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U.N. panel to investigate Gaza flotilla incident

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Flotilla video tells two stories
  • The former New Zealand prime minister will chair the panel of inquiry
  • Israel and Turkey will both have representatives on the panel
  • Its first report is due by mid-September
  • United Nations
  • Gaza
  • Palestine
  • Israel

United Nations (CNN) -- Calling it an "unprecedented development," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Monday the U.N. will launch a panel of inquiry to investigate the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident that left nine Turkish activists dead.

"For the past two months, I have engaged in intensive consultation with the leaders of Israel and Turkey on the setting-up of a panel of inquiry on the flotilla incident," Ban said in a statement. "Today I am very pleased to announce the launch of the panel. This is an unprecedented development. I thank the leaders of the two countries with whom I have engaged in last-minute consultations over the weekend, for their spirit of compromise and forward-looking cooperation."

The panel will be led by Geoffrey Palmer, former prime minister of New Zealand, as chairman and Alvaro Uribe, outgoing Colombian president, as vice-chair, Ban said. Representatives from Israel and Turkey will be the panel's other two members.

The panel will begin its work on August 10 and submit its first progress report by mid-September, the statement said. Ban said he hopes the panel's work will "give me recommendations for the prevention of similar incidents in the future."

He said he also hopes the agreement will "impact positively on the relationship between Turkey and Israel as well as the overall situation in the Middle East."

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The United States welcomed the announcement. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the panel will receive and review reports from both Israeli and Turkish investigations into the incident, and issue recommendations on how such incidents can be avoided in the future.

"The panel is not a substitute for those national investigations," Rice said in a statement. "It complements them, affording Israel and Turkey the opportunity to present the conclusions of their investigations to the international community."

Israel has maintained its troops used force on the activists after they were attacked by those on board one boat in the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. Soldiers were attacked with knives, metal poles and other objects, Israeli officials have said. But passengers on board the boat insist they were fired upon without provocation.

The incident left a wide-ranging military and diplomatic alliance between the Jewish state and Turkey, its powerful regional ally, badly shaken and drew international outrage.

Israel maintains it must inspect all goods entering Gaza so that weapons do not get into the hands of militants. Gaza is run by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that has said it is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Israel had asked the flotilla to dock at the port of Ashdod so its cargo could be inspected and transferred to Gaza, but flotilla members refused.

"Israel has nothing to hide," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. "The opposite is true. It is in the national interest of the state of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world, and this is exactly the principle that we are advancing."

Israel had previously resisted demands for an international inquiry into the incident, but an Israeli military investigation was conducted into the boarding of the Mavi Marmara and it criticized some aspects of the operation.

The operation prepared only one course of action and had no backup plan, military commanders were not presented with options other than boarding the ship, and different branches of military intelligence did not coordinate well enough, the report found.

But the report said the commando team that boarded the ship operated properly, with bravery and professionalism, and that the use of live fire against the activists was justified.

The Israeli Commission of Inquiry also is conducting an ongoing investigation into the incident and is not expected to complete it for some time.

Rice said the United States hopes the panel "can serve as a vehicle to enable Israel and Turkey to move beyond the recent strains in their relationship and repair their strong historic ties."