The prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel acted lawfully in a commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla which killed nine activists, in testimony before an Israeli panel. Mr Netanyahu also accused Ankara of looking to gain from a high-profile confrontation between Turkish activists on board the boat and Israel forces looking to stop it. "I am convinced that at the end of your investigation, it will become clear that the state of Israel and the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) acted in accordance with international law," Mr Netanyahu told members of the Tirkel Commission as he began testifying about the raid.
"I believe that all the details will become clear and you will get to the root of the truth," he said. The Israeli leader looked at ease as he entered the room shortly after 9 am (6am GMT), smiling at the hoards of journalists and members of the public waiting to hear his sworn testimony. Sitting at in a chair facing the five-member panel and the two international observers, Mr Netanyahu opened his testimony with an explanation of Israel's policy towards Gaza's Hamas rulers, and of the rationale behind the naval blockade.
Turkey, he said, had made no effort to prevent the six-ship flotilla from breaking the blockade even though Ankara realised it was likely to end in confrontation. "Despite our diplomatic efforts, the Turkish government did nothing" to halt the flotilla, which was organised by the "radical Turkish organisation IHH which supports Hamas," he said. "The Turkish government did not consider the confrontation between Turkish activists and Israel to be against its interests."
Even so, Mr Netanyahu insisted he had ordered troops to make a "supreme effort" to avoid hurting anyone on their mission to stop the boats from reaching the Gaza Strip. "I asked for a, quote: 'supreme effort to be made to avoid harming anyone'," he said. He also reiterated Israel's long-held assertion that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, just the perception of one. "There is no starvation in Gaza," he said, complaining about groups that "undermined the blockade through false claims of a humanitarian crisis".
The panel broke for a recess in the late morning, with all further testimony to be heard behind closed doors. Mr Netanyahu is the first of three top officials to give sworn testimony about the May 31 incident in which naval commandos stormed six aid ships trying to run the blockade on Gaza, killing nine activists and wounding scores of others. The bloody raid caused a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey and sparked global calls for an inquiry - prompting Mr Netanyahu's government to set up the Tirkel Commission to look into the legality of the operation.
Mr Netanyahu was not likely to face any awkward questions today as the committee has a mandate which is restricted to examining the international legality of the naval blockade and of the actions taken to enforce it. Panel members are not authorised probe the decision-making process which led up to the operation, nor do they have the authority to question troops involved in storming the boats. The defence minister Ehud Barak will take the stand on Tuesday, followed by the chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday, with both likely to be quizzed over the operational aspects of boarding the ships.