JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister claimed that the Turkish activists who battled Israeli naval commandos in a deadly clash last week prepared for the fight ahead of time, before boarding the ship in a different city from the rest of the passengers.
Benjamin Netanyahu's charges highlight Israel's frantic efforts to portray the activists as terrorists and counter a wave of harsh international condemnation that has left the Jewish state isolated and at odds with some of its closest allies.
Last Monday's operation, in which nine activists were killed aboard a ship headed to the blockaded Gaza Strip, damaged Israel's ties with Turkey – its main Muslim ally – and brought heavy pressure on Israel to lift the 3-year closure of Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Netanyahu told his Cabinet that "dozens of thugs" from "an extremist, terrorism-supporting" organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos.
"This group boarded separately in a different city, organized separately, equipped itself separately and went on deck under different procedures," he said. "The clear intent of this hostile group was to initiate a violent clash with (Israeli) soldiers."
Late Sunday, Netanyahu's office released a statement saying he discussed the international criticism with world leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, the president of France and the premier of Canada. Netanyahu told them any country would act in self defense if it were targeted by thousands of rockets as Israel has been by Gaza militants.
Videos released by the military have shown a crowd of men attacking several naval commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects and hurling one soldier overboard.
The military has displayed pictures of knives, slingshots and metal rods confiscated from the activists, and used video seized from security cameras – and reporters – on board the ship show a group of young men brandishing clubs and other weapons ahead of the arrival of the soldiers. The use of video confiscated from journalists has drawn sharp criticism from the Foreign Press Association in Israel, which demanded the military stop using the footage.
On Sunday, the Turkish daily Hurriyet showed new pictures taken by unidentified people of wounded Israeli commandos, including some with bloodied faces. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the images seemed to corroborate Israel's version of the events.
"It shows that our boarding party in fact did face deadly violence from the hardcore Islamist activists on the boat ... and that our boarding party was forced to respond," he said. "Had they not, they would have been killed."
The fighting took place on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, and the dead included eight Turks and a Turkish-American man. The ship was organized by the IHH, a Turkish Islamic charity that Israel has outlawed because of its alleged ties to Hamas. The group is not on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations, however.
In Turkey, IHH head Bulent Yildirim said all passengers boarded the ship in the Turkish port of Antalya, and rejected suggestions that those who clashed with the soldiers were trained militants.
"Take a look at who was killed. They had pot bellies. They were old. They were young. Who would believe that they received special training?" he said.
Huwaida Arraf, a leader of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, denounced Netanyahu's claims as "another pack of lies."
Arraf said all the passengers were screened for weapons, and that partners in the mission, including IHH, agreed not to bring weapons on board.
Highlighting Israel's sense of isolation, the U.S. rock band Pixies announced Sunday it was canceling a concert in Tel Aviv this week. Organizers said the decision was related to last week's naval raid.
In a sign of Israeli frustration, some hard-liners produced a music video that parodies the events on the raided ship and has received more than a million hits on YouTube. A group of Israeli men and women portray the activists as Arab and Turkish militants with keffiyehs and mimic their accents. At the end, the mock activists wave clubs and knives in the air.
They sing a song with crude lyrics called "We Conned the World" – set to the tune of "We Are The World."
"We'll make the world abandon reason, we'll make them all believe that the Hamas is Mama Theresa," they sing.
The Israeli government press office relayed a link to the video to foreign correspondents on Friday, then recalled the message and apologized.
On Sunday, Netanyahu rejected a proposal by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon for an international commission to investigate the raid, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.
They added that Netanyahu was open to a probe but did not agree with the exact format suggested by the U.N. chief.
Ban also spoke on Sunday to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about an investigation into the raid, the U.N. said in a statement. It said that the Middle East peace Quartet – made up of representatives from the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – would meet Monday to discuss how to proceed.
Outrage over the deaths has also prompted calls from many nations, including the U.S., for at least a partial lifting of a blockade Israel imposed, along with Egypt, after the militant Islamic Hamas overran Gaza in June 2007.
Israel and the West consider Hamas a terror group responsible for firing thousands of rockets at Israel and carrying out hundreds of bloody attacks, including suicide bombings. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, and Egypt fears the influence of Hamas radicals on its own Islamists.
Israel imposed the blockade hoping to weaken Hamas, prevent the entry of weapons and press for the release of an Israeli soldier captured in 2006, but the objectives have not been achieved.
Under the blockade, most exports from Gaza are banned, further depressing the territory's economy.
Netanyahu told officials in his Likud Party on Sunday that he has been in touch with "friendly nations" to discuss ways to allow more civilian goods into Gaza without allowing Hamas to bring in arms.
On Saturday, Israel commandeered another aid ship without incident. All 19 activists, including a Nobel Peace laureate, and crew were deported Sunday.