Flotilla: Did Israel deliberately murder civilians aboard Freedom Flotilla?

From a leaflet published by the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Palestine, Halifax, June 3, 2010

Free Gaza Movement, June 2, 2010 (Slightly edited for reasons of space)

ON MAY 31, 2010 elite Israeli military commandos stormed six humanitarian aid ships of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ to Gaza, killing 9 civilian passengers and injuring dozens more. The killings are indefensible.

PRIOR TO THE ISRAELI ATTACK – The Freedom Flotilla

The Freedom Flotilla is an effort by a coalition of human rights and humanitarian organizations to nonviolently break Israel’s illegal blockade, and deliver needed humanitarian and developmental aid to the Palestinians of Gaza. 700 passengers from 40 countries joined the flotilla, including: human rights workers, humanitarian aid workers, Members of Parliament, doctors, nurses, teachers, community leaders, and international journalists.

The lead coalition partners included:

• Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), the largest coalition partner, contributing 2 Turkish-flagged cargo ships, the Turkish-flagged passenger ship “Mavi Marmara,” and 380 Turkish nationals to the effort.

• The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, contributing the Greek-flagged passenger ship “Sfendoni.”

• The Free Gaza Movement, contributing the U.S.-flagged passenger ship “Challenger I.”

• A Ship to Gaza, Sweden, and A Ship to Gaza, Greece, contributing the Greek-flagged cargo ship “Eleftheri Mesogeios.”

All ships were thoroughly searched by local port authorities in Greece and Turkey prior to their departure. The coalition hired an independent security firm to search the ships and certify that no weapons were on board. All passengers went through nonviolence training and were searched for weapons prior to boarding. The Turkish government, a member-state of the NATO alliance, vetted all the Turkish passengers to insure there was no one with ties to extremist groups. These steps were deliberately taken to prevent Israeli propaganda officials from ever being able to claim that the Freedom Flotilla posed any ’security risk’ to Israel.

There was a live satellite feed broadcasting the voyage from the Mavi Marmara, as well as GPS transponders showing the exact location of the flotilla at all times. The intention was never to ‘provoke a confrontation,’ but simply to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid to besieged Gaza, and in so doing to draw attention to the brutal Israeli policies that are forcing the Palestinian people into a state of impoverished dependency.

PRIOR TO THE ISRAELI ATTACK – The Israeli Government

On 27 May, Bloomberg News reported that Israel was threatening to use its military forces and “use all available means to stop the ships” (‘Israel Threatens Naval Action to Stop Aid Ships Bound for Gaza’).

On 28 May Associated Press reported that the Israel was prepared to stop the flotilla “at any cost,” including being “prepared to use force.” (‘Israeli gunships head to sea to block flotilla’). Masked naval commandos were being “trained” to stop the flotilla.

On 1 June the Guardian reported that Matan Vilnai, Israeli deputy Defense Minister, suggested that the IDF had sabotaged several of the ships. The flotilla was delayed by two days due to unexpected mechanical problems. Three of the original nine ships intending to join the flotilla were forced to drop off. (‘Gaza aid flotilla: Israeli sabotage suspected,’ Guardian, 1 June 2010)

THE MASSACRE ABOARD THE MAVI MARMARA

On 31 May, under cover of darkness, Israeli military forces surrounded the Freedom Flotilla in international waters. Armed and masked commandos stormed all six ships from sea and from air, killing nine civilians. After more than two days, Israel still refuses to release the names and identities of the dead, nor even confirm the number of passengers killed by their forces.

An Israeli military spokesperson, Avital Leibovich, confirmed the attack took place in international waters. “This happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves.” Did the passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara possess a similar right to defend themselves?

Israel released highly-edited videos of the confrontation, claiming that civilian passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara attempted to “lynch” the well-armed military commandos when they stormed the ship. Defense Minister Ehud Barak praised the commandos, stating: “You carried out the mission and prevented the flotilla from reaching Gaza. We need to always remember that we aren’t North America or Western Europe, we live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren’t second chances for those who don’t defend themselves.” (‘Barak: In the Middle East, there is no mercy for the weak,’ Haaretz, 2 June 2010.)

One wonders whether this sentiment extends to the civilians killed by those commandos.

In contrast to the Israeli account, which is self-evidently absurd, Jamal Elshayyal of Al-Jazeera was able to issue a brief report before Israeli forces cut all communications with the ships. His report contradicts the Israeli version, stating that Israel fired live ammunition on the civilians after they had raised a white flag.

Eyewitness testimony from the handful of passengers who have been released directly contradicts Israel’s version. According to Nilufer Cetin, who sailed on the Mavi Marmara with her one-year-old baby, “The operation started immediately with firing. First it was warning shots, but when the Mavi Marmara wouldn’t stop these warnings turned into an attack,” she said. “There were sound and smoke bombs and later they used gas bombs. Following the bombings they started to come on board from helicopters.” (‘Israelis opened fire before boarding Gaza flotilla, say released activists,’ Guardian, 1 June 2010)

Haneen Zoubi, Member of the Israeli Knesset, one of several parliamentarians aboard, stated that warships surrounded the Mavi Marmara, firing on the ship before the commandos stormed aboard. “Israel had days to plan this military operation. They wanted many deaths to terrorize us and to send a message that no future aid convoys should try to break the siege of Gaza.” (‘Israeli Knesset member rejects navy account of attack,’ Irish Sun, 2 June 2010)

Yonatan Shapira, former pilot in the IDF for the very squadron that conducted the assault on the Mavi Marmara, stated: “No Israeli pilot would drop commandos on a ship in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night, during such an operation without the soldiers carrying live ammunition … there is no doubt that the soldiers had and were prepared to use live ammunition.”

In an interview on the Diane Rehm Show on 2 June, a nationally-broadcast radio program in the US, Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador, stated that in planning their assault on the Marmara, the Israeli government had concluded that the ship was “too large to stop with nonviolent means.”

There is clear evidence that the State of Israeli may have deliberately and with forethought intended to provoke a conflict in order to assassinate civilians sailing aboard the Freedom Flotilla, and therefore violently discourage any further attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to the Palestinians of besieged Gaza.

The Free Gaza Movement calls upon the international community to enforce international standards and laws, fully investigate these crimes, and hold Israeli officials accountable for the willful murder of international human rights and humanitarian aid workers aboard the Freedom Flotilla.

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