31 mayo 2010

Israel needs national inquiry into deadly Gaza flotilla clashes


There is no other fitting or proper way to clarify the circumstances of the incident, which began as an act of protest and ended with dead demonstrators and a grave international crisis.

By Aluf Benn

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must return immediately from North America and convene a national committee of inquiry into Israel's interception of a Gaza aid convoy on Monday, during which at least nine activists were killed.

There is no other fitting or proper way to clarify the circumstances of the incident, which began as an act of protest and ended with dead demonstrators and a grave international crisis.

The government failed the test of results; blaming the organizers of the flotilla for causing the deaths by ignoring Israel's orders to turn back is inadequate. Decisions taken by the responsible authorities must be probed.

Nor can Monday's bloodshed be dismissed with claims that the demonstrators attacked IDF commandos with guns and other weapons. This type of excuse shifts responsibility from the political and military decision-makers to the soldiers, who acted in the heat of combat and for fear of their lives. It may be convenient to Netanyahu and his partners in government to present the battle as a local incident that escalated – but they cannot escape responsibility for the crisis.

This time, no one can put the debacle down to inexperience. Netanayhu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and his defense minister, Amir Peretz – both military novices – came to grief in Lebanon in 2006 with that excuse.

The acting prime minister, Moshe Yaalon, and the defense minister, Ehud Barak, are both former chiefs of staff. Between them they have near matchless experience of military planning and combat.

Netanyahu may have been their junior during his service with the elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal – but has a formidable record of handling intelligence and operations. They could, if pushed, have foreseen the consequences of Monday's action.

A committee of inquiry would have to answer several salient questions:

Tactics. What prompted the decision to stop the flotilla by force - what course of action was presented to the politicians who made the decision and what analysis was made of the consequences of using live fire in any confrontation?

Were there any dissenting views, was there anyone how pointed to the inevitable damage to Israel from any operational failure? What steps were taken to forestall an escalation?

Alternatives. Was any effort made to stop the flotilla through diplomacy, or through negotiation and compromise with its organizers? Or did the government rush headlong into a confrontation, without any thought for the alternatives? Was there anyone who advocated letting the boats through to Gaza, rather than making them a test of Israel's sovereignty and might?

Turkey. What has the government done in the past year to improve ties with a strategically crucial neighbor? How has the prime minister worked to redress the damage to relations with Ankara?

The siege of Gaza. What is the purpose of the siege? Is it just an automatic extension of the previous government's policy, or does it have some practical aim? How much has the usefulness of the policy been discussed during the current government's year in office?

It is clear that public opinion is broadly in favor of punishing Gaza for the continuing captivity of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. But the government needs to think about what advantage effect this has on the national interest – and not just on its popularity in weekly opinion polls. Did any of this happen?

Israel's Arab minority. Yisrael Beiteinu's "loyalty" campaign, an attempt by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's right-wing party to enforce laws to stamp down expressions of nationalism by Israeli Arabs, has been followed by the arrest of Arab activists charged with spying for Hezbollah. What effect will this have had on the fierceness of Israel-Arab protest? Did the government consider deepening its ties with the Arab minority? Will it act now, after leading Israeli Arab took part in the flotilla and suspected injuries to the head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, Raed Salah, aboard one of the protest boats? Have representations been made to Arab community leaders in an effort to forestall internal conflict?

All are weighty issues that demand deep scrutiny by an independent body, which must lay its findings before the international community. Only a national committee of inquiry can meet this need and ameliorate the heavy criticism Israel will face for killing demonstrators.

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