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Report criticizes Israel PM over 2010 naval raid

LAST UPDATED: 2:08 a.m. HST, Jun 13, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision-making was badly flawed as he oversaw a deadly Israeli naval raid on a Gaza-bound ship two years ago, according to a government report released Wednesday.

The harsh findings were an embarrassing assessment of Netanyahu's handling of a military operation that sent Israel's relations with once-close ally Turkey plummeting and drew widespread international condemnation.

But it is unlikely to hurt his domestic standing. Netanyahu is popular and leads a powerful coalition that controls three-fourths of parliament's seats. Moreover, many Israelis think naval commandos opened fire in self-defense after pro-Palestinian activists attacked them and believe Israel has a right to keep ships from reaching the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas militants.

Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed on May 31, 2010, after the commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, which had set out from Turkey at the head of a six-vessel flotilla trying to breach Israel's Gaza blockade.

"Substantive and significant deficiencies were discovered in the decision-making process ... that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led and oversaw," State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote in the 153-page report.

"The prime minister's decision-making process took place without orderly, coordinated and documented team work, even though the senior political, military and intelligence ranks were aware that the Turkish flotilla was different from other flotillas," it said.

Netanyahu, the report continued, "did not internalize that the forcible stopping of the flotilla was liable to spark a violent confrontation on the decks of the Mavi Marmara."

Netanyahu has argued that Israel behaved responsibly in its handling of the affair and praised the performance of his troops.

"Israeli citizens enjoy a level of security they did not have for many years," Netanyahu said in response to the report, calling that "a direct result of responsible administration and resolute policy."

Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas militants seized control there, saying it was meant to keep weapons from reaching the Islamic radicals. Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction and has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.

But the blockade drew widespread criticism for also hurting Gaza's civilians. At its height, Gaza frequently suffered from shortages of many basic consumer goods, and its economy ground to a standstill as a result of the blockade.

The flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara tried to break through the blockade despite Israeli warnings that it would not be allowed to sail to Gaza. When commandos stormed the ship, they were attacked with clubs and metal rods, and opened fire in response.

The deaths of the Turkish citizens battered relations with Turkey, which had once given Israel a strong ally in the Muslim world. Ties had already frayed over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's warming relations the Muslim world and outspoken criticism of Israel, which grew scathing after Israel's 2009 war in the Gaza Strip.

The war was meant to halt daily rocket fire from Gaza. But Erdogan attacked Israel repeatedly for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, and at one point stormed off a stage he shared with the Israeli president at a high-profile world economic forum.

Once-flourishing tourism from Israel to Turkey immediately fell off, and Turkey canceled joint military exercises with Israel. Ties grew even icier after Israel rejected Turkey's demand to apologize for the flotilla killings.

The raid also raised international awareness of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, forcing Israel to significantly ease its land embargo. It maintains its naval blockade, saying weapons could slip into Gaza, and continues to restrict the entry of badly needed construction materials, saying they could be diverted for military use.

A U.N. probe of the raid upheld the legality of the embargo and said the flotilla participants "acted recklessly" in attempting to breach the blockade. But it called the activists' killings "unacceptable" and faulted Israel for failing to use "non-violent options."

A separate report conducted by the U.N.'s Human Rights Council said the Israeli blockade and naval raid were both "unlawful." Israel has said the report was deeply biased, noting the rights council's long history of criticizing Israel.

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