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Netanyahu Testifies To Israeli Flotilla Probe

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (file photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (file photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said that Israeli Defense Forces acted in accordance with international law when they intercepted a flotilla of boats trying to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.

Nine Turkish rights activists died at the hands of Israeli commandos who boarded the lead ship during the May 31 incident.

Netanyahu told an official commission of inquiry that the interception took place because he could not "afford to ignore a threat to Israel's existence".

He indicated that the aid carried by the convoy would have benefited Hamas, the militant organization that runs the Gaza Strip and that does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

Netanyahu also said Israel tried to convince Turkey to stop the Gaza-bound flotilla before it sailed, but that "diplomatic efforts would not stop it."

In remarks to reporters, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that the government "took a whole series of diplomatic steps designed to prevent a clash on the high seas."

The prime minister's testimony carried on into the afternoon, and the chairman of the inquiry, retired Judge Yaakov Tirkel, said as much of the testimony as possible would be heard orally in an open room. Some of Netanyahu's evidence was given in written form or behind closed doors, however.

Live Fire

Journalists and members of the public thronged to today's session to hear Netanyahu's sworn testimony.

He will be followed over the coming days by two other top Israeli officials who were key figures in the May 31 raid, namely Defense Minister Ehud Barak and military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

At the heart of the controversy is the behavior of the Israeli commandos who landed from helicopters on the deck of the lead ship in the aid flotilla, the Turkish vessel "Mavi Marmara".

Israel says the commandos used live fire during the raid only after being attacked with clubs, knives, and guns by some activists on board who it says were prepared for violence.

By contrast, activists on board say the troops opened fire on unarmed men as soon as they landed on the deck.

The raid sparked a world outcry and almost ruptured Israel's relations with once-close Muslim ally Turkey.

Cooperation With UN

The present commission of inquiry has a problem of credibility in the broader world. It was set up by the Netanyahu government as international criticism of the nine activists' deaths grew. Israel initially rejected calls for it to participate in an internationally run inquiry, and instead set up this, its own panel, an action that many activists decry as self-serving.

However, Netanyahu partly reversed this decision on August 2, when he told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Israel would allow a UN inquiry access to the material gathered at its own present investigation. In addition, an Israeli representative will sit on the Ban panel, which starts work on August 10.

There is yet another separate inquiry being conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, but Israel says it will not cooperate with that panel, which it views as anti-Israeli.

An Israeli military inquiry ruled last month that the military failed to prepare adequately for the raid, and the "battle guidelines" issued to the commandos who raided the vessel were flawed, as was the intelligence.

compiled from agency reports