Netanyahu to Gaza flotilla probe: IDF coordinated the deadly raid
The Israel Defense Forces was responsible for deciding how to carry out the raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla of ships that ended in bloody clashes and the deaths of nine people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday told an Israeli commission of inquiry into the incident, Haaretz reported.
On May 31, Israel Navy commandos boarded the six ships that made up the flotilla, which was primarily made up of activists from a Turkish organization, in an effort to prevent them from breaking through an Israeli marine blockade and reaching Gaza. The naval commandos who boarded the sixth ship - the Mavi Marmara - were met with violence and the nine were killed in the subsequent clashes.
The incident exacerbated tensions between Israel and Turkey, whose formerly friendly relations had been strained by a three-week Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
When asked by the head of the panel, retired chief justice Jacob Turkel, whether or not it was the IDF which decided the means by which to halt the flotilla, Netanyahu said, "Yes, that's standard procedure." He added that it is the role of politicians "to determine policy" while "it is up to the military to execute it."
"The IDF had always decided on the ways in which to enforce the blockade [on Gaza] and has done its job well," the prime minister said, saying that this was the "division of labor."
When asked by the commission how the decision on military action was received, Netanyahu said that that all of those involved "felt that the raid was a last resort, and the instructions were to conduct it with as little friction as possible."
"The IDF had looked into several options, as per my instructions, but also according to the instructions of the defense minister and the chief of staff," Netanyahu said.
When panel member Amos Horev's asked which options were considered, Netanyahu evaded the question, instead asking to discuss the matter behind closed doors.
When asked by former justice Turkel who Netanyahu had put in charge of the operation during his trip to the United States a few days prior to the flotilla's arrival, the PM named Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
"I want there to be one person," Netanyahu said, adding that Barak had been "that person, I had a very important meeting with [U.S. President Barack] Obama."
The prime minister also told the commission that the implications of a military operation was discussed during the May 26 meeting of senior cabinet members known as the Forum of Seven, but said that the discussion had centered more around the public relations fallout the operation might have.
"We didn't discuss the details of the operation, except for the media impact," Netanyahu said. He declined to answer several questions from panel members, saying he would only respond to them behind closed doors.
Regarding the information Israel had received prior to the flotilla's arrival, Netanyahu said that Israel had known that the convoy had been organized by the IHH, which was declared a terror organization more than a year prior by the defense minister.
According to the PM, It was obvious that the "flotilla organizers were interested with clashing with the IDF," adding that that was the information "that I had as well as that which every other member of the Forum of Seven had as well as any official who dealt with the matter."
Netanyahu's opening statement: Panel will find Israel had acted within the law
In opening remarks given prior to the panel's questioning, the premier reiterated what he saw as the importance of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, saying that the measure was intended to stop shipments of arms from arriving at the Hamas-ruled Strip.
Netanyahu added that the world was bent on considering the situation in Gaza as a humanitarian crisis, even though there had been photos published of Gaza market stalls filled "to the brim" with food.
Netanyahu described efforts that the government made in the month before the flotilla left for Gaza.
"During the month of May, we made ongoing political efforts to the countries that were involved with the flotilla as well as countries whose ports the flotilla intended to pass through, including the counties of Ireland, Greece, Egypt and, specifically, Turkey," Netanyahu said.
Elaborating on the political contacts that were made, Netanyahu said that on May 14, his office contacted some of the "highest ranking" Turkish officials. The ensuing conversation was on preventing a violent confrontation, Netanyahu noted. He said that on May 27, four days before the raid, he personally appealed to a senior official in Egyptian government and requested that they work in conjunction with the government of Turkey.
"Nonetheless, it became clear that these political efforts would not stop the ship," Netanyahu said.
He said he would continue to describe these "direct efforts" that the government made only while giving closed-door testimony.
The Turkel comission's mandate
The panel investigating the raid on a the Turkish Gaza flotilla was recently granted greater authority after Turkel told the government the committee could not do its job without expanded investigative powers, Haaretz reported
Until the change in the committee's mandate, the panel was only supposed to determine whether Israel's efforts to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza accorded with international law, and whether the soldiers' use of force was proportionate.
It had no power to subpoena witnesses and could not draw personal conclusions against those involved in the raid.
However, following Turkel's demand to turn the panel into a full-fledged governmental inquiry committee with real teeth, the committee was granted the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, warn those who testify before it that the panel's findings could harm them, and hire outside experts in relevant fields.
The committee does not, however, have the authority to subpoena IDF soldiers.
Soldiers and officers instead testified before the internal army probe into the raid's operational aspects that was headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who is scheduled to present his findings to the Turkel Committee.