An Act of State Terrorism

Interview: Kevin Ovenden

Outraged protests have spread around the world following the Israeli commando raid on a flotilla carrying desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza. At least nine people were killed, and many more injured when Israeli forces attacked the unarmed peace activists in the middle of the night on May 31. But the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to spin lies about the assault, with the connivance of the Israeli and American media.

Kevin Ovenden is an organizer of the Viva Palestina solidarity group and veteran of two convoys to Gaza. He spoke about the murderous Israeli assault on the peace flotilla, and he makes the case that the Palestinian solidarity movement must seize the moment to build wider support for ending the siege.

Lee Sustar:  When did it become clear that the flotilla faced violence at the hands of Israeli military forces?

Kevin Ovenden: I became increasingly convinced that the Netanyahu government would stop at nothing to stop the flotilla, and the reason for my thinking was that it became clear that allowing the flotilla in — given the level of international support that was developing on Thursday and Friday of the previous week — would have signaled the end of the embargo on Gaza.

In fact, what’s happened has also signaled the end of the siege. It’s changed the situation utterly.

At the time, I believed that Israel’s calculation was based on two things — one, that the force used would be brutal, but would not lead to such a large number of casualties –though it would lead to casualties. And second, that they would get away without any backlash in world opinion because, quite frankly, they’ve gotten away with far bigger crimes. They got away with, at least in the immediate term, the murder of over 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza with the assault in December 2008 and January 2009.

By Saturday, May 29, and certainly by Sunday, I became convinced that this was the calculation that had been made.

Ninety miles away from Israeli territory, which is well within international waters, we made the first contact with Israeli forces when we were parallel with the north of Israel, just coming south of Lebanon. When that happened, I sent out a very short but ominous e-mail alert to friends to circulate, anticipating that there would be a violent attack on the flotilla.

LS: The Israeli government and the right-wing media claim that Israel made an attempt at a nonviolent seizure of the ships, and their soldiers only fired back when they were attacked by the residents with pipes and other weapons. What really happened?

KO:  I was on the lead ship out of six — the Mavi Marmara. The initial contact was made at 11 p.m. on Sunday night, and people came to the top of the ship — there was obviously a lot of commotion. We had satellite broadcasting on board, and we got our message out around the world.

But for two or three hours, people were milling around, and lots of people went to get some rest, on the advice of the organizers. It was pitch black, the middle of the night.

We were 90 miles away from Israel. The internationally recognized sovereignty zones extend 22 miles into the sea. Obviously that doesn’t apply for Gaza, itself, but we were well away from Gaza. The Israelis have unilaterally extended their sea border to 68 miles. But we were a further 12 to 22 miles outside of even that unacceptable and unsupportable extension.

So people got some rest. There were lots of people on the lookout. I woke up at 4 a.m. along with lots of other people.  It was around the time for the fajr morning prayer for the Muslims on the vessel. At about 4:25 a.m., the assault began.

It began with percussion grenades. They are an explosive, and they can injure people badly when they go off next to them. They were designed to create panic, which, itself, is an extremely reckless and violent act when you consider that this was a civilian passenger ship carrying over 500 people from 32 different nationalities.

The youngest participant was not yet one year old. The oldest was 88 years old. We were carrying, among others, parliamentarians, including two members of the German Bundestag, and the exiled Eastern Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem, Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, who is 85 years old and has the use of only one leg. This is an indication of the kinds of people who were aboard the ships.

To fire percussion grenades and generate panic on a boat moving at a speed of about 22 knots in pitch darkness in the open sea in the Eastern Mediterranean at night is, itself, a violent act.

Israeli attack dinghies, called Zodiacs, moved up very quickly on the side of the boat. They were carrying fully armed Special Forces, full commando attack units.

By fully armed, I mean something like five pieces of firepower or knives — rifles, sidearms, commando knives, balaclava-covered faces, Kevlar helmets and so on. In other words, something akin to the U.S. Navy Seals people see in the movies in a glamorized way.

A helicopter moved in over the ship, and people began to file down. There was, of course, massive commotion aboard the ship. In that commotion, some people responded quite instinctively and with good cause — and with all legal and moral authority on their side. They pushed back, fought back with their hands and with whatever was to hand on the top of the ship where the first soldiers landed. Two soldiers were pushed from the top of the ship onto the next deck down.

