Scottish campaigner Theresa McDermott speaks exclusively to David Pratt and reveals what she witnessed when Israeli commandos stormed the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza last week.
I was on Challenger 1, a 25-metre motor yacht that was the smallest in the flotilla. On board were 10 women and five men, among them a retired female US military colonel, two Australian journalists, four crew and the captain, Irishman Denis Healy. Our rendezvous point with the other ships was about a quarter of the way between Cyprus and Gaza.
As night fell the ships pulled closer together around the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the ships in the Free Gaza flotilla. During the night we noticed four big ships, two on either side of our group. One of the guys on our boat who had worked for the coastguard back in Ireland identified one of them as an Israeli frigate.
Just after midnight on Sunday the Israelis radioed the Marmara, which in turn contacted us, warning the flotilla would not be allowed to proceed. It was around four o’ clock on Monday morning, while early morning Muslim prayers were underway on the Marmara, that the Israeli boats and commandos arrived.
Obviously they had timed that raid to coincide with the prayers. To starboard we saw a row of lights appearing on the water as a group of small Israeli boats approached, while on the port side there were others, and we realised we were being surrounded. The fast inflatable Zodiacs with the commandos cut right through the flotilla, trying to separate us.
We were only a hundred yard off the Marmara, so really close, enough to see what was going on. The helicopter came across a few minutes after the Zodiacs.
The Israeli commandos were finding it hard to board, with those on the Marmara using fire hoses to stop them. As soon as the Zodiacs got close enough they fired smoke and percussion bombs.
Right from the beginning these weapons caused injuries. I’m assuming that at this point the Israelis were still using rubber bullets, but they definitely started firing live ammunition when the helicopter came in on its second attempt to drop off more soldiers.
It was all very loud, with people running around on the Marmara, which was shining its lights onto the helicopter. The crew even tried turning the fire hose on it but the downwash from the helicopters soaked everyone. I was told later by those on board the Marmara that the first two soldiers who abseiled down from the helicopter were overpowered and taken and searched by some of the Turkish activists.
On the commandos they found plasticised detailed maps of the layout of every boat and pictures of people on board including MPs, bishops and other VIPs. Maybe these were the people the Israelis were trying to avoid harming. I was told there were those on board who really wanted to have a go at the Israeli soldiers who were being detained, but were held back by others.
When the helicopter returned more commandos came down and that’s when the live firing started, and some on board the Marmara told me that bullets were definitely fired from the helicopter. I was on the flydeck of the Challenger on watch along with the captain and two Australian journalists, and it was maybe fifteen minutes after they boarded the Marmara that they came for us.
The captain had opened up the throttle to try and put as much distance between us and the Marmara when we saw that things were getting heavy on its deck, but the Zodiacs came up alongside us and fired more smoke and percussion bombs.
Our only resistance was to stand by the rail of the boat with our hands out, so they could see clearly we had no weapons, and try to block them from coming on board. We had no intention of fighting back.
One of the bombs hit the face of a Belgian woman, bursting her nose before exploding on the boat. She was in a bad way and started bleeding heavily.
At least 20 soldiers came on board and each had a number on the shoulder of his uniform. In charge was number 20, while a lower rank had the number one on his shoulder. They were all wearing ski masks and had on body armour and were fully armed and very aggressive. On seeing the female journalist on board, they Tasered her. I saw the electrical discharge shoot up her arm and she collapsed, vomiting, on the deck.
At least three of the soldiers had Australian accents.
Two of the women on board, Huweida Arraf, a Palestinian with joint US nationality, and a Dutch woman, Anna, who tried to block the stairs to the deck, were thrown to the ground, their hands cuffed with plastic ties that cut into their wrists and their faces pushed on to the deck that was full of broken glass.
They were also blindfolded and hooded. We shouted at them: “Are you proud of this, is this what your army teaches you, beating up women?”
At one point when I was shouting and wouldn’t sit down and trying to get to the girls they were beating, one soldier cocked his automatic pistol and put the gun to my head and said he would shoot me if I didn’t do as I was told.
I didn’t have time to be scared but realised it was probably time to back off and give him space.
