In this Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010 file photo, Israel’s military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi sits before testifying in front of a state-appointed inquiry commission into the Israeli naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, in Jerusalem. The Israeli commission looking into a deadly raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla last May has summoned Ashkenazi to testify for a second time Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010. – AP Photo

JERUSALEM: The first passengers from a Gaza-bound aid ship to testify on the deadly operation were on Monday unable to answer the key question of who started the violence that left nine Turkish activists dead.

Two Arab-Israeli men, Mohammed Zedan and Sheikh Hamad Abu Daabis, were both on the flagship Mavi Marmara when it was seized as part of the May 31 raid on a six-ship flotilla which was trying to run Israel’s Gaza blockade.

“I cannot tell you regarding who attacked first, who beat up whom first. I did not see with my own eyes,” said Daabis, who said they were at pre-dawn prayers when the commandos boarded the vessel.

“We heard a very loud explosion which shook the ship. We did not know where it was coming from,” he told the Tirkel Commission.

Until Monday, the four-member panel had not heard any first-hand testimony from people directly involved in the clashes on board the Mavi Marmara, although the panel on Sunday urged more passengers to come forward and testify.

The commission, which the Israeli government set up in June, has a mandate to look into the legality of the raid in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead.

Israel says its soldiers fired in self-defence after they were attacked with clubs and knives, but activists say the Israelis opened fire as soon as they rappelled from helicopters on to the Mavi Marmara’s upper deck.

The army has also barred soldiers who took part in the raid from testifying before the commission, allowing only Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to give evidence twice.

On Monday the two witnesses said immediately after the commotion started that they went inside the ship on instructions from the captain and could not see much.

“I heard helicopters overhead and heard shooting. I did not see what was going on,” said Zedan.

The two Arab-Israelis had been due to testify on October 13 but did not show up because they did not want to be seen as cooperating with what they saw as a biased committee.

But they were compelled to appear on Monday after being subpoenaed.

The committee on Sunday put out an appeal for anyone who was a passenger on board the Marmara to come forward and testify.

“The Tirkel Commission would like to receive testimony from any passenger who was on the Mavi Marmara on the night of May 31 and who has relevant information that could shed light on” the investigation, the statement said.

Anyone interested in testifying was asked to contact panel spokesman Ofer Lefler via the website http://www.turkel-committee.gov.il/index-eng.html.

The commission has previously invited the ship's Turkish captain, as well as other Turkish nationals who were on board the ship, to testify, but so far no one has responded.

The panel also heard testimony on Monday from opposition leader Tzipi Livni who said she backed Israel's action to stop the fleet from reaching the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, media reports said.

She also said the reason the flotilla won so much international support was because of the “political vacuum” in the peace process with the Palestinians, Ynet news website quoted her as saying.

Livni was the latest in a line of Israeli officials who have appeared before the panel in the past two months, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Ashkenazi, who on Sunday testified for the second time.

The deadly raid sparked international outrage and led Israel to ease a four-year blockade of Gaza to allow in all purely civilian goods as well as construction materials for internationally supervised projects. — AFP

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