Israeli military sets up panel to examine deadly raid

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military said it will have its own experts examine what caused a naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla to turn deadly, while nations led by Turkey condemned the operation and intensified demands for an international investigation.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military said it will have its own experts examine what caused a naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla to turn deadly, while nations led by Turkey condemned the operation and intensified demands for an international investigation.

Turkey’s president released a statement Tuesday from 21 Asian countries meeting at a security summit that said “all member states, except one, expressed their grave concern and condemnation for the actions undertaken by the Israeli Defence Forces.”

President Abdullah Gul said 21 of the 22 nations in the grouping, which includes Israel, have also called on the Jewish state to end its blockade of Gaza and to agree to an international investigation of the incident.

An overwhelming majority of the countries also called for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and for Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and place all of its nuclear facilities under the safeguard of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Gul said.

Israel managed to block a joint declaration by the group, whose decisions require consensus, that would have condemned the raid, forcing Turkey to issue a separate statement attached to the declaration.

Israel is widely believed to have a sizable nuclear arsenal. Israel refuses to confirm or deny the suspicions

Israel’s so-called policy of nuclear ambiguity is a cornerstone of its military deterrence. It has long said that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace must precede such weapons bans.

Israel has never signed the non-proliferation treaty, which requires members to open nuclear facilities to inspection and to disarm.

Israeli commandos rappelled onto the deck of one of the ships trying to break Israel’s three-year-old blockade of Gaza. The soldiers were intercepted by a crowd of activists, setting off a clash that killed nine men — eight Turks and a Turkish American.

Israel says its soldiers began shooting only after a mob of pro-Palestinian activists attacked them — a version backed up by video footage released by the army. But the activists and their supporters say Israeli commandos needlessly opened fire.

The incident triggered a storm of criticism of Israel, which has rejected calls for an international investigation, saying it would be biased against the Jewish state.

Russia’s powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, added Moscow’s weight to the calls for such a probe.

“It has to be investigated specially,” Putin said at a news conference in Istanbul with Turkey’s prime minister, a fierce critic of Israel since its war in Gaza 18 months ago.

The Israeli experts will review several internal military investigations already under way. The military said it expects findings by July 4 into what went wrong with last week’s naval operation.

Israel has so far failed to defuse the calls as well as pressure to end the blockade, part of a landslide of diplomatic fallout that has included serious damage to its relations with Turkey, once the Jewish state’s most important Muslim ally. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent the ruling Hamas militant group from importing weapons.

While Israel and Turkey still have strong military ties, Turkey’s government has been building closer alliances over the past year with some of Israel’s most bitter enemies, including Iran and Syria.

Turkey unofficially sponsored the flotilla’s lead ship, where the violence occurred.

“We condemn this act,” Putin said of the raid. “The fact that it was conducted in neutral waters evokes special regret and requires separate consideration.”

A day earlier, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood side-by-side with Syrian President Bashar Assad — whose country plays host to Palestinian militant groups — and accused Israel of state terrorism.

In addition to the military inquiry, Israel’s government is seeking a formula for a broader probe that would defuse calls for an impartial investigation.

Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers on Monday proposed establishing a commission of Israeli jurists, joined by foreign observers, whose mandate would be to examine the legality of the Gaza blockade and the commandos’ conduct.

The proposal has been shown to U.S. and international officials to see if it meets their criteria for an impartial probe, government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been officially announced.

The U.S. Embassy had no comment on the details of the proposal.

Critics in Israel have faulted the proposal, saying it doesn’t empower commission members to investigate the political decision-making that led up to the raid or intelligence failures ahead of the deadly confrontation. In addition, soldiers would not be questioned.

Past experience has made Israel wary of letting outside powers lead an investigation.

A U.N.-appointed panel headed by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone accused Israel of war crimes in the Gaza offensive in the winter of 2008-2009. Israel rejected the accusations.

In Gaza Tuesday, Palestinians said they retrieved the body of two more militant divers killed in a clash with Israeli sailors off the coast a day earlier. Israel’s navy said Monday that it had opened fire on Palestinians in diving suits whom it spotted in the waters off Gaza. The military claimed, without providing details, that its forces prevented an attack on Israel.

Four bodies were retrieved on Monday and Gaza health official Dr. Moiaya Hassanain said two more bodies had been found Tuesday.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades said Monday that members of its marine unit were training in Gaza’s waters.

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