Alex Harrison gives an eyewitness account of the vicious Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla – and all those aboard.
The Freedom Flotilla sailed peacefully to break the siege of Gaza, not to see friends killed. Aboard the Spirit of Humanity last year I experienced Israeli abduction and imprisonment and although they have killed peace activists and thousands of Palestinians, I did not believe they would fire on us.
At 2am the Sumoud (which means Steadfastness), which I was on, was the last ship to join the flotilla. The Mavi Marmara lit up like the Blackpool Illuminations for us and every captain radioed a welcome. As all three of the Free Gaza Movement’s vessels had suffered unexplained mechanical problems, reaching the other ships felt like victory. We even stopped for a swim.
When we lost our GPS that evening, we knew the Israeli operation was on. Warships appeared and at midnight they began to radio the familiar vague threat they had repeated over 13 hours last year. “This is the Israeli Navy. You are entering a blockaded area. The responsibility of your actions will be on the captain and crew.” We were still over 100 miles from Gaza. The warships drew closer and were joined by aircraft. We stayed near the Marmara for safety, steering away from the Israeli coast. They never warned us they’d use arms against us.
During the dawn prayer, while we were still 80 miles offshore, they launched zodiacs (speedboats each carrying 15 heavily armed, masked men). They surrounded us as two tried to attach to the Marmara. The passengers hosed them with water and the journalists on the Sumoud photographed the smoke of the explosives the Israeli military had launched. I doubt many of those on board were able to identify what was being fired at them.
We saw the helicopter descending on the Marmara and heard the crack of live gunfire. We radioed Captain Mehmet: should we stay near, for solidarity? “We are being brutally attacked. Carry on, try to get the footage out,” he said. What he didn’t tell us was that he knew that two of his passengers were dead.
We sailed on. The two helicopters on the horizon behind us were far apart and we knew another ship was under attack. Our zodiac accompaniment left. Were we being allowed through? A new warship appeared ahead. It sped at us. We braced. During Free Gaza’s sixth voyage The Dignity had been rammed three times by the Israeli navy and later sank. This warship swerved, sped at us and swerved again. Then it launched more zodiacs.
Although the 17 of us on board resisted only by standing on deck, the masked gunmen opened fire even before they boarded. Women were pelted with rubber bullets (one suffering facial injuries), were tackled and pulled down onto broken glass, and bound with cable ties. Two were hooded. The journalists were identified and tasered. The degree of violence used was so unnecessary it was cartoonish.
Yet the military attack is not the memory I dwell on. Perhaps violence and death on that scale is basically incomprehensible. My outstanding memory is of their contempt and how they humiliated us at every moment until our flights departed. Commandos snatched all our possessions, everything down to our wristwatches. They watched us on the toilet. They screamed and hissed, dragging us from the boat to parade us before jeering soldiers and photographers. We were bruised, abused and forcibly strip-searched at the dock, then taken to a prison compound and held incommunicado.
Only when the women from the Marmara arrived, staring and red-eyed, did we learn what had happened on that boat. We were given no news of the missing and injured. The Israeli officials were hateful, denying us the rights their law affords. The widow of a slain passenger was shown a photograph of him. Bloated and shot in the head, she recognised her husband only by his mouth. She was then sent back to the cells.
Those of us who refused illegal deportation and wanted to go before a court were tricked into boarding vans and held in an airport cargo bay. A soldier, unprovoked, beat two of the women. His colleagues held the rest of us back to facilitate it. Our pen had a view of men being beaten by a dozen soldiers at a time, one so severely he was unable to travel. A senior officer, seeing I’d salvaged one possession, my phone, broke it and binned it in front of me. Abusive. Unnecessary.
The epitome of their inhumanity was their treatment of the injured men. On Wednesday night most were still clothed in what they’d slept in on Sunday, bloodstained and torn. One, who was having a blood transfusion, walked carrying the blood bag in his hand. I couldn’t ask the hobbling men with bandaged feet how they’d been injured. If they spoke, they were beaten. They’d been shot in the tops of their feet but the Israelis wouldn’t give them wheelchairs or crutches. Anyone offering the injured an arm for support was smacked and dragged away. The soldiers watched, forcing the men to hop unaided to the aeroplane.
I finally embarked, joining colleagues who had been on board for 14 hours. I continually recall the stench of three day old dried blood mixed with fresh blood and the stale, noxious adrenaline sweat produced when a person truly fears for their life.
The hostility wasn’t over. Denied radio by the control tower, the Turkish planes had to communicate by using the crew’s mobile phones. In a final insult we were told our belongings were in the cargo hold. They weren’t. They’d been looted. Credit cards and mobile phones taken from my boat were used in Tel Aviv over the following week. Despite assurances from our Foreign Office, the British passengers discovered nearly three weeks later that the Minister had yet to address the matter with Israel.
Safely back in the UK, how do I feel? Undeterred. What happened to us was only a fraction of what Palestinians experience. We cannot let the sacrifice of nine lives be in vain. We’re determined to work even harder. We’ve returned to immense support. In whatever way you support Palestine, throw in all your energies because right now it counts for more. Free Gaza have sailed nine voyages in under two years and we’re already preparing to sail again. We’ll go as soon as we’ve raised enough money for the boats and we will sail until Palestine is free.