Gaza flotilla ship
The Mavi Marmara cruise ship, part of the Gaza aid flotilla. Photo by Reuters
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he regretted the loss of life sustained by international activists after Israel Navy commandos stormed a flotilla bringing aid to the Gaza Strip, but said the Israeli troops who opened fire were justified for defending themselves.

"They were mobbed, they were clubbed, they were beaten, stabbed, there was even a report of gunfire. And our soldiers had to defend themselves," he said.

Netanyahu, who earlier in the day canceled his planned visit to Washington where he was to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, said that Israel was prepared to bring all humanitarian aid carried on the ship to civilians in Gaza.

"Our policy was and will continue to be that Israel would let humanitarian aid, any kind of goods that are meant for peace, to the civilian population of Gaza," he said.

"We have no problems with the people of Gaza. We do have a conflict with the terrorist regime of Hamas, supported by Iran. We want to maintain a situation where we prevent weapons and war materials from coming into Gaza, and allowing humanitarian aid to go to the population of Gaza."

Netanyahu was in Ottawa when the incident took place early Monday, and announced that he would return to Israel following his meeting with Canadian President Stephen Harper.

Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Obama prior to his departure to explain why he had decided to cancel their meeting, The two planned to coordinate another date for their talks, and Netanyahu promised to keep the U.S. president updated as developments unfolded with regard to the Gaza flotilla incident.

Obama voiced deep regret over the deadly raids, but expressed the importance of "learning all the facts and circumstances" surrounding the incident involving aid ships seeking access to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

He said he understood the prime minister's decision to return immediately to Israel to deal with today's events, the statement said.

Israeli officials over the course of Monday defended the Navy's decision to open fire on the activists during the interception of the boat.

At least nine of the left-wing activists were killed in the incident, and several more wounded. Seven of the Israeli soldiers were wounded during the clashes, two of them seriously.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier Monday that the organizers of the Gaza aid flotilla were to blame for the violent events aboard the ship.

In a press conference hours after the incident, Barak said that Israel was prepared to accept the consequences of its actions and would continue to protect its autonomy.

Barak voiced regret for the deaths, but called the flotilla a political provocation and said the sponsors of the flotilla were violent supporters of a terror organization.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, meanwhile, said the soldiers were forced by violent activists to respond with live fire.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said earlier Monday that the organizers of the Gaza aid flotilla have connections to international terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Al-Qaida, and called the aid convoy a violent and provocative attempt to break the blockade on Gaza.

Ayalon, speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Ministry, said that Israel found weapons aboard the Gaza flotilla, which were used against IDF troops.

The deputy foreign minister said that the Gaza flotilla did not heed Israel's calls to halt its movement toward Gaza on Monday morning, and stressed that no sovereign country would have allowed such a provocation to take place.

"We couldn't allow the opening of a corridor of smuggling arms and terrorists," said Ayalon.

The deputy foreign minister told reporters that Israel does not want to fight with any country, but that the incident on the Gaza flotilla is not yet over.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his imminent trip to the United States, in wake of the deaths of at least 10 people after Israel Navy troops boarded a flotilla of ships heading to the Gaza Strip carrying aid.

Netanyahu, who was in Ottawa at the time of the incident, had planned to travel to Washington at the invitation of President Barack Obama.

Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer voiced regret Monday morning for deaths aboard the Gaza-bound ships.

"The images are certainly not pleasant. I can only voice regret at all the fatalities," Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio.