JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mounted a vigorous defense Wednesday of his government's lethal confrontation with a protest flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, but in an apparent attempt to quell international anger, Israel also quickly released and deported activists involved in the incident.
Netanyahu's televised comments were his first since the high-seas military operation left nine activists dead on a Turkish-flagged vessel early Monday, drawing accusations that Israel used excessive force.
Netanyahu praised the Israeli commandos involved in the encounter, some of whom were injured in apparent attacks by some activists, and accused the flotilla members of being "supporters of terrorism."
"This was not a love boat," he said. "It was a boat of hate."
In Istanbul, hundreds of the activists deported by Israel returned to a hero's welcome early Thursday. The bodies of the nine dead also were on the first plane.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and several Turkish lawmakers welcomed the activists at the airport after Turkey pressured Israel to release the detainees, most of whom are Turkish. Others were from Arab countries, Europe, and the United States.
"They faced barbarism and oppression but returned with pride," Arinc said.
Three air ambulance planes carrying those wounded landed in Ankara earlier.
The flotilla had aimed to break a blockade that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip and carry food and other supplies to Palestinians living there.
The quick release of the activists, including those suspected of attacking the Israeli soldiers, appeared calculated to defuse the international outcry.
Netanyahu said that if the blockade were ended, ships would freely bring in missiles from Iran, to be aimed at Israel and beyond.
He made no mention of whether Israel would create an independent commission to examine what occurred during the interception of the pro-Palestinian flotilla.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Washington was "working to improve the humanitarian conditions" in Gaza, but he also stressed that the Obama administration was "greatly supportive" of Israel's security and "that's not going to change."
On Wednesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council called for an international inquiry and recommended establishing a U.N. fact-finding panel, similar to the Goldstone Commission, which examined Israel's December 2008 assault on the Gaza Strip and accused Israel and the Hamas group that controls the territory of possible war crimes.
The new British government added its voice to those condemning the Israeli operation. In his statement to Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron called the raid "completely unacceptable."
Adam Shapiro, board member of Free Gaza, one of the flotilla's organizers, called Netanyahu's comments an attempt to divert attention from Israel's use of lethal force.
"Israel should apologize and pay compensation to the victims," he said.
Monday's early-morning raid has turned into one of the biggest diplomatic challenges Netanyahu has faced since taking office a little more than a year ago.
According to an opinion poll published Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, two-thirds of Israelis say they believe the flotilla should have been handled differently.
At the same time, Israelis are overwhelmingly opposed to calls for Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barak to resign over the incident.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials continued deporting about 700 foreign activists from the seized vessels to their home countries, chiefly Greece and Turkey. Among the activists were at least five Americans, according to the Israeli human-rights group Adalah.
Three seriously injured activists remained in Israeli hospitals. Five Arab-Israeli citizens who took part in the flotilla were under arrest.
Diplomatic ties with Turkey, once a close Israeli ally, remained tense. More than half of the flotilla's passengers - and three of the dead - were Turkish.
With anti-Israel demonstrations continuing in Turkey, Israel evacuated families of its diplomatic corps as a precaution.
But Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutogu told reporters in Ankara "it was time calm replaces anger" and offered to normalize relations if Israel lifted its Gaza blockade.
On Wednesday, activists returning to their native countries began relaying their version of Monday's raid.
Some said Israeli soldiers began firing at passengers from the moment they landed on the Marmara, while it was in international waters.
Israeli military released an audio recording of radio messages between soldiers during that attack, warning that they were coming under live fire from the activists.
No arms have been found on the vessel, but Israel says some of the activists grabbed guns from Israeli soldiers and used them against them.
Egypt, which also blockades Gaza, on Tuesday temporarily opened the Rafah border crossing, Gaza's main gateway to the outside world.
About 300 Palestinians crossed Wednesday into Egypt, while a smaller number returned to Gaza along with limited humanitarian aid, including blankets, tents, and 13 power generators donated by Russia and Oman.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen appealed to Israel to let a private Irish ship deliver its aid cargo to Gaza, but he admitted that Israel would probably block the ship because part of the cargo was concrete, which Israel bans from Gaza because it might be used by Hamas.
The 1,200-ton ship Rachel Corrie is also carrying wheelchairs and other medical supplies, organizers said. It is named after a U.S. college student who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting house demolitions in Gaza.
The ship was supposed to join the aid flotilla, but it was delayed by mechanical problems and is waiting off the Libyan coast.
Those aboard include Mairead Corrigan, a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland, and Denis Halliday, who previously ran U.N. humanitarian aid programs in Iraq.