Atlit: Israel's leader praised on Tuesday the naval commandos who participated in a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last May that drew international condemnation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a special visit to a military base, told the men they acted "heroically" and "ethically" in an attempt to stop "people who sought to kill you".
The commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists from Turkey in the May 31 raid, which worsened already strained ties with Turkey and ultimately forced Israel to ease its land blockade of Gaza imposed after Iranian-backed Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory in 2007.
A naval blockade remains intact — a measure Israel says is needed to prevent arms from reaching Gaza's Hamas rulers — and subsequent efforts to break it have been quashed without violence.
The May raid turned deadly when commandos rappelled onto the lead ship of the flotilla and were attacked by activists as they came down from helicopters. The commandos armed with paint guns and pistols opened fire in response to the assault.
"Gaza has become an Iranian terror base — very close and very dangerous," Netanyahu told the fighters at their base in this seaside northern town. The raid was "vital, imperative, important and legal," he added.
Facing a deadly threat, "you responded professionally, heroically, with restraint and ethically".
After Netanyahu delivered his remarks, he met privately with some of the commandos on the base, including one who is still recovering from injuries sustained when activists seized him and threw onto a lower deck. Gidi Schmerling, Netanyahu's spokesman, said the commando told Netanyahu he sought to return to active duty.
He was among four commandos wounded in the operation who met with Netanyahu.
Israel's blockade, supported by Egypt, was meant to stanch the flow of weapons into Gaza and to put pressure on Hamas, a group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, rocket attacks and other violence, by deepening the already widespread poverty there. The blockade failed to achieve its aims.
Israel also hoped it would help to win the freedom of an Israeli soldier, captured by Hamas-affiliated militants in June 2006.
Israel has rebuffed demands from Turkey to apologize, and it refused to cooperate with an investigation into the flotilla raid conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, saying the panel is biased. Israel is cooperating with a separate investigation commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Israel is also conducting its own investigations. A preliminary review by a former Israeli general concluded that from a military standpoint, intelligence gathering and planning were faulty.
A separate civilian commission is taking testimony from political and military leaders, as well as activists who had been on board the flotilla, to assess whether the raid conformed to international law.
First Published: Tuesday, October 26, 2010, 22:09