MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem
PEACE CAMPAIGNERS in Israel claimed victory yesterday in a legal tussle with the Israeli government to increase the powers of a commission investigating the botched raid on a Turkish aid vessel that left nine civilians dead and Israeli diplomacy in tatters.
A compromise decision of the Israeli supreme court opened the door for the Turkel Commission, which includes David Trimble as one of two international observers, to subpoena soldiers and military commanders – a move the Israeli government had fought to prevent.
Meanwhile, the military’s own operational inquiry into the pre-dawn commando raid on the Mavi Marmara on May 31st levelled scathing criticism at the higher echelons of the Israeli navy, citing a series of intelligence and planning failures that led to the deaths of the vessel’s passengers and international embarrassment for Israel.
As a direct result, Israel has been forced to ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip after a four-year siege failed in its declared aims of bringing down the Hamas government and securing the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit.
The “Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010” was created under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court justice Yaakov Turkel in June, but no sooner had hearings begun than Turkel demanded his powers be increased. At the same time, the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) movement petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the commission either be reconstituted as a full state commission of inquiry or scrapped.
On July 4th, the Israeli government bowed to Judge Turkel’s demands and reconstituted his inquiry into a government inquiry commission, which under Israeli law has powers to subpoena witnesses and compel them to testify under oath. But it excluded military personnel.
Veteran Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery told The Irish Times that the government’s decision was illegal, since the newly empowered commission had the right under law to summon any witness, including soldiers.
Mr Avnery said yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was “a double victory” for Gush Shalom.
“It was the first time in the history of Israel that the court agreed to intervene in a matter concerning boards of inquiry. There have been many petitions before and they all have been refused,” said Mr Avnery.
“Second, the court actually said that if Turkel wants to interrogate soldiers he can do so. If the government does not accede to this demand, then we all go to the court again and the court will do what it deems fit.
“There’s a strong hint that then they will compel the government to agree,” he said.
The government had argued that the parallel military inquiry that reported yesterday made it redundant for Judge Turkel’s commission to also question soldiers, but they agreed to the compromise suggested by the court.
The findings of the military inquiry headed by reserve Brig Gen Giora Eiland appeared to raise more questions than they answered.
“The team concluded that not all possible intelligence-gathering methods were fully implemented and that the co-ordination between navy intelligence and the Israel defence intelligence was insufficient,” the committee said in a statement.
“The anticipated level of violence used against the forces was underestimated . . . The operation relied excessively on a single course of action, albeit a probable one, while no alternative courses of action were prepared for the event of more dangerous scenarios,” said the committee.