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July 14, 2010

Israeli murderers at sea

Scott Stockdale

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Despite witnessing death and unspeakable suffering aboard the Mavi Marmara - the lead ship in the Gaza Flotilla - two Canadian activists said breaking the nearly three-year-old blockade of Gaza remains their primary goal.

Speaking at the Muslim Association of Hamilton Mosque, as part of a Canadian speaking tour, Farooq Burney, director of Al Fakhoora, an international aid organization to defend education rights of students in Gaza, and Kevin Neish, a retired marine engineer and activist with International Solidarity Movement (ISM), gave an eyewitness account of what Mr. Neish described as “a duck shoot, an outright massacre” aboard the Mavi Marmara, on May 31.

The Mavi Marmara was part of a flotilla that included 3 large cargo ships and two smaller ships attempting to break the blockade of Gaza by bringing humanitarian aid.

Although the Mavi Marmara set off from Istanbul, Mr. Farooq said he boarded it in Anatyla, Turkey.

During the afternoon of May 30, Mr. Farooq said the ship's captain announced that they were being followed by Israeli ships, but he didn't expect anything to happen.

However, shortly after the 4 a.m. prayer, on the ship's deck, Mr. Burney said he heard people shouting: “There they are! There they are!” And he soon saw about 20 Israeli commandos on the ship.

“There were sound and smoke grenades and a helicopter flying overhead. People were yelling and screaming and people were trying to board the ship from all directions. I saw people being hit with water cannons and I saw hand-to-hand combat. Then a second helicopter came. I was on the fourth floor, the top. The third time they came (helicopters) they started shooting live ammunition. Before that people were getting hit, but not going down. There were bullets flying all over.”

Soon after, Mr. Burney said someone announced over the ship's PA system, that the ship had been taken over and all passengers were to report to the main area.

“At this point, I saw two dead people and others bleeding. We were pleading with them to get medical attention for the injured people, but it was one and a half hours before we were allowed to bring them out.”

Mr. Farooq and the others were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs and told to kneel on the deck. They were forced to remain in this position for the next six hours. Mr. Neish estimated, in subsequent media interviews, that about 280 people were tied up on the ship.

While most international media have reported nine fatalities on the Mavi Marmara, Mr. Farooq said one passenger, a woman from the Knesset (Haneen Zoubi), said: “They've killed 19 and hundreds are injured.” Mr. Neish said he thinks about 16 people were killed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Neish gave the audience a compelling account of his experience on the Mavi Marmara, and later at the Biersheva Prison – one of Israel's most notorious prisons – were the captives found themselves in lockdown on the evening of May 31.

He said the passengers were overwhelmingly middle-aged and elderly, including three German MP's, a Green Party member from Norway and a retired U.S. Colonel and, “There weren't any arms on that ship.”

Mr. Neish said he was sitting at the stern on the second deck, sharing tea with some other passengers, at about 3:30 a.m. when they were suddenly hit with a barrage of concussion and flash grenades, rubber bullets, and paint balls filled with pepper and glass.

“There were lights all over and cameras. They (Israeli soldiers) had gas masks on as they fired tear gas. The aid workers tried to push them back with sticks and hoses.”

After this skirmish, Mr. Neish said the aid workers took three Israeli commandos into a room, where they treated them for injuries sustained in the scuffle.

“I saw one soldier with a bruise on his face and one had blood on his face ... A large Turkish doctor was cleaning his wound. There were a couple of dozen dead bodies down the stairs. There was blood dripping down the stairs – puddles of it. ”

Mr. Neish said about a half hour later, he and some others went to the deck, but upon hearing machine gun fire, they went back inside. Subsequently, he went below deck, where he saw three people being given CPR at the same time. And he also saw some of the dead bodies.

“I saw two aid workers with double bullet holes in the sides of their heads. They also had wounds in other places. When I talked to four or five Turkish authorities, they said most of the victims were executed at close range with shots to the head. They said when the aid workers were lying on the deck wounded, they were executed.”

At one point in the attack, Mr. Neish said he was holed up in a room with a number of other people, when an Israeli commando stuck the barrel of his gun through the partially opened door and began spraying the room with machine gun fire.

“People were beating at him from the other side of the door, trying to prevent him from getting in. Then one big Turkish fellow reached around and slammed the door shut. If that guy had gotten in the door I wouldn't be here.”

Mr. Neish added that although none of the other five boats in the flotilla resisted, they were attacked anyway, and one of the captains suffered broken ribs.

He said he broke down crying in prison, saying, “Sixteen good men died.” Another prisoner said to him: “No, no, it was for a good cause: We've saved thousands of people in Gaza. One flotilla is worth more than a thousand martyrs.”

Mr. Burney said that as a result of the international outcry to lift the blockade that followed as a result of the attack on the Mavi Marmara the Israeli government has taken shoes, clothes, cooking spices and pasta off the list of banned substances for Gaza.

“In the early days of the blockade, the Israeli Foreign Minister said: 'Gaza is going on a diet. We're going to make an example of Gaza.' I think this is why they attack the aid ships – to say: 'This is what's going to happen if you come again.' “ 

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