JERUSALEM – JERUSALEM (AP) — 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 already 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.
The last time Israel cooperated with a U.N. probe was in 2000, when the U.N. drew the boundary between Israel and Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon following its 18-year occupation.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirsky said "it will be for the panel to decide exactly how they will operate and what steps may need to be taken in order to obtain the clarifications and the information from the national authorities."
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."
Government spokesman Mark Regev would not say what, if any, assurances Israel had received from the U.N. chief.
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 bruising 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 endured a wave of criticism after the invasion and its refusal to cooperate with the inquiry. Now, faced with another outcry over the Turkish flotilla incident, Israel might not have had enough political capital to reject another probe.
The negative publicity over the flotilla raid has already forced Israel to ease its Gaza blockade, removing most limits on consumer goods while maintaining restrictions on building materials, banning most travel and exports and enforcing its tight naval blockade.
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 as well.
The U.N. is on record as opposing the naval blockade, and it was unclear how Israel could expect a favorable ruling with that in mind.
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."
"We are sure that any independent look at the facts will verify that Israel took appropriate steps enforcing the naval blockade," he told The Associated Press.
Ban said one of the goals of the commission was to help repair the deep rift between Israel and Turkey. The once close allies have been openly hostile since the flotilla raid.
The two countries bitterly blame each other for the bloodshed on the Turkish vessel, when Israeli naval commandos who rappelled onto the ship were set upon by activists with iron bars, clubs and knives. The Israelis opened fire, killing nine people. Both sides insist they acted in self defense.
Turkey has demanded an apology and reparations for the families of the nine, while Israel has charged that Turkey promoted the attempt by the flotilla to run the naval blockade on Gaza, which Israel considers legal and vital to its security.
There was no immediate reaction from Turkey, which withdrew its ambassador from Israel and scaled back relations following the flotilla incident.
Associated Press Writer Edith Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.