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?
Published 06 June, 2010, 10:32
Activist Youssef Benderbal gave RT a first-hand account of Israel’s attack on the humanitarian Freedom Flotilla which had been heading for Gaza this week.
RT: Mr Youssef thank you very much for talking to RT. We’ve already heard the Israeli point of view over the humanitarian aid ship seizure. We would now like to hear yours. Can you tell us how it all happened?
Youssef Benderbal: First of all, you should understand that all the ships that were taking part in that action had gathered in one place in international waters. I am insisting that they were in international waters because, in accordance with the free access principle, a presence in international waters doesn’t require permission from any country. This is the first thing I would like to say.
Second, the ships were close to each other. I was on the Greek vessel. There were also some influential people on board and peace activists of various nationalities: Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen and even Americans. I’d love to give credit to the US ambassador, the former US ambassador in Iraq. He is 81 years old, but he accompanied us all the time on our sea voyage.
I should say that there were all sorts of people there. Representatives of about forty nationalities were on board. It was a Greek ship. Its name was the Sfendoni. It was 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning. We were asleep. Some of us were sleeping on the floor, others were sleeping below. I was sleeping below. I woke up. I climbed to the deck. What did I see there? I saw my French friend. I asked him: “What’s up?” “Look, what’s up,” he answered. I saw a Turkish vessel which was well lit. It had several floors, two at least, I think.
There were at least 500 people on board that ship and I saw them. There were women, old people and children. A helicopter was descending from above, and then it dropped soldiers.
Then I saw commandos coming in motor boats. They were masked and armed and were heading for the ship. I heard shots being fired.
They were approaching, and were practically on board the vessel. As I turned my head, I saw a raincoat. I should say that the attack was simultaneous and well-co-ordinated. All the ships were stormed and captured simultaneously.
When I turned around, I saw a soldier, a commando who had climbed up on board. He was wearing a mask, and he was armed. What was I supposed to do? We had to do two things: to stay on top and warn the others about the commandos and the attack. We had received orders. There were three of them. First, we had to protect ourselves, but without using weapons. Therefore, we sat down as the activists of Greenpeace do: they sit very close to each other. So, we stuck together so as to prevent the Israelis from passing to the captain’s cabin and to protect it for as long as possible. We were putting up resistance. In short, we were showing our disobedience.
Second, we had to sit and guard the access to the engine room. Third, we had to meet the aggressors halfway, not to settle scores, but to establish dialogue. We wanted to talk to them calmly, as we are talking now, in order to defuse this military tension. I emerged in front of them just as I am now standing in front of you. I moved slightly, there was a stir. I rose to my feet like this and said that I was a peace activist and that we were all peace activists.
It was clear that I didn’t have any evil intentions. But they didn’t understand anything and they didn’t do anything. They had very clear orders. In a very aggressive manner they said to me: “Sit down! Shut up!” They took us and the Americans of whom I’ve told you, aside. They put us into a big room together with our friends where we ate and slept. It was our bedroom and our canteen. But the most terrible things happened to the people who tried to defend the captain’s cabin with their bodies.
My French friend was struck with a fist on his jaw. That was ruthless. We were unarmed and we didn’t provoke anybody. One of the activists was hit straight in the head and another one had something like a black eye. One more person suffered light injuries in the arm and body.
But the man who was worst hit was behind the ship’s wheel. Yes, he was the captain, and I admire his courage. He was seriously injured. He had a torn ear. Yes, it was the captain. He was wounded in his ear, it was torn.
He was holding something close to his neck to fix it because he was hurt. He also had a leg injury, but despite that he kept talking.
RT: Did you notice what was happening on board the Turkish ship at that moment?
YB: No, no. Since they neutralized us and placed us in one room. It was only upon my return to France that I learnt about those human casualties. This act deserves to be condemned.
RT: Did you hear of other people using guns?
YB: No, not a word.
RT: Cold steel?
YB: No, no one did that on board my ship. Please, believe me. We didn’t do that. We had very clear orders which banned us from provoking them. We stayed calm and defended ourselves only with our bodies.
RT: Were your instructions the same for all the ships?
YB: I don’t know what happened on other ships because each vessel had its own rules. It should be understood that we should consider the whole situation. It was at night when the Turks were praying. We heard how they were called to pray. We could hear those calls every evening through a speaker.
So that was clear. And what did the Israelis do? They approached the praying people. From that moment everyone was in danger. The Israelis expected those people to give them a hearty welcome and greet them with apples and tangerines. But that was impossible. It’s absolutely normal that they received that kind of welcome. But I disagree. Who gave them the right to climb onto my ship? It’s illegal.
