JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister said yesterday that the Turkish activists who battled Israeli naval commandos in a deadly clash last week prepared for the fight ahead of time, before boarding the ship in a different city from the rest of the passengers.

Benjamin Netanyahu's charges highlight Israel's efforts to portray the activists as terrorists and counter a wave of harsh international condemnation that has left the Jewish state isolated and at odds with some of its closest allies.

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."

Meanwhile yesterday, France's foreign minister said the European Union was willing to monitor cargo on board ships heading to the Gaza Strip if Israel ended its blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.

Bernard Kouchner, who spoke after dinner with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Paris, noted that the EU has had monitors deployed at Gaza's border crossing with Egypt at Rafah.

"We can check the cargo of ships heading toward Gaza. We can do it, we want to do it, we would gladly do it," Kouchner said.

Hague said the EU would show "no lack of willingness . . . to participate in solutions."