- Associated Press - Monday, August 9, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the deadly commando raid on an international flotilla protesting the Gaza blockade in opening testimony before an internal inquiry commission Monday, and suggested Turkey had sought the violent confrontation on board.

Mr. Netanyahu told the commission that Ankara had rejected Israel’s prior appeals to halt the flotilla and refused to intervene despite the prospect of violence between Israeli troops and the Turkish Islamic charity that organized the mission.

“As we got closer to the date, it became clear our diplomatic efforts would not stop it,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Apparently, the government of Turkey did not see potential friction between Turkish activists and Israel as something that goes against its interests.”

The six-ship flotilla was trying to deliver aid to Gaza when it was intercepted by Israeli naval commandos enforcing a blockade of the seaside strip. When troops encountered unexpected resistance on one of the vessels, the Mavi Marmara, they opened fire and killed nine Turkish activists, one of them a dual American citizen.

The bloody crackdown sparked wide international outcry and pressured Israel to loosen the blockade of Gaza, imposed with Egypt after Hamas militants seized control of the coastal territory in June 2007.

The five-member Israeli commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court justice and joined by two foreign observers, is looking into the government’s decision-making leading up to the raid. Although it does not have the power to mete out punishment, its findings could be politically damaging to Mr. Netanyahu and other top officials.

Israel’s defense minister and military chief of staff also will face the commission. The United Nations has announced an inquiry of its own.

A separate Israeli military inquiry found that military intelligence had failed to predict the violent resistance on board the Turkish vessel and that troops went in unprepared, expecting only passive resistance. But it said the commandos had acted properly.

Israel has released video footage showing the commandos being pummeled with wooden planks and metal rods as they landed on the ship. The pro-Palestinian activists on board the Mavi Marmara have said they acted in self-defense after Israeli troops landed on their boat in international waters. Both the military and the activists have accused each other of sparking the violence.

There was no immediate comment Monday from Ankara. Turkey has criticized Israel harshly for the raid, and ties have cooled considerably since. Turkey recalled its ambassador and also has demanded that Israel apologize for the raid. Israel has refused to do so.

During his testimony, Mr. Netanyahu refrained from answering some security-related questions — such as Israeli intelligence assessments — and promised to do so in a later hearing that was closed to the media.

However, he defended Israel’s action on board the vessel and accused the pro-Palestinian activists of provoking the violence. He said the Israeli soldiers displayed “exceptional bravery in carrying out their mission and in defending themselves from genuine and lethal danger.”

“I am convinced that, in the end of your investigation, it will be clear that Israel and the Israel Defense Forces acted in accordance with international law,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Mr. Netanyahu said he instructed the military to make every effort to avoid bodily harm to the protesters and contrasted these instructions with the activists, whom he quoted as saying that the “Jews need to go back to Auschwitz.”

He claimed the truth about the raid began to emerge only after Israeli video footage showed troops being assaulted on board.

“With their release, the understanding began to trickle down among honest people around the world that the Marmara was not exactly ‘The Love Boat’ and that the IHH people were not exactly docile peace activists,” he said.

The IHH is an Islamic charity that has close ties to the Turkish government as well as the Hamas government in Gaza. Israel outlawed the group in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas. The group is not listed by the U.S. State Department or the European Union as a terror organization. IHH vehemently denies ties to radical groups.

The five-member commission is headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. Beside Justice Turkel, 75, the commission includes a retired general, Amos Horev, 86, and Shabtai Rosenne, a 93-year-old international jurist and diplomat.

International pressure led Israel’s government to include two foreign observers: David Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, Canada’s former chief military prosecutor.

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