Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday defended the Israeli Navy's raid of a pro-Palestinian convoy en route to the Gaza Strip earlier this week, in his first address to the nation since the botched operation which left nine people dead and several more wounded.
Accusing international critics of "hypocrisy," Netanyahu said Israel would continue to blockade the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave, saying that to lift the embargo would turn it into a base for Iranian missiles that would threaten both Israel and Europe.
"Iran is continuing to smuggle weapons into Gaza," said Netanyahu in a televised address. "It is our obligation to prevent these weapons from being brought in by land or sea. The previous government understood this and imposed a closure."
"The goal of the flotilla was to breach [the closure] and not to bring goods, as we would have allowed them to do," said Netanyahu. "If the blockade had been broken, . . . dozens and hundreds of ships carrying weapons would have come."
Netanyahu, who canceled a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama due to the raid which occurred just hours before his trip, declared that Israel had no opposition to seeing humanitarian aid brought into the Gaza Strip.
But Hamas' growing armament was a cause for concern and a crucial reason to leave the blockade in place, said the prime minister. Without a blockade and intense inspection of every ship nearing the area, said Netanyahu, "Gaza will turn into [an] Iranian port."
Netanyahu told his political-security cabinet during a special session on Tuesday that international condemnation would not stop Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The raid of the Turkish-flagged ship awakened a storm of criticism among Israel's friends and foes alike, leading many members of the United Nations Security Council — including Britain — to call on Israel to lift its years-long siege of the Hamas-ruled coastal territory.
At a special meeting convened in the wake of the raid, Netanyahu told his ministers 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 danger 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 to defend itself."
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