The level of aggression they showed was way over the top, with rubber bullets scattered everywhere. When bullets hit they seemed to release a sort of dust that glowed, perhaps so they could be picked up by the commandos’ night sights.
When they took us into port in Ashdod, we were paraded from the moment we arrived and jeered at by the large crowd there. All the time they filmed us, especially when they gave us food. They even tried to distribute some of the captain’s beer but we didn’t drink because we knew it was a propaganda thing. We were processed through Ashdod and doctors there examined us, but never really treated us. When some of us pointed out the levels of bruising they told us it was just mosquito bites. They then searched us and gave us a bit of paper to sign that would allow then to deport us as illegal immigrants, but we refused.
We hadn’t entered Israel of our own free will but were kidnapped in international waters. We were moved to a jail in Beersheva, a new prison block apparently called LA block. It was so new that there was still dust and plaster on the floor.
Here they continued filming us, and we eventually had our first food. I think the reason they put us here was because it was so isolated and there was no news for us to see about what had happened to those on board the Marmara and other ships. Later our embassy staff told us they had been kept waiting at the entrance since one o’clock that day having been refused access to us.
Separated throughout from the men, in the jail we began to get news from the other women of what had happened on the Marmara. Some of the stories were horrific. One Turkish woman had lost her husband. In our cell there was also an Indonesian woman whose husband was a Turkish journalist on board.
He had described how when the Israeli soldiers came to the press room on the half deck of the Marmara, they walked straight up to the Turkish man whose job it was to coordinate facilities for the journalists, put a gun to his head and shot the man dead at point-blank range.
Two people who worked in the medical area on the Marmara also said they had at least three bodies, who had been shot in the head in what looked like an execution style.
Another thing the Israelis did that was particularly nasty while we were in the Beersheva jail was to take a woman into a room and ask her to identify her husband from photos they had taken after he was killed. Before leaving the Marmara the crew had time to clean and prepare the man’s body for burial. She was able to say her good byes then with his body properly wrapped and with the eyes closed. But in the photos his body had evidently been left to bloat virtually beyond recognition in the sun. She collapsed on seeing these and had to be comforted by the other women.
They were also extremely aggressive during our deportation to Turkey. We were woken at 6.30am and loaded into high-security wagons, two or three crammed into a tiny cell on board the vehicles. Though the journey to the airport was only an hour-and-a-half we were kept in the daytime heat in these cramped compartments for a whole five hours. One of the women, an Australian, was pregnant and we kept shouting at the guards that she was with us and that we needed the toilet, but they kept us there.
At Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, we were jostled and jeered by huge numbers of soldiers who surrounded us, and I saw a number of the men beaten up by soldiers. One Irishman who refused deportation to Turkey, was hauled from his seat kicked and punched on the body by a large group of Israelis.
During the many hours we were forced to sit in the one spot there without moving, our consular staff were kept outside and never allowed access to any of us. At the airport too I saw many of the injured and wounded forced to make their own way to the planes the Turkish government had sent to fly us out. Unless they couldn’t physically walk, the wounded had to struggle unaided to the aircraft, some carrying drip and drainage bags and with bloody dressings that looked as thought they had not be changed that often.
Now all I have to do is draw up a list of all the things the Israelis took from me as I left with only the clothes I wore when we were arrested. Through our embassy I’ll try to get my possessions back.
If I’d had the chance I would have gone straight back and joined the crew on the Rachel Corrie, the next ship that was going to try and get into Gaza. The behaviour of the Israelis has only made us all the more determined to carry on helping with the Palestinian cause. If this is the level of random violence and humiliation internationals received, can you imagine what they do to the Palestinians?
Boarding party troops in deadly flotilla raid confiscated cards and spent on them, claim campaigners who were on board
guardian.co.uk, Friday 18 June 2010 18.59 BST
Israeli troops have been accused of stealing from activists arrested in the assault on the Gaza flotilla after confiscated debit cards belonging to activists were subsequently used.
