Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his political-security cabinet on Tuesday that international condemnation would not stop Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The Israel Navy's deadly raid of a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid awakened a storm of criticism among Israel's friends and foes alike, leading many members of the United Nations Security Council to call on Israel to lift its years-long siege of the Hamas-ruled coastal territory.
But Netanyahu told ministers at a special meeting convened in the wake of the raid that the blockade was still necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the Gaza Strip.
"We know from the experience of Operation Cast Lead that the weapons entering Gaza are being turned against our civilians," Netanyahu said, referring to Israel's three-week offensive on the Gaza Strip that ended in January 2009.
"Gaza is a terror state funded by the Iranians, and therefore we must try to prevent any weapons from being brought into Gaza by air, sea and land," he said.
Netanyahu acknowledged that militants were still capable of smuggling weapons in via tunnels from Egypt, but emphasized that the large amounts of weapons that could be brought by sea made the threat a completely different affair.
"On the Francop ship alone we confiscated some 200 tons of weapons being smuggled to Hezbollah," the prime minister said, in reference to the Antiguan-flagged ship Israel intercepted off the coast of Cyprus in November 2009.
"Opening a naval route to Gaza will present an enormous dangerous to the security of our citizens," said Netanyahu. "Therefore, we will stand firm on our policy of a naval blockade and of inspecting incoming ships."
"It's true that there is international pressure and criticism of this policy, but [the world] must understand that it is crucial to preserving Israel's security and the right of the State of Israel's to defend itself."
Netanyahu added that Israel regretted that nine lives were lost in the operation on Monday, but defended the Israel Defense Forces soldiers as having been justified in the actions of their mission.
"This was not a peace flotilla, but a violent force," he said.
The special cabinet meeting on Tuesday was expected to result in a demand to establish a panel of inquiry to investigate how and why the decision was made to carry out the commando raid on the flotilla.
Senior ministers have been sharply critical of the fact that the decision to seize control of the flotilla to Gaza was made after two meetings of the forum of seven senior ministers but without official deliberation by the inner cabinet, the body that has the authority to approve military actions of this scale.
Netanyahu returned to Israel on Tuesday morning from the United States, after canceling his scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington. He convened the inner cabinet for 4 P.M. to discuss the implications of Monday's military operation.
Senior ministers have noted that, in contrast to the handling of similar incidents in the past, the inner cabinet did not discuss issues related to the flotilla, receive operational briefings or approve the operation. The forum of seven, which did consider and approve the plan, is a consultative body only and does not have the legal authority to pass resolutions.
The forum - Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Intelligence and Atomic Affairs Minister Dan Meridor, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Minster without Portfolio Benny Begin - held just two meetings on the flotilla, the latest on Wednesday. They approved the operation and the continuation of the Israeli policy of barring ships from docking in Gaza.
Much of the session was devoted not to the military operation but rather to media and public relations issues surrounding the issue. "The ministers who attended the meeting didn't get the impression from the defense establishment that a violent confrontation of this scope was likely," one senior Jerusalem official said. "The sense during the discussion was that the navy would come and the organizers would take fright, do an about-face and flee," he said.
According to senior officials who attended the session, a few ministers expressed differing views but in the end a consensus was reached and there was not even a vote. One of the most vocal participants in Wednesday's session was Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser.
He was against the raid and said the ships should be allowed to dock in Gaza in order to avoid a diplomatic and public relations crisis as well as the embarrassment to Israel that a violent confrontation with demonstrators on the ships could cause. After senior defense officials expressed their opposition to Hauser's views, his position was rejected.
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