Nine people died on board the Mavi Marmara when the Israeli navy intercepted it on May 31, and as the ripples of international outrage have intensified, it is hard to imagine that it all started out so innocuously.
Six ships, with passengers from over 30 countries, set sail for Gaza in an attempt to break the three-year long Israeli blockade on the Strip.
Twenty-two-year-old Australian student Ahmed Luqman Talib says spirits were high among the activists: “It was amazing to see so many people from different countries with different faiths all coming together for this cause, to bring some relief to the Palestinians who’ve been under siege so long.
“For the first few days we moved around, spoke to each other, got to know each other, wished we would reach Gaza safely. Thinking and dreaming about what the people would be like there and how we could help them.”
But Talib, who had traveled from Australia with his wife to join the convoy in Istanbul, never made it to Gaza and is now in a Turkish hospital.
“Sometimes we’d get together and sing, like to keep our morale high and lunchtime was exciting because we were pretty hungry all the time,” he remembers, smiling.
But his smile fades as he looks at his right leg – his thigh pierced by an inch-long bullet.
Also on board the Mavi Marmara was Peter Venner, a forester from the Isle of Wight.
While Talib was driven primarily by a desire to right recent wrongs, like the Israeli war on Gaza and the siege, Venner’s motivations went further back.
“I’m the same age as Israel,” he explains.
“I was born in 1947 so I’ve known from quite early years that I wasn’t being presented with the whole truth. I knew from the papers that Israel was a brave little country existing against the odds with hostile neighbours and so we should be proud to support Israel. It wasn’t many years because my parents were very open-minded – I was 7 or 8 when I realised I hadn’t been told the whole truth and Israel was existing in a country that had belonged to somebody else.”
Talib says the Israelis began to make their presence felt the night before the raid.
“The night before I was coming out the back with the other people and we started seeing all these spy planes going round everywhere, then there were ships in the distance coming up.
“I don’t know why they needed spy ships and big war boats and all that ….”
Al Jazeera cameraman Andre Khalil was witness to the unfolding chaos on the Mavi Marmara, where a group of passengers who would risk their lives – and debatably the lives of their fellow activists – decided to defend the ship at all costs.
“I was on the rear of the ship where 20 Turkish people were making a human chain armed with sticks and water pipes and hitting the side of the ship making big bangs – making out to the Israelis like – don’t approach. These guys had no fear with them. They were just ready like ‘come on we’re ready for you guys’,” Khalil explains.
I asked him if he thought it was a bad idea to resist considering that the passengers only had sticks, hoses and a few knives.
“Yeah well they [the Israelis] said they had knives, I mean, the Israeli side of the story when they say they had weapons, slingshots, knives, these are not, these are medieval weapons compared to what they had on the other side. Machine guns, weapons, all sorts, helicopters. You can’t say we’ll fight these soldiers with such weaponry.”
|Nine people were killed in the raid [AFP]|
Both Talib and Mahmut Tural, the captain of the Mavi Marmara, say the Israeli soldiers fired their weapons before descending from the helicopter.
“The first attack upstairs started around 0430. From 0430 on for about 35 or 40 minutes, after control was taken upstairs, for about 20 minutes Israeli soldiers began shooting from that deck. They shot at the lower decks and our friends who were killed were the ones who were down below on the lower deck. Martyrs,” Tural says.
“After 20 minutes of shooting, I think when they believed they had enough soldiers and after the helicopters were coming and going, they came to the deck where the bridge is.
“I saw them descending and they waited in that area for about three or four minutes …. Let me put it this way, the front and the sides of the bridge are completely covered with glass windows and in the back part there are two separate panes of glass. They came in while shooting at the glass close to the deck side.
“… The paintball guns were modified with glass bullets. Those were used but plastic bullets were also used. I’m not saying they weren’t used at all. But I don’t know any paintball or plastic bullet that could make a hole in an 8mm steel plate. There was an 8mm steel plate with a hole in it. Real guns were definitely used in that area. And real bullets were found in our friends who were martyred.”
I asked Tural, if he would take the helm of the ship if there was another convoy to Gaza.
“I would definitely want to take part in such a formation and I would be honoured,” he says.
‘Smell of blood’
Venner says he was stunned by the lethal force the Israeli soldiers used.