In their raid of 31 May, the Israeli army stormed the boats on the flotilla and, as well as money and goods destined for the Palestinian relief effort in Gaza, the bulk of which have yet to be returned, took away most of the personal possessions of the activists when taking them into custody.
Individual soldiers appear to have used confiscated debit cards to buy items such as iPod accessories, while mobile phones seized from activists have also been used for calls.
Ebrahim Musaji, 23, of Gloucester, has a bank statement showing his debit card was used in an Israeli vending machine for a purchase costing him 82p on 9 June.
It was then used on a Dutch website, http://www.thisipod.com, twice on 10 June: once for amounts equivalent to £42.42 and then for £37.83. And a Californian activist, Kathy Sheetz, has alleged that she has been charged more than $1,000 in transactions from vending machines in Israel since 6 June.
Musaji and Sheetz were on board two separate boats – one the Mavi Marmara, on which nine Turkish activists were killed, the other on the Challenger 1. Both activists only entered Israel when arrested, and were in custody for their entire time on Israeli soil.
“They’ve obviously taken my card and used it,” Musaji told the Guardian.
“When they take things like people’s videos and debit cards and use them, and their mobile phones, it becomes a bit of a joke.
“We were held hostage, we were attacked, and now there’s been theft. If the police confiscate your goods in the UK, they’re not going to use your goods and think they can get away with it.”
Musaji cancelled his card on 7 June, the day after he returned to Britain, where he is a support worker for adults with learning difficulties. His bank has agreed to treat the transactions as fraudulent and he will not be charged for them. His mobile phone was also used for two short calls in Israel after it had been confiscated.
Another American activist, David Schermerhorn, 80, from Washington state, claims his iPhone was used, while Manolo Luppichini, an Italian journalist, said his card was debited with the equivalent of €54 after it was confiscated.
Activists say Israel still has possession of at least £1m of goods and cash, comprising aid and personal possessions, including laptops and cameras.
Some passports, three of them belonging to British citizens, have still not been returned. On Thursday, delegations in 12 countries, including the UK, held meetings with their respective governments to exert pressure on Israeli to return the seized property.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in London advised Musaji to register a formal complaint.
“We regard any misconduct as described in Mr Musaji’s allegations to be utterly unacceptable and intolerable, and suggest waiting until this subject matter is clarified,” she said. “As had happened previously, an Israeli soldier was found guilty of illegal use of a credit card for which he was indicted and sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment.”
A war of words has been raging ever since the Israeli raid on the Gaza aid convoy, as the two sides offer conflicting accounts of what really happened. Three people who were on board the Mavi Marmara tell their version of events. By Spiegel Staff
When the Hamburg resident Nader El Sakka, 58, tried to board the Challenger I in the port of Agios Nikolaos on Crete, he was told he had to sign a four-page document pledging that he would not engage in violence and that he possessed no weapons. He also had to provide the name and telephone number of a family member in case of an emergency. If he didn’t sign, he was told, he wouldn’t be allowed on board the Gaza-bound convoy.
The document was in English, a language that El Sakka — a businessman who was acting as a delegate from the Palestinian community in Germany — does not speak well, so he only filled out three pages. He thought he could skip the fourth page. “But that wasn’t enough to be allowed on board,” he says. “They insisted that I also fill out the fourth one.”
El Sakka embarked on board the Challenger I, one of eight boats and freighters headed for Gaza with a load of cement, structural steel, medicine and children’s toys. Two days later, off the coast of Cyprus, El Sakka disembarked and went on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger ship. The flagship of the small fleet, it had Gaza activists on board from a dozen countries, the majority of whom — around 400 people — hailed from Turkey.
Like a Pleasant Cruise
El Sakka describes the atmosphere on board as “euphoric,” almost as if “we were on a pleasant cruise,” he says. The ship was linked via satellite with the Internet and a number of TV stations and continuously sent out images and interviews to the world. A reporter from the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera filed a report on Sunday afternoon that made headlines a number of days later. A group of Arab activists could be seen chanting: “Remember Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! Muhammad’s army is returning!”
