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Israel: No Soldier Grilling in Flotilla Probe

Israel's defense minister on Tuesday voiced his opposition to allowing soldiers to testify in civilian investigations, casting new doubts on Israeli participation in a U.N. probe of a deadly Israeli raid on an international flotilla.

Ehud Barak said that placing soldiers on the stand would harm their ability to act. Comparing them to surgeons, he said soldiers operate best when not consumed with fears of potential prosecution.

"I don't want a soldier making a split-second decision to have to think about an attorney," Barak told an Israeli commission looking into the May 31 naval raid. "Good military units will rise and fall over this."

Barak spoke shortly before a U.N. panel investigating the raid was about to begin its deliberations at the United Nations in New York. On Monday, Israel threatened to pull out of the international inquiry after U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said that there was no agreement to refrain from calling Israeli soldiers to testify.

Israel says it agreed to participate in the U.N. probe only after receiving assurances that the panel would rely on reports from Israel's own military inquiry, not testimony from soldiers.

Israel's agreement to cooperate with the U.N. probe represented a shift away from its traditional distrust of the United Nations, which it considers biased. It has appointed a retired senior diplomat to join the panel, but Ban's comments may have put Israel's participation in jeopardy.

Barak said the Israeli military had more than adequate means of punishing its offending soldiers. "The chief military prosecutor's judgment is not subordinate to any commander, not even the chief of staff, only to his only professional conscience," he said.

The six-ship flotilla, carrying hundreds of international activists, was trying to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip when Israeli forces intercepted them and ordered them to turn around.

Commandos met unexpected resistance when they boarded one of the Turkish vessels. After troops were assaulted with rods, planks and knives, they opened fire and killed nine Turkish activists, one a dual American citizen. Both sides have said they acted in self defense.

The bloodshed drew an international outcry and forced Israel to ease its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Israel, along with Egypt, imposed the embargo in June 2007 after Hamas militants took control of the area.

Israel's military has already wrapped up its own investigation, finding that intelligence failed to predict the violent response but troops acted properly under the circumstances.

Barak testified to a separate, governmental commission examining the government's decision-making and legal issues connected to the affair.

Barak's testimony came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu testified, defending the army's behavior and suggesting that Turkey had an interest in encouraging the confrontation. Israel's military chief is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

In his three-hour-long testimony, Barak called the pro-Palestinian flotilla a "planned provocation," and defended the government's decision to send troops to stop it from breaching the blockade.

He said the government considered all options before ordering the raid, including the possibility of violent resistance, but did not expect the conflict to turn lethal. "The military said a number of times 'it won't be simple, but we can do it,"' he said.

The Israeli commission is headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. It includes two foreign observers: David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, Canada's former chief military prosecutor.

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