“The first of the serious casualties were brought down through the area in which I was standing. And plainly he was very severely injured. I’ve not seen so much blood and, I haven’t seen action of this kind anyway.
“He [had] obviously been hit somewhere in the area of his head and possibly the shoulder. And the quantity of blood was quite astounding. It was thick, very thick blood, and from then on you could smell blood around the vessel.”
Autopsies revealed that most of the nine killed were shot in the head, neck, chest or back at close range.
“I was about a little further than I am from you [two metres] from steps coming down from the top deck, the scene of the carnage, and on two occasions Israeli soldiers came down the stairs and slipped on the blood that was on the steps,” Venner told me.
“The act of them slipping connected, in a very human way, the act of the Israeli soldier, they appeared to be very young too, with the ignominy of them slipping in front of us. And also the feeling you have when you see someone falling in front of you, you want to get up and actually help them in some way, it’s a very curious thing. If, you, I felt the inclination to move myself. It’s difficult getting up with your hands behind your back and I was on the move and I thought if I was to carry this through I would probably be shot straight away.”
Durmus Aydin, the vice chairman of the IHH, the Turkish NGO that owned the Mavi Marmara, was also on board.
“I didn’t see the killings with my eyes, in front of me but what I have seen is just afterwards,” he says.
“The people who were killed by the Israeli army they came in front of me, they brought them and we were helping them. I’ve seen five bodies, the Israelis killed them. One of them was my friend, his name is Cewdad, he was just taking a photograph and then he was directly shot in the head, and many people who were dead were shot in the head or chest.”
Aydin finds it hard to contain his anger at what happened.
“We are not a child, the world is not a child, we’re not a baby. We’re talking about killing people, innocent people. We’re not talking about two armies fighting. We’re talking about humanitarian aid which is 85 miles from the Israeli coast, in international sea. The Israelis are attacking; we’re talking about the justice.
“Look, this is unacceptable, when the Israelis are attacking us we were 85 miles away from the Israeli coast which means they can attack everyone in the Mediterranean Sea. So what do you call it now? It is kind of like pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. We have seen the pirates on the Somali side, but now the pirates are from the state of Israel.”
|Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has defended the raid [AFP]
Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy defence minister, had called the flotilla an “armada of hate and violence” with “well known links to global jihad, al-Qaeda and Hamas”.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was perhaps more poetic: “This was not a love boat, it was a hate boat.”
Israeli government spokespersons Avital Liebovich and Mark Regev maintained that their soldiers were shot at first, with live rounds.
Given the claims Israel has made about his organisation’s links to international terrorism, I had assumed Aydin must have received quite a grilling during the day-and-a-half he spent in Israeli custody.
“I wasn’t interrogated in Israel but many people were being interrogated. There were accusations, rubbish accusations by the Israelis,” Aydin says.
Confused, I ask: “You are the vice chairman of IHH and the head of the external relations department of an organisation that Israel says has links to al-Qaeda and global jihad, they had you in custody and they didn’t question you?”
“They didn’t interrogate me …” Aydin reiterates.
Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, has asserted that “Turkey will never forgive Israel”, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, stressed that “Israel must, must be punished for its actions”.
The coffins of the Turkish dead were draped with Turkish and Palestinian flags, while at huge rallies, like one we witnessed in Caglayan, devout and secular Turks stood side-by-side waving Turkish, Palestinian, Hamas and Hezbollah flags and chanting “Kahrolsun Israil” or “Damn Israel”.
The flotilla raid was one of the most visible symptoms yet of a siege whose seemingly impenetrable fortress walls are cracking with every convoy and condemnation.
World opinion has navigated back to the beleaguered and besieged Strip, even if the boats never made it.
Never has the very nature of the blockade been debated as vehemently, with the vast majority of world leaders including Barack Obama, the US president, plainly calling it what it is – unsustainable – and The Red Cross officially calling it “illegal”.
The fallout of the raid, coinciding with a resurgent Turkey that is no longer content to lick its wounds at the loss of an empire and which is instead beginning to fill a leadership vacuum in its neighbourhood, may have conspired to create a watershed moment for the region.
Talib says the Israeli soldiers approached “our little boat” as though they were about to “invade a country” and with the international outcry that has followed one wonders if invading a country might have been a quieter event.