Israeli prime minister gives evidence at flotilla inquiry

Netanyahu says Israel acted legally during flotilla raid. North Korea fires artillery shells into waters near South Korean border. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir arrested in Indonesia. Venezuelan and Columbian presidents to meet for talks to restore diplomatic ties. All this and more in today's security briefing.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing at the Israeli inquiry into the raid on a Turkish ship, which killed nine people, has said that Israel “acted under international law” when it boarded one of the flotilla of aid ships trying to break the blockade of Gaza.

He said that the inquiry will assure the international community that the actions of Israel and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) were legal, and that the raid on the Marmara intended the prevent weapons from being taken into the Gaza, “to avoid further conflict”. He also told the commission that the perception that there was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza was wrong and the Hamas was using this to their advantage.

The inquiry, which Israel says will produce a fair outcome, is being led by retired Supreme Court judge, Jakob Turkel, and two other Israeli experts. Two international observers will oversee the whole process – former Northern Ireland first minister William David Trimble, and former military judge, Ken Watkin from Canada.

Netanyahu is the first witness to testify at the inquiry, set up by Israel, into the incident. Israel had appealed at the “highest level” to Turkey to prevent the flotilla entering the disputed zone, and the comments are his most explicit so far regarding the Marmara.
"It appears that the Turkish government did not see in the prospect of a clash between Turkish activists and Israel something that clashed with its interests,” he said.

Nine Turks were shot dead by IDF commandos after they boarded the Marmara just after dawn on 31 May this year. The raid prompted international condemnation, and severely damaged ties with Turkey – historically Israel’s most important regional ally.

It also brought closer international scrutiny of the blockade itself, resulting in a slight loosening on what Israel allows into the Gaza Strip – where around 1.5 million people live. The United Nations is conducting two inquiries of its own into the Marmara boarding; one, headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer is due to meet for the first time on 10 August. It will include one Israeli and one Turkish member. The second, by the UN Human Rights Council, will be run independently – without the cooperation of Israel.

The openSecurity verdict: Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments at the Israeli inquiry into the deaths of nine Turkish nationals following a raid by Israeli commandos come as no surprise. He and his government have always been unyielding in their stance on Gaza, and renounce any international sympathies for the Palestinian cause as wrong, misguided or even blatant assistance to Hamas as an extremist organisation.

What is surprising, is his open criticism of Turkey, once a staunch ally. Israel’s relations with Turkey were, and continue to be, strained followed the raid on the flotilla, and these comments wont go towards fixing those wounds. Turkey is a key partner if a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to be found. The suggestions that Netanyahu was making – that Turkish officials may not have seen a conflict between Turkish activists and Israeli forces, as important or “in their interests” will only distance the two countries even further.

Turkey has already disputed the idea that Israel was acting under international law, which draft resolutions at the United Nations demonstrate. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the raid was "tantamount to banditry and piracy" and called it "murder conducted by a state".

Israel’s inquiry will no doubt find that its actions were correct and in proportion to the threat that it faced/continues to face – Netanyahu said as much even before the terms of the inquiry were fixed. It is now up to the United Nations to investigate in its own inquiry, which Israel says is not necessary, whether, first of all, the blockade on Gaza is legal and subsequently how that affects the legality of the Israeli raid.

The results of these inquiries will no doubt determine how the future of relations between Israel and Gaza. The international community agrees that a solution has to be found – whether that is an integrated secular Israeli state, a separate Palestinian state or any other of the myriad of ideas. If the UN finds the blockade of Gaza and the raid legal, no matter what the conclusions Israeli inquiry are, then it could result in the conflict being elongated even further than it may otherwise be – and even then, agreements don’t seem to be soon in coming.

North Korea fires artillery shells following South Korean military exercises

Military officials in South Korea have reported incidents of artillery shells being fired near the west coast of the country from North Korea. South Korea had been carrying out military exercises in the area, which had come with warnings of retaliation from the North.

Lieutenant-Commander Yu Jae-il of the Joint Chiefs of Command in Seoul said: "All we know is that North Korea fired artillery rounds into its sea off the west coast, but we have no more details as of now". YTN, the South Korean news network, reported dozens of rounds being fired into the Yellow Sea, near the North-South maritime border.

North Korea has also seized a crew of seven and their fishing boat following the military exercises. The four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen were arrested for allegedly straying into North Korea’s tightly controlled economic zone. Seoul has demanded the swift release of the men, saying that Pyongyang had yet to share any information regarding the incident.

The peninsula has seen increasing tension over the past couple of months following the torpedoing of a South Korean ship in May. South Korea, backed by the United States has placed blame on the North, whilst North Korea denies any involvement.

UN-backed meetings in the truce village of Panmunjam have been taking place this month to try and discuss the ship sinking, which killed 46 people, and the subsequent issues regarding the armistice between the two nations – which are technically still at war with each other.

Radical Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, is arrested

Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the radical Indonesian Muslim cleric has been arrested on terror charges over suspected links with militant training camps. Ansyaad Mbai, head of the Indonesian government’s anti-terror desk, said that there was strong evidence connecting Ba’asyir to a group that ran a training camp, uncovered by officials in February, in the western province of Aceh.

"He had been involved in terror network in Aceh. As we know, that terror group in Aceh is linked with Jemaah Islamiah and many other extremist groups in our country," Mbai told reporters. The al-Mukmin Muslim boarding school that Ba’asyir founded in 1972 has a long history of producing graduates with extremist views, some of whom have been linked to terrorist activities. JAT has denied it has any connection to extremism and insists it is a legitimate Islamic organisation.

This is the third time that Ba’asyir has been arrested, and he has consistently denied any involvement in any militant or terrorist activities. This arrest has come without any formal charges. Under Indonesian law, he can he questioned for up to a week before charges have to be formally filed. Ba’asyir was released from prison in 2006 after his conviction for being involved in the 2002 bombings on Bali was overturned.

He is also believed to be the leader of Jemaah Ansharat Tauhid (JAT), which was founded in 2008 that was recently described as having ties with extremist activity, by Brussels think tank International Crisis Group (ICG). It said that JAT "is a mass membership organisation but wholly dependent on Ba’asyir, without whom it would quickly disintegrate".

The group are accused of planning to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later this month during Independence Day celebrations. The planned assault is said to be similar to the attacks in Mumbai, in November 2008, when 166 people were killed. JAT’s headquarter’s were raided by police earlier this month.

Chavez to meet with new Columbian president to restore ties

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the new Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos are to meet in the Columbian capital, Bogotá, on Tuesday for talks to discuss the diplomatic rift between the two countries. In a live television broadcast, Chavez said: "I am prepared to turn the page completely and look to the future with hope".

The move came hours after Santos took office. His predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and Chavez had a very turbulent relationship, and Santos’ said that one of his main priorities was to address the diplomatic split between the two nations.

Chavez cut ties with Uribe’s government last month following accusations that he was allowing Venezuela to harbour Columbian rebels. Chavez responded angrily, denying the accusations and saying that Columbia was planning to attack Venezuela. He has also instructed the Venezuelan military to arrest any illegal armed groups that find their way into the country.