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Israel's defense minister defends raid on aid flotilla

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Gaza flotilla: A tale of two inquires
  • Ehud Barak: Many options were discussed, including letting the flotilla through
  • Israel will not participate if the panel wants to question soldiers
  • The United Nations launches an investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident
  • Nine people aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara died in the raid

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Defense Minister Ehud Barak testified Tuesday that he bears full responsibility for the actions of Israeli soldiers in the mid-sea interception of a humanitarian aid flotilla that left nine people dead in May.

He defended the action and said Israel went to great diplomatic lengths to stop the flotilla heading to the Palestinian territory of Gaza, and when that didn't work, it considered the implications of the use of force and weighed the possibility of simply letting the flotilla through.

In the end, Israel made the right decision, Barak said in his two-hour testimony before an Israeli commission looking into the incident.

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

"We regret any loss of life, but without the courage and skill of the commandos we would have lost more lives," Barak said.

The Israeli navy commando fought with activists on the ship, leaving one Turkish-American and eight Turkish activists dead and sparking an international outcry.

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

Video: Netanyahu: 'Israel operated within law'
Video: Israel, Turkey eye flotilla incident
Video: Flotilla video tells two stories
Video: Spokeswoman: Flotilla was for aid
  • Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Gaza
  • Turkey
  • Israel
  • Hamas

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that a separate U.N. inquiry, launched Tuesday, would help mend the strained relations. Ban met with members of the U.N. panel, which is chaired by New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and includes representatives from Israel and Turkey.

But Israel has already said that it will not participate in the U.N. inquiry if the panel asks to question soldiers.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarifies that Israel will not cooperate and will not participate in any panel that will demand to interrogate IDF soldiers," said government spokesman Nir Hefetz.

Netanyahu said Israel operated within international law when it stopped the flotilla and raided the Mavi Marmara on May 31.

"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 Monday, the opening day of the Israeli probe.

Israel has maintained its troops used force on the activists only after they were attacked by those on board. 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 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.

"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."

CNN's Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.