Netanyahu - AP - Oct. 26, 2010
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Israeli naval commandos who participated in a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last May, in Atlit naval base, northern Israel, Oct. 26 2010 Photo by AP
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Saying "I salute you," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the headquarters on Tuesday of Israeli naval commandos who killed nine pro-Palestinian Turks aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship in May.

Netanyahu's tour of the top-security Shayetet 13 base on the coast near Haifa was a show of defiance against international censure of the raid on the converted cruise liner Mavi Marmara.

It followed testimony on Sunday from Israel's military chief, who told a state-appointed inquest into the operation that the commandos had come under pistol, knife and cudgel
attacks while boarding and fired 308 live bullets in response.

Activists from the Mavi Marmara have confirmed they resisted the Israeli boarding party but denied provoking lethal violence.

Netanyahu 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".

"Gaza has turned into an Iranian terror base," he said, referring to the Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas Islamists, in a speech to around 200 members of the unit.

He heaped praise on the commandos, saying they had acted "courageously, morally and with restraint".

The night-time interception on Mediterranean high seas and the ensuing bloodshed strained Israel's once-close ties with Turkey, which has demanded an apology and compensation.

A United Nations probe last month condemned the attack as unlawful and said it resulted in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. UN jurists also said the Gaza blockade had caused a humanitarian crisis and was unlawful.

'I salute you'

Flotilla 13 commandos had been equipped with riot-dispersal gear but quickly switched to live fire during deck brawls with dozens of activists. The ship had ignored Israeli calls to stop.

Two commandos were shot and wounded and another five suffered other injuries, the navy said. In addition to the nine Turkish dead, 24 activists were hurt, many of them by gunfire.

"You acted against those who came to kill you and tried to kill you," said Netanyahu. "There is no one better than you. I salute you."

He then met some of the commandos who took part in the raid, shaking their hands on a prow-shaped veranda overlooking the craggy bay at their Atlit base. They were shadowed by bodyguards and, out to sea, a squad of commandos in a speed boat.

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.

Interim findings from that inquest, under retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, are due out in mid-November and the final report by early 2011, a spokesman said. Another internal investigation by an Israeli ex-general is already complete.

Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel and cancelled joint military exercises in protest at the Mavi Marmara raid and has dismissed the Israeli inquiries as insufficient.