JERUSALEM – An Israeli panel on Sunday cleared the military and government of any wrongdoing during last year's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound international flotilla, but the finding appeared unlikely to repair damage to Israel's standing.
Nine pro-Palestinian activists, eight Turkish citizens and a Turkish American, were killed as Israeli commandos boarded one of the ships in the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, last May 31. The report said the armed defense of Israel's maritime blockade of the Hamas-ruled coastal strip was justified under international law.
A wave of international condemnation of the raid forced Israel to ease the blockade.
The incident damaged relations with Turkey and led the U.N. chief to order an international investigation. Turkey swiftly condemned Sunday's report, saying it was "surprised, appalled and dismayed."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the inquiry.
"I hope all those who rushed to judgment against Israel and its soldiers will read this report and learn the truth about what happened," Netanyahu said. "The truth is that our soldiers were defending our country — and defending their very lives."
The nearly 300-page report echoed an earlier military investigation that faulted the planning and execution of the operation. Even so, it said the blockade of Gaza and the raid were legal and justified.
"The actions carried out by Israel on May 31, 2010, to enforce the naval blockade had the regrettable consequences of the loss of human life and physical injuries," read the report. Nonetheless, "the actions taken were found to be legal pursuant to the rules of international law."
The flotilla aimed to bring attention to the blockade of Gaza, which Israel imposed after Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier in 2006 and tightened after Hamas seized control of the territory the following year.
Israel said the blockade was needed to prevent Hamas, an armed group that has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, from building up its arsenal. Critics have noted the blockade did little to weaken Hamas or halt weapons smuggling, while causing widespread economic hardship and shortages of foods and other basic items.
Israeli forces were sent to commandeer the ships before dawn after the flotilla ignored radio warnings to turn back and refused an offer to dock at an Israeli port and transfer humanitarian aid into Gaza overland. One of the ships radioed to the Israelis to "go back to Auschwitz," according to a military recording cited in the report.
Five small ships were commandeered without incident, but soldiers rappelling from helicopters onto the deck of the Marmara, with some 600 passengers on board, were attacked by several dozen activists armed with bars, slingshots and knives as they landed on deck one by one, according to video footage released by the military.
The Israelis, caught off guard, were beaten, and some were thrown onto a lower deck. According to Sunday's report, two soldiers were shot, apparently with weapons wrested from the Israelis.
Both soldiers and activists have said they acted in self-defense.
The flotilla was organized by an Islamic aid group from Turkey known by the acronym IHH. Israel banned IHH, which has ties to Turkey's Islamic-oriented government, in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas.
Turkey, formerly one of Israel's closest allies, recalled its ambassador to Israel after the incident, and ties between the former allies have not recovered.
An official Turkish commission investigating the incident condemned the Israeli findings Sunday, saying the blockade amounted to illegal "collective punishment" of Gaza's 1.5 million people. It also accused Israel of using unnecessary and excessive force.
"Our commission is surprised, appalled and dismayed that the national inquiry process in Israel has resulted in the exoneration of the Israeli armed forces," it said.
In New York, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said investigators there had received a copy of the Israeli report.
"As you know, to help complete their important mandate it is essential for the (U.N.) panel to review material provided by both sides, Israel and Turkey," he said.
Israel was forced by the outcry to ease the blockade. Virtually all foods and consumer goods can now enter Gaza. But restrictions on many exports and the import of badly needed construction goods remain in place.
Israel ordered the official inquiry two weeks after the incident.
The commission, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, included four Israeli members and two international observers — David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, Canada's former chief military prosecutor. All signed off on the conclusions.
A fifth Israeli participant, 93-year-old international law expert Shabtai Rosenne, died during the deliberations.
Looking at 133 individual cases in which soldiers used force — 16 of them involving shooting to kill — the commission found soldiers had acted properly and that their lives had been in danger. The soldiers, the report said, "acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence."
The report was based on the testimony of Israeli officials, including the prime minister, defense minister and military chief. It also looked at testimony from soldiers gathered by the military and 1,000 hours of video footage taken from the military, the Marmara and its passengers.
The commission said activists on board the ship refused invitations to testify.
Alan Baker, a former legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the committee's makeup gave the report international credibility, but the findings would have little impact on Israel's critics.
"I doubt very much whether it will make an impression on those elements of the international community who are pushing the anti-Israel hostility," he said.
Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard in Jerusalem and Erol Israfil in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.