3 Aug 2010

Sir Geoffrey Palmer to lead inquiry into Israeli raid

9:56 pm on 3 August 2010

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer is to lead a United Nations inquiry into a fatal Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Nine Turkish activists were killed when the flotilla - which was trying to run Israel's naval blockade of Gaza - was stormed in May this year.

Announcing the four-member international panel of inquiry, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it would give recommendations for preventing future incidents.

Mr Ban said he hoped the establishment of the panel would help to improve the relationship between Israel and Turkey and contribute positively to the overall peace process in the Middle East.

The announcement came shortly after Israel said it had decided to co-operate with a UN investigation, having previously said there was no need for an international inquiry.

The Israelis have already completed a military investigation into the attack and are in the midst of a civilian inquiry.

The panel consists of Sir Geoffrey (chairman), outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (vice-chairman), one Israeli member and one Turkish member.

The group is to submit its first progress report by mid-September.

'Very challenging' task ahead

Sir Geoffrey told Morning Report he was shoulder-tapped two months ago and is honoured to have been selected to lead the panel.

"It needs to be understood, this is a very challenging and demanding task," he said. "I really don't underestimate how difficult it will be."

Prime Minister John Key says New Zealand is seen as neutral and an honest broker and Sir Geoffrey's appointment will add a lot of mana to the process.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says it is an acknowledgement by the UN of Sir Geoffrey's record in chairing the International Whaling Commission.

Green Party MP Keith Locke welcomes the inquiry, saying it is important there is an independent and impartial investigation.

Israel's inclusion in panel welcomed

Israel's decision to support the international panel has been welcomed by a pro-Palestinian group in New Zealand.

The group Kia Ora Gaza, which is fundraising for an international aid convey to Gaza in September, is cautiously optimistic.

Spokesperson Grant Morgan says Israel's decision to cooperate with the inquiry suggests Israel has realised it cannot defy the entire world.

But Israel's ambassador to New Zealand Shemi Tzur denies it ever refused to participate in the panel, saying it has been negotiating the terms of reference.

Israel says it has nothing to hide and it is in the country's interest to ensure that the truth about the events surrounding the flotilla incident come to light.

Meanwhile, the Wellington Palestine Group is concerned that the terms of reference are too narrow and will focus on the flotilla attack, rather than why the flotilla was necessary.

Panel will have work cut out - former diplomat

A former United States diplomat who was on board one of the aid flotilla ships says that any fair inquiry needs to have the involvement of all parties, including the Israeli government.

Edward Peck told Nine to Noon that the facts are clear about the attack but that, because of the politics of the situation, the panel will have its work cut out.