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UN starts inquiry into Gaza flotilla raid

A United Nations probe has begun investigating the controversial raid by Israeli forces on an aid convoy headed toward the Gaza Strip that left nine Turkish nationals dead. An initial report is due in mid-September.

The Israeli flag and Mavi Marmara ship

The Mavi Marmara was stormed by Israeli commandos

A four-member United Nations panel on Tuesday started its investigation of a deadly raid by Israel on a flotilla of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, with Israel promising its cooperation.

"Israel has nothing to hide," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting. "It is in the national interest of the state of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world."

The Jewish state has set one condition, however: that its soldiers are not questioned as part of the investigation.

"The prime minister said Israel would not cooperate with any commission that would ask to question soldiers," a spokesman for Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

The comments came after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denied reaching a deal with Israel excluding the UN panel from interviewing Israeli military personnel. The panel, headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, also includes one Turkish and one Israeli diplomat.

The committee will present an initial report on its probe in mid-September after it has reviewed the circumstances surrounding the May 31 attack during which Israeli commandos raided a six-ship convoy. Israel was trying to prevent the ships from breaking the blockade on Gaza.

During the raid, nine Turkish citizens, including one with both Turkish and American citizenship, were killed. At least seven Israeli commandos were wounded.

The event caused an international outcry and widespread condemnation of Israel's tactics. It also soured relations between Israel and Turkey, one of the Jewish state's only allies in the region with whom it shared strong economic and political ties.

New approach

In the past, Israel has refused to cooperate with investigations into its behavior on the international stage and responded with boycotts or by simply ignoring them. Now, however, it appears that Israel is taking a new approach, although not without prompting.

Israeli military operations in Gaza in 2009

Israel's refused to cooperate with an inquiry following military operations in Gaza in 2009

"This time, Israel sees itself now much more than in the past on the receiving end of international criticism. They are under significantly more pressure now to cooperate," Almut Moeller, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

Strong pressure on Israel has come not only from the UN, but from the Obama administration and the Europeans. The German parliament, in an unusual move, passed a unanimous resolution in July calling for an end to Israel's blockage of the Gaza Strip.

Israel chose not to cooperate with the Goldstone probe, which looked into Israeli's attack on Gaza in which more than 1,300 Palstinians were killed. Israel came away from that inquiry cast in a very negative life, and it might be that Israel doesn't want to repeat the experience.

"This cooperation can be seen as a signal from the Israeli government that it is not blind and deaf to international criticism," Margret Johannsen, a senior research fellow at the Hamburg-based Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, said.

Ties to Turkey

Israel's decision to cooperate could have much to do with its desire to repair its ties with Turkey, it strongest Muslim and regional ally on both the economic and political level. After the May 31 raid, relations between the two states deteriorated enormously.

In July, Turkey threatened to break diplomatic ties with Israel over the flotilla raid and Turkey's foreign minister said ties would only be maintained if Israel either apologized or accepted the outcome of the international inquiry.

A video still purporting to show Israeli soldiers aboard a vessel surrounding a Turkish ship

A video still purporting to show Israeli soldiers aboard a vessel surrounding a Turkish ship

Israel refused to apologize, but did say it was interested in avoiding any further deterioration of bilateral relations.

Israel has been a major arms supplier to Turkey, and the two countries have entered into multiple agreements that have seen them cooperating in several areas, especially on defense matters.

After a devastating 1999 earthquake in Turkey, Israel sent one of the largest international teams to help. In 2000, the two signed the "Turkish-Israeli free-trade agreement." Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to enter into such a deal with the Jewish state.

Fair and balanced?

The UN investigation is but one of several going on right now. Israel is carrying out its own probe into the raid, with Prime Minister Netanyahu giving testimony on Monday.

"I am convinced that at the end of your investigation, it will become clear that the state of Israel and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) acted in accordance with international law," Netanyahu told members of the five-person Tirkel Commission.

Turkey reportedly began carrying out its own inquiry days after the raid, allegedly looking to make a criminal case against top Israeli officials. The UN Human Rights Council is conducting a probe, not to be confused with the UN investigation starting Tuesday. But Israel has refused to cooperate with that body, claiming that it is biased.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel has nothing to apologize for

UN chief Ban has sought to find a way to conduct the investigation in a way that would satisfy both Turkey and Israel. His choice of Oezdem Sanberk, a former undersecretary at the Turkish foreign ministry, and Joseph Ciechanover, a former senior official at the Israeli foreign ministry, is a tactic to dampen possible criticism that the panel could tilt to one side.

"[The panel's makeup] increases its credibility in Israel itself and makes it harder for people to present the panel as biased against Israel from the outset," said Mideast expert Johannsen.

Whatever the panel's findings, experts agree that there will likely be no sanctions placed on Israel, even if the investigation finds fault with its actions. Sanctions depend on the UN Security Council, and it's very probable that the United States, a strong Israel ally, would veto any sanction resolution.

Still, Johannsen thinks the probe is crucial not only for both Turkey and Israel, but also for the international community at large.

"While it won't result in any sanctions, it's important that the investigation take place because it highlights the importance of international law," she said.

Author: Kyle James, Darren Mara (AFP/AP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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