ATLIT NAVAL BASE, Israel (Reuters) - Saying “I salute you,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday visited the base of Israeli naval commandos who killed nine pro-Palestinian Turks on a Gaza-bound aid ship in May.
Netanyahu’s tour of the top-security Flotilla 13 base on the coast near Haifa was a show of defiance against international criticism of the deadly raid.
It followed testimony on Sunday from Israel’s military chief, who told a state-appointed inquest into the operation that commandos had encountered armed passengers on the Mavi Marmara and fired 308 live bullets during the takeover.
“Gaza has turned into an Iranian terror base,” Netanyahu said, referring to Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas Islamists, in a speech to Flotilla 13 members.
He said the May 31 raid on the Turkish-flagged vessel, one of six ships trying to run Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, had been “crucial, essential, important and legal.”
He heaped praise on the commandos as acting “courageously, morally and with restraint.”
The interception of the ships in international waters and the deadly outcome of the operation strained Israel’s once-close ties with Turkey, which has demanded an apology and compensation.
Flotilla 13 commandos had been equipped with riot-dispersal gear but quickly switched to live fire in the face of what Israel said was armed opposition.
Turkish forensic findings showed that the nine dead activists were shot a total of 30 times, and there were gunshot wounds among another 24 passengers who were hurt.
“You acted against those who came to kill you and tried to kill you,” said Netanyahu, who met some of the commandos who took part in the operation. “There is no one better than you. I salute you.”
Bristling at Turkish and other foreign fury over the Mavi Marmara raid yet wary of international war crimes suits, Israel set up its own inquiry to help prepare its submission for a separate probe under U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon.
Last month, three U.N. experts condemned the attack as unlawful and said it resulted in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. They also said the blockade of Gaza had caused a humanitarian crisis and was unlawful.
Israeli leaders have said their troops, on boarding the Mavi Marmara, opened fire in self-defence after being set upon by activists wielding cudgels and knives.
Turkey called the bloodshed Israeli “state terrorism,” withdrew its ambassador from Israel and cancelled joint military exercises.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Editing by Angus MacSwan