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Israel agrees to U.N. probe of raid

Panel will oversee other reports on Gaza flotilla

JERUSALEM – Israel agreed Monday to participate in a U.N. investigation of its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last spring, a surprising departure from its traditional distrust of the world body.

Israel expressed confidence the inquiry would find its actions justified. However, its decision to cooperate reflects the hit Israel’s world standing has taken in the wake of the assault and the spotlight it turned on its three-year blockade of impoverished Gaza.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope the panel would meet the Security Council’s call for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation” of the May 31 confrontation in which nine Turkish activists, including one with U.S. citizenship, died after being shot by Israeli commandos boarding their ship.

The four-member U.N. panel will be chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and co-chaired by outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and include a Turkish and an Israeli representative, Ban said. It will start work Aug. 10 and submit its first progress report by mid-September.

U.N. officials said their inquiry would not be a court-like tribunal, and it was not clear whether it would even call its own witnesses. Instead, its mandate is to oversee the separate investigations now under way by Israel and Turkey and determine if they are credible.

Israel’s sudden acceptance of a U.N. inquiry counters decades of suspicion of the world body because of its routine near-unanimous votes against the Jewish state in the General Assembly.

Israel said it would send a representative to sit on the panel and would furnish reports from its own inquiry, but ruled out allowing soldiers or military officers to testify.

“Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “It is in Israel’s national interest to ensure that the factual truth about the entire flotilla incident will be made public, and that is precisely the principle we are promoting.”

Israeli officials said the new panel would be “balanced and fair,” since Ban set it up himself. Israel contrasted that with the inquiry into Israel’s invasion of Gaza 18 months ago to try to stop rocket attacks, set up by a U.N. human rights body Israel accuses of bias.

Israel boycotted that inquiry, which ended up accusing both Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers of war crimes.

Israel insists the blockade is needed to keep weapons out of the hands of Gaza’s radical Islamic Hamas rulers. Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets at Israel, and Israel warns that allowing free flow of weapons into the coastal territory by sea would endanger countries beyond Israel.

Government spokesman Mark Regev would not commit Israel in advance to accepting the findings of the commission, saying: “We’re entering this process in confidence that we’re talking about a panel that will be credible and objective.”

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