This is an intifada battle cry, a fighting slogan that recalls a victorious battle fought by the Prophet Muhammad’s army against the Jews. El Sakka, a veteran of many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, knows the words well — and he disapproves of them. “We avoid such slogans at our rallies,” he says. “I didn’t personally see this group on the ship. But I recognize the reporter. He was definitely there.” The other footage in the report also stems from the Mavi Marmara, he says — including a woman standing on deck and saying in Arabic: “Right now we face one of two happy endings: either martyrdom or reaching Gaza.”
That evening at 6:00 they ate köfte (grilled meatballs) and cucumber salad. Four-and-a-half hours later, Captain Mahmut Tural spotted Israeli ships on his radar. In response to their demand that he change course, he responded: “Negative. Our destination is Gaza.” Then he ordered an exercise to prepare the passengers for an emergency.
‘I Was Well Prepared’
“But right after the alarm the various groups continued with their speeches and singing,” said Norman Paech, a former member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the far-left Left Party, who was also on board the ship. “I stayed for a bit on deck and observed it all — out of anthropological interest.” Then he went to bed.
The activists suspected that an attack was imminent. They began to assign watches on deck. One of the men on watch was the Turkish doctor Mahmut Coskun, 40. “They chose well-built doctors for the job, because in a crisis we would have to bring the injured below deck,” he recalls. “I’m an emergency doctor with a motorcycle unit. I was well prepared.”
He saw men preparing for a showdown by reciting poems and songs, but there were no real extremists on board, he says:
“Between 5,000 and 6,000 people had applied for the mission. Radicals were not taken along.”
irishtimes.com – Last Updated: Wednesday, June 2, 2010, 18:11
An Irishman who was part of a Gaza bound aid flotilla raided by the Israeli Defence Forces http://flotillamassacrepassengers.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.phptoday said he saw nothing to suggest any of the peace activists were in possession of weapons.
Shane Dillion, from Blackrock in Dublin, said the fire fighting defences of the flotilla’s largest ship, the Mavi Marmara , were activated when the commandos attempted to board, as was the norm for pirate attacks, and that rubbish bins were thrown from the deck.
He rejected Israeli claims that some of the activists were armed during the attack which killed at least nine people.
“Any of the weapons I have seen demonstrated by the Israeli defence forces were typical equipment that you would have on a ship,” said Mr Dillon, a member of the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
“There was a knife for a galley. They also showed a sledgehammer, which would be on a merchant vessel for anchor cables etc. There was nothing on display to show there were any weapons.”
Speaking at a press conference in Dublin today, Mr Dillon said there was a screening system and electronic detectors onboard the largest boat in the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara , to check it passengers for weapons. He returned from Israel last night.
Mr Dillon, who was travelling on the Challenger 1 in the flotilla, said when the Israeli commandos boarded the ship the activists engaged in “purely non violent and verbal protection” to allow him time to get video footage of the attack uploaded to the internet.
He said the Israeli’s initially focused their attention on the journalist onboard as it appeared they did not want footage, photographs or reports of what had transpired to be released.
Mr Dillon said he was disgusted at the behaviour of the Israeli defence forces. “To my mind it is an act of piracy – a terrorist act in international waters on a flotilla of people involved in peaceful humanitarian aid mission to Gaza,” he said.
He also said he feared for the safety of the other activists. “We could see the stun grenades going off, we could hear the tasers being deployed. They were also firing high power paintball guns at the passengers and crew of the Mavi Marmara .”
He said commandos boarded the Challenger 1 with force and fired taser and paintball guns as well as hitting people with the butts of their riles.
Thursday, 3 June 2010 23:03
An Irish activist detained by Israel during the raid on the Gaza aid flotilla has been telling an Oireachtas committee of his ordeal.
Shane Dillon, who was deported from Israel on Tuesday, appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon.
Nine people on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara were killed when Israeli commandos stormed the flotilla of aid vessels on Monday
Mr Dillon told the committee that no-one aboard his vessel the ‘Challenger 1′ offered any physical resistance to the Israeli troops who stormed it.
Instead, he said, only verbal resistance was offered and that the Israelis were clearly informed that the flotilla was an aid/peace flotilla.
