Israel's prime minister on Sunday defiantly refused to apologize to Turkey for his military's deadly raid last year on a Turkish-led flotilla bent on breaking the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

But in his first public remarks since Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador over the affair on Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu expressed Israel's regret for the loss of lives and said he hoped to mend frayed ties with Turkey -- a country that was once Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world.

Ankara had wanted Israel to apologize for the deaths and lift the blockade on Gaza, a Palestinian territory run by Hamas militants with a long history of deadly violence against Israel.

But Netanyahu said Israel, in trying to keep arms from reaching Gaza, had nothing to apologize for.

"We don't have to apologize for acting to defend our civilians, our children and our communities," Netanyahu told government ministers and journalists at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet session.

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But he tempered those tough words by telling Turkey that "Israel expresses regret at the loss of life."

"I hope we will find a way to overcome the dispute with Turkey," Netanyahu said. "Israel never wanted ties with Turkey to deteriorate, and Israel does not now seek a deterioration of ties."

The expulsion of the Israeli envoy from Turkey followed the leaking of a U.N. report that defended the Israeli blockade of Gaza and acknowledged that violent activists on board the blockade-busting Mavi Marmara ship had attacked the raiding naval commandos.

But it also accused Israel of using disproportionate force against the activists and called their deaths "unreasonable."