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U.N. Chief Moving Ahead With Investigation of Deadly Israeli Raid, Israel Says

Flotilla Raid

May 31: This image made from video provided by the Israeli Defence Force shows what the IDF says is one of several commandos being dropped onto the Mavi Marmara ship by helicopter in the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli commandos rappelled down to an aid flotilla sailing to thwart a Gaza blockade on Monday, clashing with pro-Palestinian activists on the lead ship in a raid that left at least nine passengers dead.AP

An Israeli official said Sunday that U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon is moving ahead with plans for an international commission to investigate Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

Ban wants former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, a maritime law expert, to head the panel, which would include Israeli, Turkish and U.S. representatives, the Foreign Ministry official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Ban has not announced details of his proposal.

The push for an international inquiry puts Israel under further pressure to explain how its attempt to stop the ship from breaching a blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza turned deadly. It could also cast light on the motives and plans of some of the ship's passengers who Israel says were Islamic extremists intent on attacking its troops.

The outrage over the deaths has also prompted calls from many nations, including the United States, for at least a partial lifting of a blockade that Israel says is necessary to isolate the Islamic militants of Hamas and keep them from expanding their arsenals.

On Saturday, Israel took over another ship without incident. All 19 activists and crew were to be deported Sunday, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said.

U.N. officials in Israel had no information on Ban's planned investigation, which the secretary-general first indicated he would pursue on Wednesday.

The U.N.'s humanitarian chief, John Holmes, on a visit to Australia, said the U.N. "was pursuing the question of an independent investigation of these events. And also, we want to try to help if we can if the conditions are right, to make sure that the aid reaches those it was intended for."

An inner Cabinet of senior ministers was to meet later Sunday to discuss Ban's proposal and other options for investigating the deadly raid, the Foreign Ministry official said.

Israel has resisted an external investigation into the raid, saying it is capable of investigating itself. It also resists subjecting its soldiers to an international inquiry.

International involvement in the inquiry, however, could ease the diplomatic strains with Turkey, once a close ally but now a vehement critic.

Eight Turks and a Turkish American were killed in the May 31 raid, and a preliminary autopsy report released by Turkey on Saturday said they were shot a total of 30 times. Israel said its forces acted in self-defense against people it described as Islamic extremists.

The Turkish ship was part of a six-vessel international aid flotilla and was the only one of the boats where violence broke out between Israeli troops and passengers. Video footage from the Israeli military and Turkish TV showed passengers attacking Israeli forces with metal bars as they rappelled onto the ship's deck from a helicopter.

"According to the information we have in our hands now, this group boarded separately in a different city, organized and armed itself separately and boarded the vessel without the inspection that the others did," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

"The clear intent of this violent group was to initiate a violent confrontation with Israeli soldiers," Netanyahu said.

The grave diplomatic fallout from the raid has Israel reconsidering its Gaza blockade, imposed in 2007 after Hamas overran the territory. Israel argues that a blockade is necessary to keep weapons and other military components out of the hands of Gaza militants who have attacked Israel with bombs, rockets and mortars for years. It had also hoped the blockade would weaken Hamas by deepening the privation in already impoverished Gaza.

In practice, however, the blockade's efficacy has been badly weakened by a network of border tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that has served as a conduit for both weapons and commercial goods. And it has only deepened animosity among Gaza's 1.5 million residents toward Israel rather than provoke anger against Hamas.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, on Friday joined other nations in saying the blockade in its current form is not sustainable -- adding further pressure on Israel to find another way to keep weapons out.

Mideast envoy Tony Blair told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday, "We need a policy that protects completely Israel's security ... but we need also to try and help the people there [in Gaza]."
Blair represents the Quartet of Mideast negotiators -- the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia.

Israeli Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog told The Associated Press that Israel is talking to its allies about possibly easing the flow of goods to Gaza, but provided no details.

The Associated Press contributed to this report