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Israeli panel clears military in flotilla raid

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.

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 over land. 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.

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.

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