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Inquiry into Israeli flotilla raid begins

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Israel, Turkey eye flotilla incident
  • NEW: Israeli prime minister says Israel had legal right to stop flotilla
  • Israeli commandos intercepted the flotilla at sea May 31
  • Nine people aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara died in the raid
  • The inquiry is being headed by a retired Israel judge

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israel operated within international law when it stopped a flotilla and raided the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, on which nine people were killed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during an inquiry into the incident.

"I'm convinced that at the end of your investigation it will be clear that the state of Israel ... operated in accordance with international law and that ... soldiers on the Marmara showed great courage in fulfilling their mission and acting in self-defense against real-life dangers," Netanyahu said.

Israeli commandos intercepted the flotilla at sea and stormed the largest vessel, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara.

The ships were carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, organizers said. The Palestinian territory has been blockaded by Israel since its takeover by the Islamic movement Hamas in 2007.

Video: Flotilla video tells two stories
Video: Spokeswoman: Flotilla was for aid
  • Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Gaza
  • Turkey
  • Israel
  • Hamas

The prime minister defended Israel's actions in setting up a naval blockade of Gaza, saying it was legal. Netanyahu said there was no humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory, because goods were able to enter through land-based access points. Netanyahu said Israel still allows humanitarian aid into Gaza despite what he called "war crimes" committed by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

When he announced the inquiry -- headed by retired Israeli judge Jacob Turkel -- in June, Netanyahu said Israeli policy was not to deny aid from reaching Gaza.

"Before the flotilla set sail for Gaza, we discussed -- in various forums -- the continuation of our policy toward the Gaza Strip," Netanyahu said. "The principle guiding our policy is clear -- to prevent the entry of war material from entering Gaza and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid and non-contraband goods into the Gaza Strip."

At that time, Tony Blair, special envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet, praised the prime minister's comments. The Quartet is a group of countries and international organizations mediating the Middle East crisis, made up of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

"I hope this will enable us to move decisively to a policy on Gaza which keeps out weapons and other combat-related material but lets in, as a matter of course, those items that Gazan people need to improve their lives. This also will enable the U.N. projects for re-construction to go ahead," Blair said.

The White House said the investigation is an "important step forward." In a statement released in June, the Obama administration called for a prompt inquiry and asked that results be presented to the international community.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that the United Nations will launch its own panel of inquiry to investigate the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident.

"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. "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 Tuesday 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."

CNN's Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.