In times like these, it takes a truly independent medium like Al Jazeera to connect the dots and point out the long and brutal history of Israeli violence oppressing peaceful resistance: ‘In 1988 the PLO invited international writers, artists and activists to travel by ship along with scores of Palestinians who had been deported by Israel and representatives of refugees to make a symbolic journey “of return”. After successfully intimidating Greek vessel owners from renting a ship to the PLO, Israel then bombed a Cypriot boat a few hours before the solidarity activists, including Westerners – Christians and Jews – were to board it. But while the 1988 bombing – at the peak of the first Palestinian intifada – aimed at blocking the journey itself, the ferocity of the armed campaign against the Gaza flotilla suggests that Israel, more than ever before, is deeply concerned about the success of peaceful means of resistance. Israel correctly viewed the Free Gaza Convoy as part of a Palestinian and international campaign not only to break the siege of the tiny Strip, but to end its occupation and to recognise legitimate Palestinian national rights.
But the idea that the use of military force can stop the campaign from spreading is ludicrous – unless Israel plans to blow up protests everywhere from the village of Bi’lin in the West Bank to London, Berlin and San Francisco. Israel has already employed a public relations campaign to demonise and discredit the growing boycott campaign – modelled after a similar campaign against the former Apartheid regime in South Africa. It has also been engaged in a weekly campaign of arrests and increasingly the shooting and wounding of Palestinian, Western and even Israeli activists protesting against the illegal segregation wall that has been eating up West Bank land in the villages of Bilin and Nilin. The Israeli government has been intolerant of diplomatic attempts by the Palestinian Authority to curtail the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the lifting of the siege of Gaza Strip. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, complained to George Mitchell, the American special envoy to the Middle East, that the PA had lobbied internationally to block the admission of Israel to the prestigious Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and accused the Palestinian government of incitement for endorsing a boycott of the produce of illegal settlements.’
True to its reputation, Al Jazeera was also the only major news organisation to have reporters on board the Peace Flotilla – why can’t the BBC or Euronews send people along? Afraid of a ‘negative’ scoop? The testimony of Jamel Elshayyel not only exposes the lies of the Israelis, he also points out that contrary to the Turkish authorities, the British didn’t even send a consul to check on their own kidnapped citizens: ‘Just after 4am local time, the Israeli military attacked the ship, in international waters. It was an unprovoked attack. Tear gas was used, sound grenades were launched, and rubber coated steel bullets were fired from almost every direction. Dozens of speed boats carrying about 15-20 masked Israeli soldiers, armed to the teeth surrounded the Mavi Marmara which was carrying 600 or so unarmed civilians. Two helicopters at a time hovered above the vessel. Commandos on board the choppers joined the firing, using live ammunition, before any of the soldiers had descended onto the ship. Two unarmed civilians were killed just metres away from me. Dozens of unarmed civilians were injured right before my eyes. One Israeli soldier, armed with a large automatic gun and a side pistol, was overpowered by several passengers. They disarmed him. They did not use his weapons or fire them; instead they threw his weapons over board and into the sea.
After what seemed at the time as roughly 30 minutes, passengers on board the ship raised a white flag. The Israeli army continued to fire live ammunition. The ships organisers made a loud speaker announcement saying they have surrendered the ship. The Israeli army continued to fire live ammunition. I was the last person to leave the top deck. Below, inside the sleeping quarters, all the passengers had gathered. There was shock, anger, fear, hurt, chaos. Doctors ran in all directions trying to treat the wounded, blood was on the floor, tears ran down people’s faces, cries of pain and mourning could be heard everywhere. Death was in the air. Three critically injured civilians were being treated on the ground in the reception area of the ship. Their clothes soaked in blood. Passengers stood by watching in shock, some read out verses of the Qur’an to calm them, doctors worked desperately to save them. Several announcements were made on the load speakers in Hebrew, Arabic and English – “This is a message to the Israeli army, we have surrendered. We are unarmed. We have critically injured people. Please come and take them. We will not attack.” There was no response. One of the passengers, a member of the Israeli Parliament, wrote a sign in Hebrew, reading the exact same thing; she held it together with a white flag and approached the windows where the Israeli soldiers were standing outside. They pointed their laser guided guns to her head, ordering her to go away. A British citizen tried the same sign – this time holding a British Flag and taking the sign to a different set of windows and different set of soldiers. They responded in the same manner. Three hours later, all three of the injured were pronounced dead. The Israeli soldiers who refused to allow them treatment succeeded where their colleagues had earlier failed when they targeted these three men with bullets. At around 8am the Israeli army entered the sleeping quarters. They handcuffed the passengers. I was thrown onto the ground, my hands tied behind my back, I couldn’t move an inch. I was taken to the top deck where the other passengers were, forced to sit on my knees under the burning sun. One passenger had his hands tied so tight his wrists were all sorts of colours. When he requested that the cuffs be loosened, an Israeli soldier tightened them even more. He let out a scream that sent chills down my body. (…) I remained on the ship, seated, without any food or drink, barring three sips of water, for more than 24 hours. Throughout this time, Israeli soldiers had their guns pointed at us. Their hands on the trigger. For more than 24 hours. (…) The only reason I believe I was released was because the Turkish prisoners refused to leave until and unless the other nationalities (those whose consulates had not come and released them) were set free. I was taken to Ben Gurion airport. When I asked for my passport, the Israeli official presented me with a piece of paper and said “congratulations this is your new passport”. I replied “you must be joking, you have my passport”. The Israeli official’s response: “sue me”. There I was asked again to sign a deportation order. Again I refused. I was put on a plane headed to Istanbul. Masked Israeli soldiers and commandos took me from international waters. Uniformed Israeli officials locked me behind bars. The British government did not lift a finger to help me, till this day I have not seen or heard from a British official. The Israeli government stole my passport. The Israeli government stole my lap top, two cameras, 3 phones, $1500 and all my possessions. My government, the British government has not even acknowledged my existence. I was kidnapped by Israel. I was forsaken by my country.’
More excerpts from Elshayyel’s testimony are included in this article, ‘The hijacking of the truth: film evidence ‘destroyed’: ‘Mr Elshayyal, a reporter for the Arab channel al-Jazeera, was standing to one side of the ship and had a view of the front and back of the vessel when the fighting started. By his account, soldiers fired down on the protesters from the helicopters before an Israeli soldier had even set foot on the ship. A man next to him was shot through the top of his head, dying instantly. “What I saw were shots being fired from the helicopter above and moments later from below – from the ships,” Mr Elshayyal said. “As far as I am concerned, it’s a lie to say they only started shooting on deck.” At least two other eyewitnesses saw soldiers firing from above the ships before they landed on the Marmara’s deck. It is possible that this is what prompted the fierce resistance to the soldiers when they dropped down. Several passengers recount how organisers urged their peers to stop hitting the soldiers, aware of how it would harm their claim to be peaceful protesters. Others on the ship claim they raised a white flag, but say that it was ignored. They also used a loudspeaker to reiterate their message of surrender and requested that the injured be taken off the ship to get medical assistance. Again, they were ignored.’