They had already opened fire with what I thought to be rubberized bullets. These are not bullets that are made of rubber. They have a steel core, but are surrounded by rubber, and can, themselves, be lethal. But almost immediately, we heard the different noise of live rounds being fired — but not indiscriminately or wildly. Rather, it was carefully targeted from both sides of the ship — which was surrounded — from the helicopter, and from those Israeli attack forces who were landing on the ship, itself.

I can give you some examples of what happened – -one from another colleague who was also on the Viva Palestina delegation aboard the ship, Nicci Enchmarch. She was next to one of the very first people to be killed. He was a Turkish man who was holding a camera — that’s all he had in his hands. He was shot directly through the center of the forehead. The exit wounds through the back of the head took away the back third of the skull. He fell to the ground and experienced his last few seconds of life. This is the nature of the attack from the Israelis.

After they commandeered the whole ship and brutally rounded people up, they gathered together whatever they could find on the ship to pile up and show what we had used as weapons. We could see that they took knives from the kitchen, where, of course, there were knives. They were kitchen knives, not commando knives or anything like that — and they piled those up as if they were used as weapons.

They most certainly were not used as weapons. The evidence for that is the two Israeli soldiers, who were disarmed for the safety of everybody on the ship. They were very quickly disarmed and taken down to the area we’d set up as an improvised emergency room. They were looked after — guarded — so that there would be no reprisals from anybody who was feeling outraged.

The injuries that they sustained were injuries from being manhandled, perhaps hit with sticks. They were walking wounded. They were given back to their units as soon as possible, after the murderous attacks stopped.

This is why the Israeli lie machine is stumbling to a halt on this question. Whatever they claim, whatever selective footage they try to put forward, the brutal fact is that nine people –at least — were murdered, with gunshot wounds, and some Israeli soldiers ended up getting roughed up. That’s the balance of the use of force — on the one hand, the use of force by some people to defend themselves; on the other, a truly murderous attack, a massacre.

LS:  Can you help answer the question about the confusion, about the numbers dead?

KO: Yes.  People were killed in various parts of the outside of the ship, on the decks. The attack lasted for about 28 minutes. The captain was then able to broadcast by loudspeaker that the ship had been taken. He told everybody who had been on the outside of the ship to desist from demonstrating against the Israelis. Many of us, simply by our physical presence, were hoping to delay the attack and protect the lives of other people.

No one knew, when the live firing started, what would happen if the Israelis got inside the ship, and perhaps started firing wildly where there were even more people. So we then went inside to the large sleeping areas, and the Israelis poured onto the walkways and onto the very top of the ship — into the bridge and the engine room and so on.

Then, for more than an hour-and-a-half, we appealed via the loudspeaker system, and via an Israeli Knesset [parliament] member, an Arab who speaks fluent Hebrew. She went forward to the windows with a sign explaining who she was, and that we had many, many injured.

We had managed to get as many as we could to the makeshift emergency room — some of which became a makeshift mortuary. But many of the people who were killed or seriously injured were still on the roof and the top decks of the boat. It was chaos.  We didn’t know how many there were. She was told to go back or she’d be shot, as would anybody who attempted to make contact with the Israelis.

For more than an hour-and-a-quarter, we were appealing for help in a situation where quite literally we had people who were bleeding to death. According to the medics, at least one of those people who died may well have had their life saved if more sophisticated medical assistance of the kind that’s onboard an Israeli vessel had been to hand.

But we were not allowed to evacuate any wounded over to the Israelis for more than an hour-and-a-quarter, during which time one person died. So you can imagine the situation. There are seriously wounded people, and bodies lying in various parts of the ship. And then we were treated with a mixture of contempt, humiliation and attempts to degrade us throughout the rest of the horrific, horrific ordeal. There was scant regard for the wounded.

We tried to get out one wounded person at a time to the Israelis. The Israelis were not at all sensitive in handling them. We had them on stretchers, but they were rudely bundled up upstairs. These are people with abdominal and serious leg wounds. We sent experienced medics, one with each of the wounded. The medics were taken, thoroughly body-searched, handcuffed and not allowed to be with the wounded.

