veneer Posted by Jason on 19 June, 2010 – 11:35 am

PETER VENNER’S participation in the recent Freedom Flotilla to Gaza has sparked controversy and he has been charged with reckless involvement in a terrorist organisation.

Earlier this year Peter drove a vehicle packed with medical supplies and other aid from the IW in a land convoy to Gaza. All land routes have now been blocked. However, Peter was so impressed by what he found in Gaza – the kindness and generosity of a population systematically starved by the Israelis, (by means of restriction of food that Israeli officials jokingly refer to as ‘a diet for Palestinians’), and their extraordinary lack of bitterness towards their Israeli oppressors – that he was determined to do what he could to help break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Peter was one of 600 passengers on the Mavi Marmara, a ship funded by Turkish charity IHH – a similar organisation to Oxfam. Peter recalls:

“From 11pm, radar picked up shadows closing from astern. We were woken at 4am and went to the quarter deck for before-dawn prayer. A lookout called to say Israeli boats had been spotted in the darkness.

“Israel has previously attacked international boats taking aid to Gaza, so we expected to be threatened by Israel and wore life jackets in case the boat was sunk. Nevertheless, we believed there would be safety in numbers and expected Israel would harass us but not prevent our peaceful entry to Gaza.

“I went to the starboard rail and saw powerful gunboats, filled with armed assault troops, like a pack of malignant dogs following in our wake. Soon Israeli gunboats darted in alongside and there were several very loud explosions around the stern of the vessel. I heard a noise like gravel being sprayed against the cabin plates and eventually realised that this might be the sound of live ammunition. Remembering that gas could be used, I went to the lobby/stairwell area and had just finished improvising with a dampened scarf when the first casualty was carried down the stairs 2ft from where I stood.

“Three more victims followed. Autopsies have shown that they were shot from overhead or behind, which validates the evidence given by those on the five smaller aid boats who saw helicopters firing on the Mavi Marmara before commandos landed from sea and air.

“I will never forget the shocking quantity and strong smell of blood. We were manacled and forced to kneel for three hours, at the point of about 40 rifles. I was near a steel stairway descending from the deck where the carnage had occurred.  On two occasions an Israeli guard slipped over in the blood of my fellow passengers.  My human response was to try to get to my feet to help, while the soldiers looked embarrassed.  If I had been able to get up, I imagine I would have been shot instantly.”

Peter says that the accusation that the flotilla was carrying anything other than humanitarian aid is nonsense. Because of the threat from the Israelis, all the boats involved were scrupulously checked at every port to ensure there was nothing on board to give the Israelis an excuse for violence.

The flotilla included participants from 42 nations. As Peter travelled on the Turkish ship, the predominant religion was Islam.  Peter says his exposure to Islam has always been very benign. “Indeed I believe that Muslims are being demonised just as the Jews were. Like the Jews – other than in Israel – Palestinians have no history of taking people’s land.

“I am not a Muslim myself, but I have always been treated with great friendliness by the Muslims I have met.  During the land convoy I attended mosques and was amazed by the relaxed atmosphere.  Following prayers, people chat on their mobile phones or just lie down to have a rest.  The mosques are the hub of the local community and a great place to catch up on news and local gossip.  I was always made to feel extremely welcome.”

Most of the passengers from the Mavi Marmara were sent to a prison newly constructed for the Israelis by an Australian company.  Others are still in custody elsewhere and there are reports that they have been badly beaten.  On the following day representatives of all the nations involved insisted on access to the prisoners, but Peter was not visited by the British consul.

“We were deported to Istanbul, where we were at last hailed by a British diplomat.  She indicated that we should follow her behind some airport buses, which we later suspected was a ruse to avoid press coverage.  She offered us each a loan of £100, but fortunately Turkish airlines laid on three nights in a hotel and a free flight back home. We stayed for the funeral of the people who were killed by the Israelis. The individual displays of kindness that were expressed towards me by the people I met in Turkey were extraordinary.”

In response to the charge that, despite attacking the flotilla in international waters, the Israelis were defending themselves, Peter replies: “Suppose I rushed out of my house, stopped a passing car and killed the driver – I would expect to face trial. If I defended myself saying: “I thought he might have been bringing a gun for my neighbour to attack me,” this would invite two questions: Are you insane? … And have you done something to your neighbour that makes you think he might want to harm you?”

“The unwarranted attack by Israel on a flotilla taking humanitarian aid to Gaza raises similar questions. It appears that Israel is suffering a psychotic illness, the patient behaves rationally in an unreal world – it has repressed it’s conscience, is terrified that the truth of it’s actions will be revealed and is in complete denial of evident facts.”

Peter’s partner, Rachel Bridgeland, had an anxious wait before Peter’s return.  “The worst part was hearing that people on the Mavi Marmara had been killed.  The Foreign Office could not tell me anything,” she said.

“Following their attack on Gaza last year, the Israelis have tightened their punishing blockade. UN leaders, including the UN Secretary General, have backed the flotilla.  They have seen the Israelis behave with complete impunity. Among the schools and hospitals deliberately targeted during the three week attack, the Israelis destroyed the UN food store in Gaza as well as UN schools.

“The BBC uses film footage provided for them by the Israeli propaganda department.  You can see the same piece of film on the internet, before scenes of soldiers shooting civilians were cut out.  There is film of Israeli soldiers kicking one passenger before executing him with four bullets, but this was considered too upsetting to show.

“Mark Regev, the Israeli spokesman, frequently appears on British news – despite the fact that he has been proved to have lied on many occasions.  He accused Hamas of initiating the Israeli three week attack on Gaza last year by breaking the ceasefire, but it was shown that Hamas had not in fact fired any rockets during the four months leading up to the Israeli bombardment in which thousands of Gazans were killed or maimed.

“The people of Gaza are not allowed a voice as they are conveniently considered by the international community to be ruled by terrorists, even though Hamas won the democratic election in Palestine by a huge majority.  In addition, unlike Israel, the Hamas leadership has agreed to all UN resolutions regarding Palestine and has begged the UN to send peace keeping troops.

“Some have accused Peter of looking for trouble, but he is the most conciliatory person I know. We have tried very hard to encourage our political representatives to take action, but they say there is nothing they can do.  Even the Archbishop of Canterbury was unable to accept artwork from deaf schoolchildren in Gaza because this is on the Israelis banned list.  On the land convoy, Peter was able to deliver £1000 worth of books to universities and libraries in Gaza.  He took a further £600 worth on the flotilla, but as books and school supplies are also banned by Israel it seems unlikely they will reach their intended destination – especially as Peter reports that passengers luggage was trashed.

“Already our Foreign Office is backtracking on its original demand to end the illegal blockade of Gaza. Israel was formed in 1948, when Jewish settlers murdered 13,000 of their Palestinian hosts. The first Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said: “We must use terror and assassination to cleanse the Galilee of it’s Arab population,” and this is what they have been doing ever since, while the world turns a blind eye. What else is left but grassroots action?  A further flotilla is being planned for September.  As Ghandi said: “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” Not many people would have the courage to do what Peter has done.  I’m extremely proud of him.”

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