Patrick Worsnip
August 10, 2010 - 12:00am

The United Nations sought to head off any potential clash with Israel over a U.N. inquiry into a deadly Israeli assault on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, as a panel began work on the task on Tuesday.

A U.N. statement on an inaugural meeting between the four-man team and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that the inquiry was "not designed to determine individual criminal responsibility." Instead it would "examine and identify the facts, circumstances and the context of the incident."

Ban set up the inquiry last week into the May 31 raid in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists after boarding their vessel, which was attempting to run Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel said the activists had tried to violently resist the boarding.

The action led to a sharp deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations and forced Israel to ease the blockade of Gaza, which the Jewish state says is to prevent Palestinian Hamas militants from acquiring the military capability to attack Israel.

Israel, which has completed its own military investigation of the incident and started a civilian one, eventually agreed -- at what diplomats said was the urging of the United States -- to cooperate with the investigative panel set up by Ban.

After meeting Ban, the panel led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and including Israeli and Turkish representatives met to consider how to go about its task, the United Nations said.

The U.N. statement said Ban had told the panel "they should seek the fullest cooperation of the national authorities" -- a reference to Israel and Turkey.


One possible point of friction with Israel has already emerged after Ban denied on Monday that the world body had struck a secret deal with the Jewish state not to call Israeli soldiers to testify. "There was no such agreement behind the scenes," he told reporters.

Ban's comment prompted a sharp rejoinder from Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev that "Israel will not cooperate with, and will not participate in, a panel that demands to investigate Israeli soldiers." Regev did not say whether there had been a deal on the issue.

Questioned by reporters at a news briefing, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky referred to but did not repeat Ban's comment. He defended a decision not to publish the panel's mandate, saying disclosure was "not normal practice."

Asked whether the panel would have any power to subpoena witnesses -- a term signifying legal compulsion -- to appear before it, Nesirky said, "Absolutely not." But he did not say whether the team might still ask to talk to Israelis.

"It will be for the panel to decide how they work and what they ask for," he said.

One of the panel's tasks will be to study the results of both Israeli and Turkish investigations of the flotilla incident, but Nesirky said its work would not be limited to that. "It goes well beyond simply reviewing reports," he said.

The panel is also asked to recommend how to avoid a repeat of the flotilla incident.

Turkey and Israel appeared still far apart over the incident. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Israel should admit sole responsibility for the deaths, while Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Jewish state had exhausted all other options before carrying out its raid.


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