RT: What happened after you all gathered on deck?
YB: We were detained from 4 o’clock in the morning until 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We had to be in the sun all the time. This is piracy. The Somali pirates have the same style of behavior.
They captured us and sent to the port of Ashdod. Later, I understood that the Israeli soldiers were shooting the whole thing on video: they picked up bottles and handed them over to us to show how humane they were. But all that was for the camera, because when they took me into custody I asked them for food and they refused to give it to me. They didn’t give me anything and left me hungry until the morning. They didn’t even bring me water. They locked us up and each time we needed to use a toilet, we had to bang on the door. First, we were locked up in terrible conditions.
Later, when we arrived in the port, the drapes were pulled down and we couldn’t see what was going on. We asked one man to tell an Israeli soldier that we wanted to meet the consuls of our respective countries. He said: “No problem.” He lied because when we arrived at the destination, there was no one there except Israeli soldiers. When we arrived, we saw a lot of Israelis dressed in uniforms of different colors. We were constantly taken somewhere: to pose for a photo, to get a medical history card or to fill in the questionnaire. And each time they subjected us to a humiliating search. That happened again and again. Four hours passed. They took each of us out individually, so we couldn’t communicate with each other.
RT: What were you asked to do after the interrogation?
YB: We were being told that we had committed a serious offence, but in fact we didn’t do anything wrong. The law was on their side and not on ours. They told us that we had provoked the soldiers, that we would face an Israeli court and that we would get long prison terms. But then they told us: “You either stay or leave. But if you want to leave, you need to put your signature here and then we are going to deport you.”
RT: What did they want you to sign?
YB: To sign a paper that we promise to leave Israeli territory by first flight.
RT: Was there any condition not to repeat what you had done?
YB: I don’t know about that.
RT: Did you know what you were signing?
RT: In what language was that document?
YB: It was in French. Even their translator who came to us said: “I am with them, not with them.” He said to me: “Here is the document, saying that you should leave.” So we solved everything. The reason for my presence here is to tell the world that France is expressing solidarity, because there they do what they like with you.
RT: Other ships are now heading to Gaza. Are you thinking of going back there or you doubt that you would?
YB: No, of course not. We don’t regret anything. But we wanted to bring home two things. On the one hand, we wanted to give the much needed aid to the Palestinians, the besieged Palestinians who are suffering from hunger and who were hurt after the terrible attack in December 2008. But on the other hand, we wanted to tell the world about the inhumane siege, which resembles a collective punishment banned by international law. Yes, we will keep sending help. Help is not a crime. Help is honor.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
In the predawn hours of May 31, I was aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, part of a convoy of humanitarian vessels aiming to deliver aid to besieged civilians in Gaza, when we were attacked in international waters by a unit of Israeli commandos.
Our ship had been inspected by customs agents in Turkey, a NATO member, who confirmed that there were no guns or any such weapons aboard. Indeed, the Israeli government has produced no such arms. What was aboard the ship were hundreds of civilian passengers, representatives of dozens of countries, who had planned to deliver the flotilla’s much-needed humanitarian materials for the Gazan people. These Palestinians have suffered under an illegal siege – first imposed by Israel in 2005 and strictly enforced since early 2009 – which Amnesty International has called “a flagrant violation of international law.”
The passengers on our ship – including elected officials, diplomats, media professionals and human rights workers – joined the flotilla as an act of peaceful protest. Israel’s powerful navy could have easily approached our boat and boarded it in broad daylight or pursued nonviolent options for disabling our vessel. Instead, the Israeli military launched a nighttime assault with heavily armed commandos. Under attack, some passengers skirmished with the boarding soldiers using broomsticks and other items at hand. The commandos and navy soldiers shot and killed at least nine civilians and seriously injured dozens more. Others are still missing. The final death toll has yet to be determined.
I feared for the lives of my fellow passengers as I heard shots being fired on deck, and I later saw the bodies of several people killed being carried inside. I had expected soldiers to shoot in the air or aim at people’s legs, but instead I saw the bodies of people who appeared to have been shot multiple times in the head or chest.
When it was over, the Israeli soldiers commandeered our ships, illegally kidnapped us from international waters, towed us to the port of Ashdod, and arrested all of us on board.
