Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has expressed “regret” over the loss of life in a raid on an aid convoy that left nine dead, but said Israeli troops acted to “defend their lives”.
“We regret the loss of life,” Netanyahu said in Ottawa during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
But he insisted the Israeli forces had acted to defend themselves, telling reporters later that the flotilla was seeking to smuggle into Gaza rockets or other weapons to attack the Jewish state.
The raid by Israel troops “was to prevent the infiltration of thousands of rockets, missiles and other arms that could hit our cities, communities or people,” the Israeli leader said.
The Israeli soldiers “defended themselves from a lynching,” he added.
Wave of international criticism
“I give my complete backing to the army, the soldiers and commanders who acted to defend the state and to protect their lives,” he added.
Netanyahu cut short his visit to Canada and cancelled his trip to Washington to return to Israel to deal with the crisis, after the incident provoked a wave of international criticism.
The Israeli leader said he had called US President Barack Obama to tell him he would not be able to participate in White House talks scheduled for Tuesday.
In a statement, Obama said he understood Netanyahu’s decision, but stressed “the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning’s tragic events as soon as possible.”
Obama expressed “deep regret” over the deaths aboard the flotilla of ships seeking to break an Israeli blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip by delivering aid to the impoverished territory.
Soldiers ‘mobbed’ by activists
Netanyahu said Israeli commandos who stormed the ships in an attempt to prevent them from reaching Gaza were attacked by the pro-Palestinian activists on board.
“They deliberately attacked the soldiers, they were mobbed with clubs, beaten and stabbed, and there are even reports of gunfire,” he said.
But the incident has provoked a firestorm, with countries across the world criticizing the way the situation was handled.
Reportedly, most of those killed aboard the ships were Turks, and the raid has thrown fragile relations between Turkey and Israel into jeopardy, with Ankara recalling its ambassador.
Other nations have summoned Israeli diplomats to provide details on the incident, and the United Nations Security Council is to hold an emergency session to discuss the raid later Monday.