JERUSALEM, June 28 (JMCC) - The Terkel inquiry, established by Israel
to investigate the deadly raid on the Gaza
bound aid flotilla
on May 31 held its first meeting on Monday.
In the opening speech, retired supreme court justice and head of the commission Ya’acov Terkel announced that “the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff and other senior witnesses” would all be summoned to testify.
It may however, be some time before the panel begins to hear testimonials. “It may be three or four weeks,” Ofer Lefter, the Commission’s spokesperson told JMCC.org. For now the panel is focusing on establishing the procedures for the inquiry.
A CONTROVERSIAL MANDATE
The commission’s mandate is to examine whether Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and the flotilla’s interception are in conformity with international law, confirmed Terkel in the opening speech. “The government has also asked us to regard the actions undertaken by the participants of the flotilla,” Terkel announced.
The five-person panel, headed by Terkel includes 93-year-old legal expert Prof. Shabtai Rosenne and military expert Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amos Horev. Present also are two non-voting foreign observers: Nobel peace prize laureate David Trimble, and Canadian military jurist Ken Watkin.
The Israeli cabinet established the commission on June 14 after rejecting UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s proposal for an international inquiry into the deaths of the nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara.
Since its inception, the commission has been marred by questions surrounding the impartiality of the panel. David Trimble’s position as a founding member of the organization Friends of Israel has raised concerns. Turkey, whose relationship with Israel continues to deteriorate, has rejected the panel as biased.
Sulitzeanu Kenan, professor of political science at the Hebrew University and commissions expert, defends Israel’s choice to run an internal inquiry. He believes the cabinet’s decision not to rely upon a UN-led investigation is not a sign that Israel is seeking to twist the results. It is, he says, a normal reaction.
“Just like with England and its behavior in Iraq, countries never like intervention into the handling of security affairs, he says. They feel it takes away the authority from the state.”
Trimble also sought to placate pessimistic rumors. The commission is determined that the inquiry be rigorous and hope that it can, thereby, make a positive contribution to peace” he said.
Particular contention surrounds the gathering of military evidence. Media reports at the time the panel was formed said that soldiers and officers who took part in the raid would not testify before the commission. The inquiry would instead utilize the evidence gathered by an internal Israeli military investigation.
Many argue that the evidence gathered in the military inquiry cannot be verified as impartial and won’t be recognized as such by the international community. Should the Terkel enquiry employ this as key evidence, many will reject the entire inquiry as biased.
“No one is going to take the inquiry seriously if they are not allowed to ask the people involved,” says Professor Abdel Rahman Ibrahim of Birzeit University.
Kenan however, warns that this critique is political and not legal. There may yet be scope for a more detailed investigation. “There is nothing in the terms of reference of the inquiry that says that they will not be able to ask soldiers” says Kenan, “if it complies with international law and it is necessary, I think this panel will do it.”
When asked if the inquiry will accept the internal military evidence as fact, Lefler failed to giver a clear response. “We are going to learn it,” he told JMCC.org.
The scope of the commission’s mandate has also been criticized. During Netanyahu
’s testimony, for example, the panel will not be able to question the government’s decision-making role in the raid.
The naval blockade of Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinian residents, has been in place for three years. Although Israel, on June 20 eased the land blockade, its naval embargo remains in place.
A conclusion from the panel deeming the blockade illegal under international law would prove a considerable victory for the Palestinians. However there is little optimism for this result.
“This is a joke inquiry, ” says Ibrahim. “It is not going to help, as it is not objective in any way. There should be an international investigation under the auspices of the UN or the Security Council.” This, says Ibrahim, is the only way that real answers to the events of May 31 can be uncovered.