Mr Dillon said that other vessels had turned on fire hoses when the Israeli vessels approached the flotilla, but that at no stage had water cannon been used by the vessels of the flotilla.
He said the Israelis had used stun guns, assaulted people with the butt ends of rifles, pushed people to the ground and stood on them.
Mr Dillon told the committee that the commandos also used paintball guns and smashed windows.
In the aftermath of the attack the Israeli government published pictures of weapons they said were found on the boats.
However, Mr Dillon said galley knives and sledge hammers are normal and necessary items to carry on a boat.
Fianna Fáil’s Michael Woods, who chairs the committee, said it is an issue of concern that Israeli Ambassador Dr Zion Evrony declined to come before the committee to answer questions about the incident.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has called for Dr Evrony to be expelled from Ireland.
Written by Greta Berlin | 04 June 2010
Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign
Press Release – 3rd June 2010, 1pm
Speaking from Istanbul, Dr Fintan Lane, of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), spoke of his experiences on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla which was attacked by Israeli forces on Monday and his time in Israeli detention. He said he was assaulted in custody, while three other Irish received severe beatings Dr. Lane is due to return to Ireland tomorrow afternoon where he will address a press conference in the City Centre.
Speaking from a hotel room in Istanbul, Dr Lane gave an update on the status of the Irish passengers who had been kidnapped by Israel on Monday. Dr Lane said:
“I am currently in a hotel with Fiachra O Luian, both of us arrived here late last night. Fiachra was beaten up at the airport and has to go into hospital today for tests. Al Mahdi Al Harati suffered a diabetes related seizure on the plane and this, coming on top of a severe attack he received on board the Mavi Marmara, meant he had to be brought to hospital in Ankara last night.”
Dr Lane continued:
“Ken O’Keefe, the Irish-American passenger, suffered a severe beating at the hands of security officials at Tel Aviv airport before boarding, and his injuries were so bad that he had to be hospitalised in Tel Aviv – the Israelis are claiming this delay in his repatriation is for ‘technical reasons’, yet another Israeli lie. Finally, a number of passengers are still unaccounted for, among them the Libyan-Irishman Isam Bin Ali, who was due to be deported at 10am yesterday. No one I’ve spoken to knows where these people are, it is very worrying.”
Dr Lane also spoke about the Israeli attack and hijacking of his ship, and his time is captivity. He said:
“When they boarded our boat, we resisted entirely peacefully. I sat on the floor and tried to reason with them, but the Israeli commandos physically attacked us. Fiachra was dragged around the ground and I had a gun pointed in my face by a screaming commando. His mania was so intense that I genuinely feared for my life. Others received beatings.”
“When they finally took over our ship, and forced us to dock in Ashdod, we refused to disembark. We sat down, linked arms and said that we had been illegally kidnapped and brought against our will to Israel. We were all forcibly removed from the boat and brought to interrogation rooms in the port. At this point, I refused to hand over my passport, restating my position that I would not cooperate with my illegal detention and was under no obligation to do so. I was then physically assaulted, my arms were painfully twisted behind my back for prolonged periods and my passport taken.”
“We were then transferred to the prison in Be’er Shevva – though were told we were in Tel Aviv by our captors – and held incommunicado until it was announced that we were all to be deported. It was only at that time that we finally met with the Irish Ambassador.”
”In prison I was told about events on the Mavi Marmara, people being shot, left to bleed to death, beaten and bitten by dogs. By all accounts it sounded like it was hell on that boat.”
Dr Lane will arrive back in Ireland this afternoon – he will be on a plane from Istanbul that leaves at 10.45am (local time) and is scheduled to arrived in Dublin at 1.20pm. When he arrives back in Ireland, there will be a welcoming committee at the airport, and Dr Lane will address a press conference in the City Centre later tomorrow. Full details of this welcoming committee and press conference will be circulated in a further press release.
In Turkey today, thousands attended the funerals of the 9 confirmed dead passengers – all of whom are Turkish, expect one who was an American of Turkish origin. In other news, South African has just announced that it is recalling its Ambassador to Israel over the Flotilla killings.