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The Israeli government on Monday approved the creation of an independent probe into last month’s deadly raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, following sharp international criticism of the incident.
The panel – described as a special independent public committee – was proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and welcomed by Washington.
It will be headed by Yaakov Turkel, a former judge on the Israeli supreme court, and will include two non-Israelis as observers: David Trimble, the Northern Ireland politician and Nobel peace prize laureate, and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate-general of the Canadian armed forces.
Israel has come under strong international pressure to allow an independent probe into the raid, during which Israeli naval commandos shot dead nine pro-Palestinian activists. The convoy of six ships marked the most ambitious attempt yet to break Israel’s embargo on the Gaza Strip.
By setting up its own panel of inquiry, the Israeli government is hoping to blunt some of the recent criticism and to prevent the creation of an international, or United Nations-led, committee of investigation.
Separately, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now the international Middle East envoy, said that Israel had agreed in principle to a significant opening of the Gaza blockade in a matter of days.
The White House, in a statement issued on Sunday night, described the new committee as an “important step”. It added: “While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel’s commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly. We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community.”
According to the Israeli prime minister’s office, the committee will examine three aspects of the raid: the lawfulness of Israel’s maritime blockade against Gaza; the lawfulness of the actual raid on the Gaza aid convoy; and the behaviour of the pro-Palestinian activists on board the ships.
“The committee will be impartial, professional, comprehensive and transparent, and will meet the highest international standards,” an Israeli official said Sunday, pointing out that none of the committee members will hail from the “executive branch.”
The committee will have the power to question senior political and military leaders, including the prime minister, defence minister and the chief-of-staff. It will not, however, be able to quiz the actual soldiers involved in the night-time assault.
Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday that his government was also still considering ways to ease the long-running blockade on Gaza. “The principle guiding our policy is clear – to prevent war materiel from entering Gaza and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid and non-contraband goods into the Gaza Strip,” he said.
One idea currently under discussion in Israel is to allow all goods into Gaza apart from specific products named on list. Currently, the system operates in the opposite way, meaning that Israel blocks all goods from entering Gaza, except those on a list of approved goods.
Western diplomats hope that the switch – if approved by Israel – will make it much easier to get humanitarian supplies to Gaza.