Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday defended his military's deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, saying the international community condemning his country is rushing to judgment about the self-defense measures Israeli naval forces were forced to undertake.
The comments came hours after hundreds of activists were deported from Israel following the bloody raid and returned to a hero's welcome in Turkey early Thursday. Nine bodies were also on the first plane.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and several Turkish lawmakers welcomed them at the airport after Turkey pressured Israel to release the detainees, most of whom are Turkish. "They faced barbarism and oppression but returned with pride," Arinc told hundreds of jubilant relatives and supporters who burst into applause outside the airport, chanting "God is Great!" A few thousand people also celebrated their return in downtown Istanbul.
Three air ambulance planes, carrying wounded activists, landed in Ankara earlier. NTV television said the activists who arrived in Istanbul would also undergo medical checks.
About a dozen female activists scuffled with security officers at the airport but were quickly subdued by authorities, Israeli officials said. Officials said no charges would be filed and the women were to be deported as planned.
"This wasn't a love boat. This was a hate boat," Netanyahu said. "I regret to say for many in the international community, no evidence is needed. Israel is guilty until proven guilty."
A number of nations have condemned Israel for using deadly force, killing nine activists, aboard one of the six boats in the flotilla Monday. The United States has urged caution, calling for an investigation before any conclusions are reached.
Netanyahu, responding to the outrage, said Wednesday that Israeli forces were not met by any "serious violence" on the other five ships and so no serious injuries occurred. But he said on the Turkish-flagged ship where the fighting broke out, "Something very different happened."
"They were met with a vicious mob. They were stabbed. They were clubbed. They were fired upon," Netanyahu said. "The attackers had prepared their violent action in advance. ... These weren't pacifists. They weren't peace activists. These were violent supporters of terrorism."
The prime minister said the Israeli soldiers had to act in self defense -- he said that he talked to one who had been shot in the stomach and knee.
Netanyahu, citing the activists' support for Hamas, said Israel will continue to assert its right to inspect cargo headed for the Gaza Strip out of concern that weapons could be smuggled in for groups like Hamas.
"Israel regrets the loss of life but we will never apologize for defending ourselves," he said.
Turkey, meanwhile, has led the charge against Israel, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyid Erdogan calling the clash a "bloody massacre" and describing Israel's actions as "murder." More aid ships could arrive in the region later in the week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report