- Associated Press - Sunday, June 6, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Sunday that the Turkish activists who battled Israeli naval commandos in a deadly clash last week had prepared for the fight ahead of time — boarding the ship separately from other passengers after they organized and equipped themselves.

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments were the latest in an Israeli campaign to defend its crackdown on Monday that killed nine people on a flotilla headed to the blockaded Gaza Strip with hundreds of activists and humanitarian supplies on board. The operation has drawn fierce international condemnation, seriously damaged Israeli ties with Turkey and brought heavy pressure to lift the 3-year-old closure of Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet that “dozens of thugs” from “an extremist, terrorism-supporting” organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos.

“According to the information currently in our possession, 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 IDF (Israeli) soldiers.”

Mr. Netanyahu did not say where the information came from, but Israeli military officials have claimed there is strong evidence that the men who fought the soldiers were hired mercenaries.

The organizers deny the allegations.

Videos released by the army have shown a crowd of men attacking several Israeli naval commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects. The army has displayed pictures of knives, slingshots and metal rods confiscated from the crowd, and other video seized from reporters and security cameras on board the ship appear to show a group of young man brandishing clubs and other weapons ahead of the arrival of the soldiers.

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 close ties to the Hamas militant group.

In Turkey, IHH head Bulent Yildirim decried what he called Mr. Netanyahu’s “baseless words.”

He said all passengers boarded the ship in the Turkish port of Antalya, and he 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.

“We had decided to show passive resistance on the boat. We did not think for one minute that they would come on the ship with arms. We were prepared for scuffles, but not for this.”

Huwaida Arraf, a leader of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, denounced Mr. Netanyahu’s claims as “another pack of lies.”

Ms. Arraf, who was on board the Marmara, said that all passengers were screened for weapons and that partners in the mission, including IHH, agreed not to bring weapons on board.

“No one was allowed to board the ship with any weapons. Every ship has one or two knives for the captains’ use. So on a big ship that holds 1,060 people, certainly knives are not out of the ordinary,” she said. She said it was possible that Israel had doctored the videos it has released.

The U.N. Security Council has called on Israel to carry out an impartial investigation into what happened on board the ship.

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu rejected a proposal by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an international commission to investigate the raid, officials said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement, said Mr. Netanyahu was open to a probe but did not agree with the exact format suggested by the U.N. chief.

The push for an international inquiry puts Israel under further pressure to explain how its attempt to stop the aid ship from breaching a blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza turned deadly. It also could cast light on the motives and plans of some of the ship’s passengers.

The outrage over the deaths also has prompted calls from many nations, including the United States, for at least a partial lifting of a blockade that Israel says is necessary to isolate the Islamic militants of Hamas and keep them from expanding their arsenals. Critics note that the blockade has failed to weaken Hamas but has caused heavy damage to the Gazan economy and resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

Mr. 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 took over another aid ship without incident. All 19 activists and crew were to be deported Sunday.

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