We weren’t allowed to go upstairs, which was where most of the bodies were. So it’s taken some time to piece things together. There are still two critically ill people in Israel, and there are six in the military hospital in Ankara, who are very seriously ill, but appear to be recovering. So I’m afraid to say that the figure of nine deaths, which took us 48 hours to establish, could go even higher.

LS: What was the treatment you were given when you were finally taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod?

KO: They stopped the ship to begin removing bodies.  This was still while we were at sea. They will, of course, have taken pictures. People have to ask themselves why, if the Israelis are so keen to explain what’s taken place, have they have not been prepared to release those pictures to the world? We know why. I found out from Turkish officials that one of the people killed was shot at close range through the back of the head –which is an execution.

As the ship was stopped, and after the seriously wounded had been evacuated, we were led out onto the deck one by one, thoroughly searched, with all our belongings and everything taken. Some people had their passports taken at that stage.

We were cable-tied with those plastic cuffs — and most of the men with their hands tightly behind their backs. Most of the women were in front. Some people — journalists and members of parliament — were not cable-tied. But we were placed on the decks of the boats, with many people in stress positions, on their knees, heads down, arms cable-tied behind their backs.

We weren’t allowed to talk. People who asked questions were pushed down. Anybody who tried to stand up was pushed down, so that they fell down, with guns pointed in their face. It was all the tactics that people may have seen meted out against the Palestinians and meted out by occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world — paramilitary terrorizing tactics.

I saw one British citizen on his knees, arms cable-tied behind his back, slapped three times across the face. Three people who I took to be Palestinian were also blindfolded and then kicked to the ground, arms tied behind their backs. Sheikh Raed Salahm — a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel who was with us who is from Jerusalem — was taken off and severely intimidated, although he maintained his composure throughout.

There was a menacing atmosphere, one in which you could legitimately fear that someone could be shot even though they were handcuffed.

When we got to Ashdod, people were taken off one by one. As we were processed, Israeli intelligence and all manner of different state agencies were there. There were attempts to bully, humiliate, belittle and frighten people.

We were told as we got there not to worry — that we were simply going to be deported, and that we would be reunited with our belongings after we had been processed. After we were processed, we were put into prison vans, which are cells on wheels, and nobody was taken immediately to the airport as had been promised. That was all a mind game. Everybody was taken to a new prison facility in the Negev Desert. I arrived on the night of Monday the 31st and was eventually released on the morning of Wednesday the 2nd.

LS: Why did you end up in Turkey?

KO: We, in the Viva Palestina delegation, and, I think, many others, had already decided that in this event, we would ask to go to Istanbul, because this is the area where most of the convoy had headed off from, and where we could rendezvous with friends from around the world.

In fact, all the Arabs were sent to Jordan, I think by land, and everybody else to Turkey. The Turkish civil organizations — and by that stage, the Turkish government — moved with incredible speed and determination to get absolutely everybody out and to safety. The Turkish airline sent three planes; the Turkish Red Crescent, or civil organization, sent two ambulance planes; and the Turkish military sent a third ambulance plane to Tel Aviv to get people out.

We now know that the Turkish prime minister said to the Israelis that if they were not going to release all of the prisoners, then Turkey was prepared for an escalating military confrontation.

LS: When did you begin to perceive what a political storm the assault had caused?

KO: I didn’t fully know that until Wednesday the 2nd. We were held incommunicado, of course, but I did have a visit from a man from the British consulate.

I should say that the treatment was not acceptable at all. We had nothing you could really describe as food on the first night, and the first thing we had resembling a meal was on the Tuesday afternoon, when consulate officials were visiting–which, as they said, was hardly a coincidence.

The consulate officials were treated contemptuously. I’ll give you one example: the British consulate official from Jerusalem tried to have a private conversation through a prison cell door — we weren’t allowed to meet face to face — with two British citizens. The junior prison guard refused to move. When he was asked to move, he brought two other prison guards. When the diplomat explained that under all international treaties, protocol and the law, he’s entitled to speak to his nationals privately, the junior guard said, “Go to your international tribunals, go to your law, we don’t care.”

