Israelii Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives to his Jerusalem...

Israelii Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives to his Jerusalem offices with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, left, Sunday. Credit: Pool / Getty Images

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Sunday that the Turkish activists who battled Israeli naval commandos in a deadly clash last week prepared for the fight before boarding the ship in a different city from the rest of the passengers.

Netanyahu's charges highlight Israel's frantic efforts to portray the activists as terrorists and counter a wave of harsh international condemnation.

Last Monday's operation, in which nine activists were killed aboard a ship headed to the blockaded Gaza Strip, damaged Israel's ties with Turkey, its main Muslim ally, and brought heavy pressure on Israel to lift the 3-year closure of Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Netanyahu told his cabinet that "dozens of thugs" from "an extremist, terrorism-supporting" organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos. "This group boarded separately in a different city, organized separately, equipped itself separately and went on deck under different procedures," he said. "The clear intent of this hostile group was to initiate a violent clash with [Israeli] soldiers."

Late Sunday, Netanyahu's office released a statement saying he discussed the international criticism with world leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, the president of France and the premier of Canada. Netanyahu told them any country would act in self-defense if it were targeted by thousands of rockets as Israel has been by Gaza militants.

In Turkey, the head of a Turkish Islamic charity, Bulent Yildirim, said all passengers boarded the ship in the Turkish port of Antalya, and rejected suggestions that those who clashed with the soldiers were trained militants. That charity, IHH, has been outlawed by Israel because of its alleged ties to Hamas.

"Take a look at who was killed. They had pot bellies. They were old. They were young. Who would believe that they received special training?" he said.

Huwaida Arraf, a leader of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, denounced Netanyahu's claims as "another pack of lies."

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