Eyewitnesses, both activists and reporters, contradict Israeli account
As Israel releases detained activists and journalists after the assault on the Gaza relief flotilla, they are beginning to tell their version of events. The story has so far been dominated by Israeli offical releases and “hasbara” so it’s important that the voices of these witnesses are heard by the international community. So far, though, these eyewitness accounts aren’t penetrating the U.S. media. If they did, more Americans would doubtless agree with the New York Times editorial calling for a “impartial international investigation” – not a self-serving one run by Israel.
Most importantly, every witness who has so far spoken out contradicts the Israeli account of some kind of self-defense, saying that the Israelis first attacked in boats and that they had already opened fire on the flotilla before commandos began descending from helicopters. They also agree that several people were shot from behind or above, that the Israeli attackers didn’t immediately allow treatment of convoy wounded and that weapons ripped from the hands of commandos were stripped of their ammunition and thrown overboard.
Perhaps the best eyewitness account to begin with is that of Paul McGeough, twice named Australia’s journalist of the year. He writes:
The Israeli attack was timed for dawn prayers – when a good number of the men aboard the Mavi Marmara were praying on the aft deck of the big Turkish passenger ferry, as it motored steadily through international waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
…Suddenly sound bombs and tear gas were exploding on the main aft deck, where prayers were held five times a day. The life-jacketed passengers on the rails at first seemed oblivious as those behind them donned the few gas masks that were on board and others, wearing asbestos gloves, sought to grab the devices and hurl them back at the Israeli commandos before they exploded.
In failing to get their grappling irons to hold on the rails of the five-deck ferry, the commandos in their Zodiac-style assault craft continued to be an irritant, or perhaps a decoy because at this point the Israelis opted for a critical change of plan – if they could not come up from the water, they would have to drop from the sky.
On hearing the machines, activists on the upper decks rushed to the top level of the ship – grabbing the commandos even before they landed, disarming them; beating them until, according to some who were present, leaders demanded the Israelis not be harmed; but in one case, one of the Israelis was hurled from one deck of the ship to the next.
…There were conflicting accounts of the first commando landing – some activists said he was injured and was being carried inside the ship for treatment by the flotilla doctors. However, a Serbian cameraman, Srojan Stojiljkovic, said some of the activists had armed themselves with lengths of chain and metal posts that had served as cordons around the ship’s lifeboats.
“Some of the people caught the first commando before he touched the deck – a few started to hit him, but a lot of people moved in to shelter him with their bodies,” the cameraman said. “Another soldier with a bleeding nose was brought in … a few people threw punches, but not as many as I would have expected.”
Matthias Gardel, a leader of the Swedish Palestinian support group, confirmed the soldiers had been beaten, but insisted those involved were unarmed and in keeping with the ship’s non-violent charter, the soldiers’ weapons were thrown overboard.
McGeough also notes that at least two people were shot from behind while treating wounded, another was shot from above.
The Turkish actor Sinan Albayrak said he had witnessed one of the most senior of the Turkish activists ordering passengers to cease beating two of the Israeli soldiers. Later, he saw a Turkish photographer who had been shot in the back of the head; while he and others had been attempting to assist another injured activist, “Israeli troops had opened fire on them . . . we ran away from the injured man”.
The dead include a Turkish journalist, Chetin Genghis, whose head wounds suggested he had been shot from above – possibly from one of the helicopters. After witnessing his dying moments, his colleague Hisham Goruney said:”I want to forget – I still don’t believe that I saw it.”
Another of the dead was said to be an Indonesian cameraman, Sura Fachrizaz, shot in the chest. Also among the dead was a Malaysian doctor who, activists said, was shot while treating the wounded.
All of these elements are confirmed by other witness accounts. Canadian Farooq Burney, mentioned byJohn earlier, is head of an organisation that was bringing a consignment of laptops into Gaza to help educate children there.
Speaking from Istanbul, where he arrived after being released from Israeli detention, Burney said the Israeli military began firing objects at the ship before the boarding party landed.
