Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a vigorous, unapologetic defense Wednesday of his government’s deadly raid of a protest flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, ignoring international calls for an independent probe into the incident.
Netanyahu’s televised comments, his first to Israelis since the high-seas military operation killed nine activists on a Turkish-flagged vessel early Monday, did little to appease critics who say Israel used excessive force.
Netanyahu praised the Israeli commandos involved in the fight and accused the flotilla activists of being “supporters of terrorism.”
“This was not a love boat,” he said. “It was a boat of hate.”
He made no mention of whether Israel will create an independent commission to examine what occurred during the interception of the pro-Palestinian flotilla as it attempted to break through Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
The U.N. Security Council, U.S. and numerous other countries want Israel to promptly investigate the operation.
The Obama administration has proposed creating an Israeli-led commission with a U.S. observer to lend credibility, but so far Netanyahu has resisted the offer, according to a Thursday report in the Haaretz newspaper.
Activists returning to their native countries began relaying their version of Monday’s raid. They said Israeli soldiers began firing at passengers from the moment they landed on the Mavi Marmara, which was sailing in international waters.
Hasan Nowarah was among those with the flotilla, the BBC reported.
“On Saturday evening we were approached by Israeli warships,” said Nowarah, an IT consultant and the chairman of the Justice for Palestine Center in Glasgow, Scotland, according to the BBC. “At that point the managers of the mission started to consider how to protect the ships. . . . They were communicating with our captains, through the radios, warning us to turn back. . . . We never replied to them at some points, at others we explained to them we were in international waters and were not attacking Israel.”
Hanin Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, who was on board the Mavi Marmara, said there was resistance but it was not organized, the Associated Press reported.
“The . . . helicopters, the ships and gunfire created the atmosphere that people wanted to defend themselves,” she said, according to AP.
The Israeli military released an audio recording of radio messages between soldiers during that attack, warning that they were coming under live fire from the activists.
No arms have been found on the vessel, but Israel says some of the activists grabbed guns from Israeli soldiers and used the firearms against them.
On Wednesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council called for an international probe and recommended establishing a U.N. fact-finding panel, similar to the Goldstone Commission, which examined Israel’s controversial military assault on Gaza in 2008-09. That panel concluded that Israel deliberately targeted civilians the during the 22-day assault, which was aimed at disarming Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
The new British government added its voice to those condemning the Israeli operation. In his statement to parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron called the raid “completely unacceptable.”
Adam Shapiro, board member of Free Gaza, one of the flotilla’s organizers, called Netanyahu’s comments an attempt to divert attention from Israel’s use of lethal force.
“Israel should apologize and pay compensation to the victims,” he said.
Monday’s early-morning raid has turned into one of the biggest diplomatic challenges Netanyahu has faced since taking office a little over a year ago.
According to an opinion poll published Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, two-thirds of Israelis think the raid should have been handled differently.
At the same time, Israelis are overwhelmingly opposed to calls for either Netanyahu or his Defense Minister Ehud Barak to resign over the incident. The public is split down the middle on whether Israel should appoint a national commission of inquiry, according to the poll.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials continued deporting about 650 foreign activists from the seized vessels back to their home countries, chiefly Greece and Turkey. Among the activists were at least five Americans, according to the Arab-Israeli human-rights group Adalah.
Three seriously wounded activists remained in Israeli hospitals. Five Arab-Israeli citizens who took part in the flotilla are under arrest.
Diplomatic ties with Turkey, once a close Israeli ally, remained tense. More than half of the flotilla’s passengers — and three of the dead — were Turkish.
With anti-Israeli protests continuing in Turkey, Israel evacuated family members of its diplomatic corps as a precaution.
But Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara that “it was time calm replaces anger” and offered to normalize relations if Israel lifted its Gaza blockade.
Israel has refused, saying it would open Gaza to Iranian-sponsored terrorism.