Israel's lethal raid on a Turkish Gaza-bound ship was legal, and the Navy commandoes who carried out the operation deserve much praise, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the probe into the incident Thursday.
"I am certain that your investigation will find that the State of Israel and the IDF acted in accordance with international law, and that IDF fighters aboard the Marmara displayed remarkable courage while carrying out their duty and protecting themselves from a real threat to their lives," Netanyahu told a panel investigating the May 31 commando raid.
Nine Turkish citizens were killed in the raid.
"I trust the IDF's fighters and the entire State of Israel is proud of them," the PM said Monday morning during his testimony before the investigative committee, which is headed by former justice Jacob Turkel.
In his testimony, the prime minister said the ministers did not hold an in-depth discussion on the commando operation itself, but focused on the media-related aspects of the affair. According to him, the ministers supported upholding the blockade despite the possible repercussions.
"The operation was a last resort. I, the defense minister, and the army chief called for minimal friction – yet we prepared because we knew there's an intention to undermine Israel's image," he said. "I sought a brainstorming session of the forum of seven top government ministers on how to prevent this. We did not discuss the operation, with the exception of the media effect."
The prime minister also appeared to shift responsibility to Defense Minister Barak, who he said was the man in charge while the PM was abroad.
"I left instructions and asked the defense minister to activate me and the top ministers if necessary. I wanted there to be one address here in Israel and he (Barak) was that address," the prime minister said.
Netanyahu said that in late April and early May Israel began receiving information on the IHH's involvement in the planned voyage. "The intent was to cause provocation and international pressure on Israel," the PM said.
'Gaza a terror enclave'
Netanyahu began his testimony in Jerusalem at around 9 am before the five committee members and two foreign observers.
"I am the first to appear in this distinguished committee," said Netanyahu. "Many will follow me, and I believe we will clarify all the details and get to the root of the truth."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is scheduled to appear before the panel on Tuesday, and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday.
In his testimony, Netanyahu said "hostile elements used the preposterous argument of a humanitarian crisis to try and break the naval blockade."
The prime minister further noted, "This was and is Hamas' main reason in trying to promote the various flotillas." He also mentioned that the flotilla's spokeswoman claimed that the journey's goal was to break the siege and not provide aid.
He said Hamas has turned Gaza into a "terror enclave" with "Iran's backing," adding that Israel began to ease the blockade before the incident.
Addressing Israel's preparations for the flotilla, the PM said, "I convened the forum of seven ministers and asked to be updated on the final diplomatic and public relations efforts and to hear more ideas in order to minimize the diplomatic price of a confrontation, which even then seemed inevitable.
"At the conclusion of the meeting I instructed that the diplomatic and PR-related tasks be divided up, because I was about to depart for an important meeting with the president of the United States. I asked (the ministers) to make every effort to minimize friction (with the Gaza-bound ship) and avoid (bodily harm to the passengers). I know this was also the instruction given by the defense minister and chief of staff," Netanyahu said.
The Turkel Commission was established in the wake of intense international pressure to investigate the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, which was trying to break Israel's blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory.
In early July cabinet voted to extend the panel's jurisdiction, and now its authority is similar to that of a governmental commission of inquiry, such as the Winograd Commission, which was established following the Second Lebanon War.
Despite the establishment of the Turkel Commission, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set up another inquiry commission to investigate the raid. Israel is cooperating with the UN investigation.
UN Human Rights Council in Geneva established its own inquiry commission, but Israel has said it would not cooperate with it.
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