Israeli Gaza inquiry 'will be little more than a whitewash'

Israel is considering extending the mandate of a commission of inquiry that it set up in June to look into the deadly raid on a flotilla of ships bringing aid to Gaza.

JERUSALEM // Israel yesterday announced that it was considering extending the mandate of a commission of inquiry that it set up in June to look into the deadly raid on a flotilla of ships bringing aid to Gaza. But critics say the remit of the commission is framed to ensure a whitewash of last month's fatal raid, which resulted in the killing of nine activists.

Jacob Turkel, the retired chief justice who heads the commission, was supposed to have started his inquiry on Monday. But with an initial mandate that excluded him from summoning witnesses, he requested broader powers from the government last week, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and warn them that the committee might recommend that punitive action be taken against them. A statement on Tuesday from the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said the government would look "favourably" into the matter. The work of the commission has now been set back until July 11 as a consequence.

The government, however, will not grant Mr Turkel the power to summon soldiers or navy commanders involved in the raid, and the limited scope of the panel's investigation also remains an issue. The commission is supposed to investigate whether the Israeli raid, which took place in international waters, was legal under international law and whether soldiers acted with proportional force. But without being able to summon soldiers involved in the raid, it is not clear how the commission can come to a fair decision.

Moreover, focusing the inquiry on the legality of the raid precludes any investigation into the legality of Israel's blockade on Gaza or how the government reached its decision to intercept the flotilla. As such, said Uri Avnery, a veteran Israeli peace activist and the head of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group that has petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court over the scope of the inquiry, the commission has more to do with "damage limitation" than any attempt to get at the truth.

"It was quite obvious that the initial aim of the commission was to pacify Barack Obama [the US president]," said Mr Avnery. The expanded powers now sought by Mr Turkel are a "partial victory", Mr Avnery said, describing the revised position of Mr Turkel, who had initially accepted the limited scope of the inquiry, as an attempt "not to make an ass of himself". However, it is still not enough, insisted Mr Avnery.

"What we need is a commission that has full judicial powers, not partial powers as Netanyahu wants," he said. "More importantly, the terms of reference need to include what actually happened and how the government's decision to raid the flotilla was reached. As it is, the main objective is still to ensure a whitewash." The composition of the commission has also been widely criticised. Mr Turkel is a conservative former head of the Supreme Court who has been critical of past international censures of Israel.

Amos Horev is a retired army general while Shabtai Rosen is a frail 93-year-old law professor who was recently pictured in the Israeli media hooked up to an oxygen machine. The UN has called for an international investigation, as has Turkey, while Human Rights Watch has repeatedly questioned Israel's track record in investigating itself. The inclusion of two non-Israeli observers without voting power has not allayed fears over the impartiality of the commission. One of the observers, David Trimble, the Northern Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner, is also a member of "Friends of Israel", a group that was established last month and includes John Bolton, the hawkish former US ambassador to the UN as well as Jose Maria Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister.