PRESS BRIEFING – WitnessGaza.com
DID ISRAEL DELIBERATELY MURDER CIVILIANS ABOARD FREEDOM FLOTILLA?
Israeli Ambassador to the United States admits that ships were “too large to stop with nonviolent means.”
On May 31st, 2010, elite Israeli military commandos stormed six humanitarian aid ships taking part in the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ to Gaza, killing between 9-20 civilian passengers and injuring dozens more. As the facts of the attack come out it is clear that these killings cannot in any way be justified.
PRIOR TO THE ISRAELI ATTACK – The Freedom Flotilla
The Freedom Flotilla was an effort by a coalition of human rights and humanitarian organizations to nonviolently break through Israel’s illegal blockade, and deliver much needed humanitarian and developmental aid to the Palestinians of Gaza. Almost 700 passengers from 40 different 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. This was IHH’s first attempt to break the Gaza blockade.
* The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, contributing the Greek-flagged passenger ship “Sfendoni.” This was the European Campaign’s second mission to Gaza.
* The Free Gaza Movement, contributing the U.S.-flagged passenger ship “Challenger I.” This was Free Gaza’s ninth mission to Gaza.
* A Ship to Gaza, Sweden, and A Ship to Gaza, Greece, contributing the Greek-flagged cargo ship “Eleftheri Mesogeios.” This was the first voyageof A Ship to Gaza, Sweden, and the fourth of a Ship to Gaza, Greece.
All ships were thoroughly searched by local port authorities in Greece and Turkey prior to their departure. Additionally, 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 likewise 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 precautionary 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 to anyone viewing the coalition website. The intention of the Freedom Flotilla 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 the Associated Press reported that the Israeli government was prepared to stop the flotilla “at any cost,” including being “prepared to use force.” (‘Israeli gunships head to sea to block flotilla‘). It was further reported that masked naval commandos were being “trained” to stop the flotilla.
On 1 June the Guardian reported that Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy Defense Minister, suggested that the Israeli military had sabotaged several of the Freedom Flotilla ships. The flotilla was in fact delayed by two days due to unexpected mechanical problems, and 3 of the original 9 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 MARI MARMARA
On 31 May, under cover of darkness, Israeli military forces surrounded the Freedom Flotilla in international waters. Armed and masked commandos stormed all 6 ships from sea and from air, killing between 9 and 20 civilians. After more than 2 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, stating: “This happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves.”
Did the passengers aboard the Mari Marmara possess a similar right to defend themselves?
Israel released highly-edited videos of the confrontation, claiming that civilian passengers aboard the Mari Marmara attempted to “lynch” the well-armed military commandos when they first stormed the ship. Israeli 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.)
Again, one wonders whether this sentiment extends to the civilians killed by those commandos as well.
In contrast to the Israeli account of events, which is self-evidently absurd, Jamal Elshayyal, an Al-Jazeera correspondent aboard the Mari Marmara was able to issue a brief report before Israeli forces cut all communications with the ships. Elshayyal’s report contradict the Israeli version of events, stating that Israel fired live ammunition on the civilians after they had raised a white flag. View the live report yourself at: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/05/201053133047995359.html
Eyewitness testimony from the handful of passengers who have been released directly contradicts Israel’s version as well. According to Nilufer Cetin, who sailed on the Mari 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)
Cetin’s account is just one of several contradicting the Israeli narrative. Haneen Zoubi, a Member of the Israeli Knesset, and just one of several parliamentarians aboard the flotilla, stated that Israeli warships surrounded the Mavi Marmara, firing on the ship before the commandos stormed aboard.
At a press conference in Nazareth, shortly after her release, MK Zoubi also stated that: “”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. Paint ball canisters may have been attached to the automatic weapons that they had, but 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 United States, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, stated that in planning their assault the Marmara, the Israeli government had concluded that the ship was “too large to stop with nonviolent means.”
There is clear evidence present 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.
For More Information, please contact:
Greta Berlin or Mary Hughes, +357 99 187 275 / + 357 96 383 809
Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH):
Ahmet Emin Dag, +90 530 341 1934
European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza:
Mazen Kahel, +33 1 4681 1292
Yonatan Shapira, former IDF pilot
+1 443 465 7610