Of course, in a sense, the prison guard was right — he was simply reflecting the experience of all Israeli officials over the course of many, many decades, which is that whatever words are uttered at the international level, there’s nothing to make those words reality.

But I heard from the British consulate official something of the scale of what had taken place. Even the new British foreign secretary, who at that point had not yet made a speech in the House of Commons, was condemning the attack and calling for an inquiry.

We’d managed to piece together among ourselves that there were, we thought, upwards of four dead. We knew that this would be a major story. As we were leaving the prison, with no real further information and being taken to the airport in coaches and prison vans, we could see Israeli police, military and civilians through the windows.

I could see the looks on their faces. I had prepared myself for a journey where we would be jeered at and laughed at from beginning to end, from Be’er Shiva to Ben-Gurion Airport. In fact, there were looks of hatred and aggressive gestures. It struck me very quickly that the only explanation for this was that in the international arena, although Israel had killed many people, it had wounded itself enormously in its standing and its strategic goals.

One thing’s for sure. This was an attempt to instill fear — to use terror to achieve a political objective. This is the dictionary definition of terrorism. Real terrorism, state terrorism, by Israel.

LS: What’s next for the movement to break the siege of Gaza?

KO: These discussions are taking place right now among the leading components of the movement, so I don’t want to say anything that preempts that. But I think that the following is common ground for everybody.

Firstly, there has never been such an event in the history of the solidarity movement with Palestine. This is the Sharpeville and the Soweto of the Palestine solidarity movement. Not, of course, the Sharpeville and the Soweto for Palestinians, themselves. They’ve experienced many such massacres–from Deir Yassin in 1948 all the way through to the attacks on Gaza in December-January of 2008 and 2009.

But for the Palestinian solidarity movement, this is the Sharpeville and Soweto, and it must be turned into such. Both of those events marked international turning points in the struggle against apartheid and the isolation of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and this strategically is what we need to work toward now. The momentum, which has come at an incredible, almost unbearable price, cost, is nevertheless against the Israelis. It’s with the Palestinians and with all those who stand with them.

This development has several strands. First, various international bodies and governments have taken strong — and in some cases, unprecedentedly strong –positions, not just over the massacre and the call for an independent, international tribunal, but also saying clearly that the siege on Gaza has to come to an end.

This has absolutely been the position of the British government — a right-wing government has come out with a position that is stronger than the position of the Labour government 18 months ago during the time of the Gaza atrocities. That’s not a product of government thinking.  It’s a product of the groundswell in Britain, and many, many other countries.

Former British MP, George Galloway, my close friend and colleague, was on a speaking tour in the U.S. designed to maximize support for the flotilla and for Palestine. He spoke in one city on Monday night as news was beginning to break in Houston, and there were 300 or 400 people there. By Tuesday night, he spoke in Dallas, and there were 1,200 people there. He describes it as the most electrifying meeting he’d ever been at, and this is someone who’s been at many meetings and many momentous events, particularly around this question.

So the tide is definitely turning. First, we have to turn all our energies into pushing every government and international body to come out with the strongest possible position, which has to include ending the siege on Gaza as an immediate step towards a wider advance for the Palestinian position.

Second, we have to appeal to the core of people who have already been active on one level or another around the Palestinian question, or those who are already convinced, to re-galvanize the movement, and go out and convince yet wider layers of people. We must argue the Palestinian case, and also push the case more generally to very wide layers of people.

In Britain, we’re saying: How great is the price to be for blanket support for Israel, and for whatever its governments choose to do? The price has now become a murderous attack on nationals from 32 difference countries, the murder of nine people, attacks and humiliation and mistreatment of British citizens in the Eastern Mediterranean in an act of piracy on the high seas — an attack on a Turkish ship with Turkish crew. People talk of alliances, and Turkey is a NATO ally.

Is this the price they have to pay?  That people who are supposed to be allies are to be murdered so that Israel is supported in anything it does? That’s a price which people in Britain are not prepared to pay.

Through this argument, we can move people progressively to a deeper understanding of what’s taking place. I genuinely believe that this is a major turning point, not just over the siege of Gaza, but over Palestine and the wider politics of the region. Everything we do needs to be carefully calibrated and strategically thought out to drive that home in the coming months.

Lee Sustar writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.