Monday, November 29, 1999

Israeli panel on Gaza raid says will work quickly

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Israel's committee of inquiry into a deadly raid on a Gaza aid flotilla convened for the first time on Wednesday and said it hopes to finish its investigation as quickly as possible."I hope we can begin the committee's meetings as quickly as possible and also finish as soon as possible," the committee's chairman, retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, said in comments before a preliminary gathering.Israel, under mounting international pressure, formed the five-person panel -- including two foreign observers -- to investigate events surrounding its May 31 interception of a six ship convoy heading to the Gaza Strip.Nine Turks were killed when Israeli commandos boarded one of the vessels heading to Gaza in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade. Israel says the marines opened fire after being attacked by activists wielding knives and clubs.Turkel, along with two other Israeli members, set up guidelines for future hearings. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defence minister and the military chief of staff, are expected to testify before the committee.The two non-voting foreign observers -- David Trimble, a Northern Ireland politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Canadian jurist Ken Watkin -- were not at Wednesday's preliminary meeting.A statement issued by the panel afterwards said all future proceedings would be held in Hebrew with simultaneous English translation for the international participants.The decision to form the panel coincided with growing signs that Netanyahu was poised, under world pressure, to ease the flow of goods into the blockaded territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians and ruled by Hamas Islamists since 2007.The committee has a mandate to examine whether the Gaza blockade and the flotilla's interception conformed with international law and also investigate the actions taken by the convoy's organisers and participants. Israel says its embargo is necessary to limit arms smuggling to Hamas.Turkey, which has cut back ties to the Jewish state since the raid last month, has said Israel's investigation will be biased and reiterated demands for a U.N.-controlled probe.(Writing by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Noah Barkin)

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