“There were a lot of gunshot noises that could clearly be heard. Whether they were rubber bullets, whether they were live ammo, there was a lot of gunfire coming from the helicopter, coming from the boats (alongside the Mavi Marmara.)”
Canadian Farooq Burney (37) described how an elderly activist died after being shot in the chest. “We couldn’t see where he was hit so we opened up his lifejacket and we could clearly see that he was hit in the chest, he was losing a lot of blood,” Mr Burney said.
“It was on. . . the right, just close to his chest and there was blood coming out from there. He passed away,” he added.
Mr Burney also said activists who snatched pistols from the commandos removed the bullets and threw them into the sea, contradicting Israeli assertions that the weapons were used against the boarding party.
Gulf News reporter Abbas Al Lawati wrote for his own paper:
As I saw angry activists drag one of the Israeli soldiers down the stairs and punch him, I lost my journalistic objectivity and found myself urging the activist to stop hitting the soldier.
Seeing the anger in the activist’s eyes, I thought that he would kill him. I had images of the wars that Israel has waged over its captive soldiers, and the number of people that have died as a result of them. My thought was that if an Israeli soldier was to die on that ship, the entire flotilla would be bombed until it sank.
That was, of course, before I saw the bloodshed. The activists’ anger was suddenly put in context when I saw a number of people carrying a dying man down the stairs. His face was unrecognisable, covered in blood. He was apparently one of the first to go down, after an Israeli gun targeted the centre of his forehead from a helicopter, spilling his brains into the hands of another activist who was trying to look after him.
Lawati also describes meeting one of the Israeli commandos disarmed by the ship’s passengers.
I took a few steps down to film the other captive soldier, struggling to keep my balance with so much blood under my feet. He stood in a corner being attended by two medics onboard, in shock, crying.
It was surreal. I knew that that soldier could destroy the entire flotilla, and thought I would get some close up footage of him. I took my camera as close as possible to his face and asked his name twice. He was too traumatised to answer. I could see fear of death in his eyes. He was petrified. Then I heard women screaming. “They are coming!”
New Zealand activist Nicola Enchmarch spoke to the NZ Herald:
She said she saw an activist shot on the deck after the forces stormed the ship, part of a flotilla attempting to breach a blockade to deliver aid to Gaza.
“He was shot in the head – probably live ammunition because the back of his head, the injury was severe,” she told the BBC.
“He died there and we had to move because it was just getting crazy, there was a lot of gunfire coming from all directions.”
Her group moved down from the deck to shelter inside and escape the danger. On the way she saw a man shot in the back, who survived.
She said the activists were acting defensively while the Israeli forces were menacing and aggressive. They set off sound bombs and released what was possibly tear gas.
While Irishman Dr. Fintan Lane spoke of his experience on one of the flotilla’s smaller boats.
Dr Lane said he was assaulted: “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,” he said.
“Fiachra [Ó Luain, from Boston USA] 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.”
Haneen Zuabi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset who has recieved death threats for her participation in the relief convoy, told reporters:
“Israel wanted many deaths to terrorise us and to send a message that no future aid convoys should try to break the siege of Gaza,” she told journalists this week.
Zuabi said that naval boats surrounded the Mavi Marmara and fired on it before soldiers abseiled aboard from a helicopter. She went below to the ship’s hold and said that, within minutes, two dead passengers were brought inside, followed by two more who had been seriously wounded.
soldiers refused her requests for medical assistance for the injured passengers, who died shortly after.
Zuabi – known in Israel as an articulate Hebrew speaker – said that soldiers specifically asked her to translatetheir instructions. At first, she refused. “I shouted back, ‘Why didn’t you ask for my help before you murdered these people?'”
