Israel hopes inquiry will turn spotlight on activists

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Image caption,
The panel will not be allowed to directly quiz the soldiers who took over the ships

Israel's inquiry into the actions it took against the Gaza flotilla is a carefully calibrated response to the international pressure it faces to provide an accounting for an operation in international waters that cost nine lives.

The inquiry concedes that it has to have an international element.

Without this it would not have been accepted either by the European Union or more importantly the United States.

Even with it, it will be rejected by Israeli critics as inadequate. There had been calls for a full international investigation. (Update: Turkey has already rejected the inquiry.)

There will be two outside participants - Northern Ireland unionist and former First Minister David Trimble and former Canadian Judge Advocate General (senior military judge) Ken Watkin.

Image caption,
Inquiry observer David Trimble joined a "Friends of Israel" group recently

David Trimble recently joined an international "Friends of Israel" group set up by Dore Gold, a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Trimble is now a Conservative peer.

Brig Gen Watkin has a record of legal activism in military affairs.

He wrote a memo in 2007 warning senior Canadian officers that they could be held "criminally negligent" if they did not prevent or investigate prisoner abuse.

But these two figures seem to have been downgraded to the role of observers.

They will presumably be allowed to see the papers but probably not to determine the outcome.

Conforming to law?

Nor will the inquiry have a free hand. It will not be allowed to directly question the soldiers who took over the ships.

Instead, it will have to rely on summaries from an internal investigation headed by an Israeli general, though it can ask for more information if it is not satisfied.

It remains to be seen what access they will have, or will seek, to the activists on board.

The inquiry will be led by a former Supreme Court justice Yaakov Tirkel, assisted by Amos Horev, a reserve major general and Shabtai Rosen, a professor of international law and former Israeli diplomat.

Such a panel, involving a senior judge, is quite usual for an Israeli inquiry. The international element is potentially significant, though, in establishing the principle of such a presence in future inquiries.

Its formal brief is to:

  • examine the "security circumstances" of the naval blockade on Gaza and whether this conforms to international law
  • decide if the actions of 31 May (the night of the action) conform to the principles of international law
  • consider the actions of those who organised and took part in the flotilla "and their identities"

By adding the last requirement, the Israeli government hopes that not only will its blockade and its soldiers' actions will be approved, but the spotlight will also turn on the activists on and behind the flotilla.

The inquiry has to do one other thing.

It is being asked to decide whether Israel's procedures, both in this incident and more generally, for investigating claims of violations of the laws of war conform to the rules of international law.

This appears to be a reference to the Gaza inquiry held by South Africa Judge Richard Goldstone, under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.

Israel strongly objected to what it felt was interference and that its own response to claims of war crimes was adequate.

It is now asking this panel to give an opinion on the Israeli approach.

There is no doubt that the critics will also have their view.

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