The Israeli government has confiscated all of our video equipment, hard drives with video footage, cell phones and notebooks. They detained the journalists aboard my ship, preventing them for days from speaking about what happened. Acting on Israel’s behalf at the U.N. Security Council, the United States has attempted to block a full, impartial, international investigation of the incident.
Nevertheless, even at this early stage the world has expressed outrage around a basic fact: There is no justification for launching a deadly commando attack in the dark of night on a humanitarian-aid convoy.
The Israeli government denies that its punitive blockade of Gaza is the source of hardship for civilians there. While its spokespeople actively work to create confusion in the media, the truth is clear for all who would care to see it. The overwhelming conclusion of highly respected human rights authorities is that the Israeli government, because it does not accept the legitimacy of the elected Hamas government, is pursuing a policy of what Human Rights Watch calls “collective punishment against the civilian population,” illegal under international law.
With regard to the flotilla I was on, the Israeli government says it would have permitted our humanitarian aid to enter Gaza by land had we submitted it through “proper channels.” But Israel’s “proper channels” – restrictive checkpoints that have repeatedly turned away World Health Organization medical supplies and rejected or delayed the delivery of U.N. food aid – are the very source of the humanitarian crisis.
Israeli spokespeople insist that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was a provocation. It was, in the sense that civil rights protesters in the American south who sat at segregated lunch counters represented a provocation to segregationists, or in the sense that all nonviolent protests against the illegitimate acts of a government are by definition provocations. Under an illegal siege, the delivery of aid to civilians is a prohibited act; the intent of our humanitarian convoy was to violate this unjust prohibition.
At least nine of my fellow passengers were killed by the Israeli military for attempting to defy the ban on delivering aid. Far more Palestinian civilians have died as a result of the siege itself. What happened to our flotilla is happening to the people of Gaza on a daily basis. It will not stop until international law is applied to all countries, Israel included.
Iara Lee is a filmmaker and a co-founder of the San Francisco’s Caipirinha Foundation ( http://www.culturesofresistance.org/caipirinha-foundation).
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.
By Jason O’Brien
Tuesday June 08 2010
THE captain of the Rachel Corrie aid ship told yesterday how — despite reassuring his crew — he feared for his life as heavily armed Israeli forces boarded the vessel.
The other Irish aid workers on the ship — who were deported from Israel yesterday — said Derek Graham‘s calm authority and regular contact with the Israeli navy prior to the seizure on Saturday ensured that they did not fear being killed.
But Mr Graham, who was on board along with his wife Jenny, admitted yesterday he thought his own life was at risk as he was ordered to remain alone on the bridge after he had gathered all the crew and aid workers together in another area.
“So I’m standing there on the bridge by myself, with no protection,” said Mr Graham, who has entered Gaza on five of his seven attempts.
“At that stage, you start to get worried about what the navy might be thinking — ‘Take him out and everyone else will be subdued’?”
Each of the 35 or so Israelis who boarded the ship was carrying three weapons. “I was the head person aboard that ship,” Mr Graham said. “So if they’re taking down anybody, they’re taking down the head person.
“That is what appears to have happened on the Marmara last week — the captain was executed.”
On Saturday, however, Mr Graham was left kneeling with his hands tied behind his back for half an hour, before being taken to a detention centre with the rest of the staff and crew.
All five said they intended to try to get into Gaza again in the future.
“I expected to be scared but when you’re faced with it, the anger, the frustration, the outrage makes you courageous and the arrogance of these characters threatening Irish citizens on the high seas,”
Mr Halliday said. “This is a hijack and we were kidnapped. It’s bizarre.”
The five arrived back in Dublin via Frankfurt at 11.20am yesterday, after waiving their right to appeal the order of deportation. They had been held in a deportation centre in the port of Ashdod for two days.
Mr Graham confirmed that the ship remains under Israeli control in Ashdod.
“I will be organising getting my ship back because it was taken in international waters, not in Israeli waters,” he said.
Ms Maguire accused the Israeli government of committing “slow genocide” against the Palestinian people.
“Gaza has been cut off from the world for over three years. The people of Gaza don’t have enough basic things for their needs,” she said.
“It’s Israeli policies that are causing this – there is a slow genocide of the Palestinian people.”
“Regarding yesterday’s ship and five of the six ships in the previous flotilla, this process ended without casualties,” Mr Netanyahu said.
“Only on one ship, on which dozens of thugs from an extremist, terrorism-supporting organisation had prepared in advance, armed with axes, knives and other ‘cold’ weapons, were our soldiers compelled to defend themselves against a tangible danger to their lives.”
- Jason O’Brien