Al Jazeera journalist Jamal ElShayyal taped his account for his own station. Juan Cole writes:
he asserted that the Israelis opened fire as they were boarding the vessel, and that one passenger took a bullet through the top of his head. Many passengers have now confirmed that they were fired on even before the commandos had boots on the deck. Presumably it is this suppressive fire that killed or wounded some passengers and which provoked an angry reaction and an attack on the commandos.
You can watch ElShayyal’s whole account here.
Robert Mackay excerpts some of his testimony for the NYT’s The Lede blog:
It was evident there was definitely fire from the air, because one of the people who was killed was clearly shot from above — he was shot, the bullet targeted him at the top of his head. There was also fire coming from the sea as well. Most of the fire initially from the sea was tear gas canisters, sound grenades, but then it became live fire. After I finished filing that last report and I was going down below deck one of the passengers who was on the side of the deck holding a water hose — trying to hose off, if you will, the advancing Israeli navy — was shot in his arm by soldiers in the boats below. […]
There is no doubt from what I saw that live ammunition was fired before any Israeli soldier was on deck. What I saw, the sequence of events that took place, there was a pool camera, so reporters took it in turns to file, so after I had done my first file, I turned around to see what was going on and there were several shots fired. In fact, one of the helicopters at the front of the ship, you could almost see the soldiers pointing their guns down through some sort of hole or compartment at the bottom side of the helicopter and firing almost indiscriminately without even looking where they were firing. And those bullets were definitely live bullets.
And apparently the violence didn’t stop after the Israelis had taken control. Irish-American peace campaigner Ken O’Keefe, a former US Marine, says he’s been beaten up twice while in Israeli custody. The second beating was so severe that he is still in an Israeli hospital and is now on hunger strike.
There’s a remarkable consistency among eyewitness accounts that Israel supporters will doubtless put down to complicity and others will ascribe to telling the truth. What’s certain is that these accounts are so very different from the official Israeli line that we have to question Israel’s credibility as an honest reporter of events as much as we question the eyewitnesses – perhaps even more so, since many of these witnesses are reporters with reputations for impartial accuracy rather than activists or soldiers following orders.
Robert Mackay writes:
The way these accounts diverge from that of Israel’s military would seem to make an independent investigation into the events crucial. That is particularly true since, as The Lede noted on Wednesday, Israel is apparently in possession of much more video evidence than it has yet released.
In a post making the case that Israel should not conduct that inquiry, Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist and blogger, pointed out that journalists in the flotilla seem to have left Israeli custody without any of the video they shot during the raid that might bolster their accounts.
Israel has confiscated some of the most important material for the investigation, namely the films, audio and photos taken by the passengers [and] journalists on board and the Mavi Marmara’s security cameras. Since yesterday, Israel has been editing these films and using them for its own PR campaign. In other words, Israel has already confiscated most of the evidence, held it from the world and tampered with it. No court in the world would [trust] it to be the one examining it.
The Obama administration and pro-Israel members of Congress are busy saying that Israel is competent and can be trusted to investigate its own actions. Everything we’re hearing from those released says that simply isn’t the case.
Update: The Palestinian Monitor spoke to Italian activist Manolo Luppichini, who told them he was beaten in custody by his israeli captors because “I asked to call my family and my embassy”. Luppichini also says he spoke to Australian Jennie Campbell, one of the nurses present on the Mavi Marama. She told him that she had seen and counted 19 bodies, not the 9 being reported by the media.
Also, check out Gaza Flotilla Survivors, which is aggregating accounts by eyewitnesses.
Update 2: British journalist Hassan Ghani told BBC Radio Scotland:
“They began by throwing stun grenades on to the deck of the ship when people were in the middle of morning prayers.
“Then they began using rubber bullets, they tried to come aboard the ship from the side. People repelled the commandos with water cannons they had set up on the side of the ship.
“Then the Israelis used helicopters to drop people onto roof and there was scuffles on the roof.
“The Israeli solders had already opened fire on the ship, so people were grabbing anything they could to stop the attack in international waters.”
Eyewitness reports are very consistent and at odds with the Israeli official line.