Netanyahu defends attack on aid convoy after meeting with Harper

OTTAWA – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his country’s deadly military attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla Monday on grounds his soldiers were "mobbed, clubbed, beaten and stabbed" when they boarded a ship that refused to go to a dock for a weapons search.

"Our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives or they would have been killed," Netanyahu said during a photo opportunity with Prime Minister Stephen Harper before cutting short a visit to Ottawa and cancelling meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to return to Israel.

Both Harper and Obama issued statements of regret about the loss of at least 10 lives and injuries of others during the incident and both said they wanted more information, which Netanyahu promised to reveal as details emerged.

The incident prompted a wave of international condemnation and calls for an inquiry, as Israel said it was forced to board the ships to uphold its blockade of the Gaza Strip, Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory.

"As I told you, Canada deeply regrets this action, the loss of life and the injuries that occurred and obviously we’ll be looking in the days that follow to get all the information we can get to find out exactly what has transpired," Harper said. He was sorry his meetings with Netanyahu were "coloured by this."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s statement of regret was sharper: "While we will always support Israel’s right to self-defence, a measured response is important when dealing with security threats in this region," Ignatieff said. "Given the loss of civilian lives, we are expecting clarification on exactly what happened. Canada’s objective is, and always will be, to achieve peace in the Middle East. This incident does not help us meet that objective."

Netanyahu said Harper and Obama "both understand" Israel has to protect its security from threats by Hamas.

"They are amassing thousands more rockets to fire at our cities, at our towns, at our children," Netanyahu said. "Our policy is this: we try to let in all the humanitarian goods into Gaza, all peaceful commodities, food, medicine and the like. What we want to prevent coming into Gaza are rockets, missiles, explosives, and war material that could be used to attack our civilians. This is an ongoing policy and it was the one that guided our action (Sunday)."

He said Israeli authorities were successful with five of the six ships in the flotilla which were ordered to take their cargo to the Port of Ashdod for a weapons search.

"The sixth ship, the largest, which had hundreds of people on it, not only did not co-operate in this effort peacefully, they deliberately attacked the first soldiers that came on the ship," Netanyahu said. "They were mobbed. They were clubbed. They were beaten, stabbed. There was even a report of gunfire. And our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives or they would have been killed."

An activist from Victoria was on the Free Gaza flotilla -but not the ship that where the assault took place – according to Victoria-based website, Peace, Earth and Justice News.

The website said Monday that Kevin Neish was not harmed in the incident. Neish earlier told the website that he had "spent the last few days practising non-violent means of preventing the Israeli navy from boarding and seizing the ship, as they have done in the past."

Neish had planned to stay in Gaza and to volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, acting as a human shield to assist and protect Palestinian workers repairing water and sewer systems and their fishing fleet, according to the website.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said the United States "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy."

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay condemned Israel’s use of military force as "disproportionate." The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights joined calls for an "immediate and credible" inquiry into the interception and urged Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"We need to establish exactly what happened. However, nothing can justify the appalling outcome of this operation, which reportedly took place in international waters," Pillay said in a statement.

With files from Vancouver Sun

Israeli Defence Force footage:

HangZhou Night Net

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