raid or planned the operation, which was seen by Israelis as a fiasco, would not testify before the commission.
The panel would be able to use testimony given to a separate military board reviewing operational details of the assault. The civilian commission will publish a report, but it was not immediately clear when it would issue its findings.
Israel rejected a proposal by UN secretary-general Ban ki-Moon for an international inquiry panel, saying it had the right to investigate the interception on its own.
Red Cross: Gazans being punished
"While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly," a White House statement said.
"We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community."
Hamas, which won a Palestinian election in 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip from fighters loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction in 2007.
On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the blockade violated the Geneva Conventions and called for its removal.
It said "the whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility".
"Nobody will hide anything. As the prime minister has announced, the senior political echelon or anybody else in the government whom the commission will want to invite will come and will tell things as they are," cabinet minister Benny Begin told Israeli Army Radio.