Israel resists international probe into Gaza ship raid

The United States, less outspoken than most of Israel's enemies and friends since nine people on the Mavi Marmara were killed on Monday, backed calls from the European Union, Turkey and the United Nations for some form of international inquiry.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden suggested an Israeli probe with international involvement.

Turkish and foreign pro-Palestinian activists arrived to a hero's welcome in Istanbul from the government and leveled charges of "war crimes" and unjustified killings at the Israeli marines who stormed the cruise liner Mavi Marmara and five other ships in international waters under cover of dark.

The allegations, coming after activists were released from Israeli custody, were not possible to verify immediately.

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, speaking on Army Radio, said "there is a need for an investigation to draw lessons," an apparent reference to a narrow Israeli inquiry into the operational details of the commando raid.

"As far as we are concerned there is no need for a commission of inquiry," he said, using Israel's term for a state panel, usually led by a judge, that would look into all aspects of the operation, including decisions made by political leaders.

Steinitz made no mention of any international participation.

Israelis have been shocked by military video of commandos being winched onto the ship's deck from helicopters only to be outnumbered and set upon with sticks by activists.

Officers say their men opened fire to save their lives and that two of the ship passengers shot at them with pistols seized from marines.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unrepentant defense of the four-year-old blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in a televised address on Wednesday, lambasting European and other governments for "hypocrisy" in challenging Israel's efforts to prevent the Iranian-backed Islamists from arming.

He made no mention in his speech of any investigation.

International Demans

Political sources in Israel said the issue for the government now was not whether to launch an inquiry but what kind would satisfy the very different demands of Israeli public opinion and that of the international community.

The Foreign Ministry dismissed a vote by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a forum Israel says is deeply biased against it, to form an independent fact-finding mission to look into what it called violations of international law.

Israel was stung by a U.N. inquiry into the three-week offensive it launched in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 which found evidence its forces committed war crimes, allegations Israeli leaders denied.

Three Turkish planes brought some of a total of about 700 people detained on the convoy from Tel Aviv to Turkey. They also carried the simple wooden coffins of the nine killed.

Their identities are still uncertain, though Israel has said it believes most of them were Turks.

"We've been scared, frightened, kidnapped and attacked with battleships," said Mustafa Ahmet from Britain.

As activists disembarked they lifted their arms in defiance, but afterwards some were overcome with emotion and wept.

Several accused the Israeli army of destroying evidence: "The soldiers shot a doctor who wanted to surrender and they threw dead bodies into the sea," said Bulent Yildirim, chairman of IHH, the Islamic charity which organized the convoy.

Kevin Ovenden of Britain said a man who had pointed a camera at the soldiers was shot dead through the forehead.

Many of those waiting at Istanbul's Ataturk airport carried Palestinian flags and bore slogans such as "murderer Israel."

The killings of Turks onboard the flotilla has brought the already strained relationship between the Jewish state and Turkey's Islamist-leaning government close to breaking point.

Turkey recalled its ambassador and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, charging Israel with "state terrorism" has called for those responsible for the deaths to be punished.

Arab states will ask the U.N. Security Council to demand an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, the Arab League chief said.

The Council, with Israel's ally the United States holding a veto, is unlikely to do that, although Western powers have been discussing how to pressure Israel to do more to let in supplies for the benefit of the 1.5 million people stuck in the enclave.

"Once again, Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment," Netanyahu said.

"The international community cannot afford an Iranian port on the Mediterranean ... The same countries that are criticizing us today, should know that they could be targeted tomorrow."

Egypt opened its Rafah border crossing to Gaza indefinitely on Wednesday -- a step seen as an attempt by Cairo to deflect criticism of its role in imposing the Gaza blockade on Hamas, which is allied with Egypt's main Islamist opposition.

U.S. Vice President Biden on Wednesday backed Israel's right to board ships bound for Gaza to prevent weapons smuggling, but said Washington was concerned about the plight of people there.

"Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest," Biden told PBS television. He stressed President Barack Obama's support for an impartial investigation.

"It's legitimate for Israel to say, 'I don't know what's on that ship. These guys are dropping eight -- 3,000 rockets on my people,'" he said, referring to Hamas.

But Biden said the United States also needed to "put as much pressure and as much cajoling on Israel as we can" to allow in aid shipments such as building materials.

He said an Israeli investigation with international involvement might resemble this year's probe in South Korean into the sinking of a warship, now blamed on North Korea.

[Source: By Alastair Macdonald, Reuters, Jerusalem, 03Jun10]

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