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FLOTILLA: Evils destroyed innocent mission

In their wake


June 5, 2010

WHEN he recounts the siege, 33-year-old Londoner Mustafa Ahmet is quite irreverent. Having done his ablutions, he joined a big group engaged in morning prayers on the aft deck of the Mavi Marmara as it pushed south in the Mediterranean. But then a cry went up: ”They’re here! They’re here!”

”They” were Israeli commandos coming alongside the lead protest vessel in their assault craft. But the imam leading the prayers was unmoved. Instead of cutting proceedings, he seemed to go on forever. As Ahmet observed the commandos’ arrival, ”it was like a scary movie – their helmets were shiny, the sea was shiny and battle ships sat off on either side. But the imam just kept on, holding us in position – it was bonkers”.

But then Ahmet becomes perplexed. ”We were a convoy of peace. But the Israeli choppers overhead, the smoke grenades … all the screaming, all the noise. People were running all ways and there was blood everywhere. But before we could do anything it was all over.”

The protesters had been preparing for the raid. People were distributing lifejackets and taking up positions on the rails. Groups had been rostered through the night to sleep or be at the ready, and electric angle-grinders were brought in to cut steel bars from the lifeboat bays along the main decks. Once the attack began, others would be ready to throw Israeli sound-bombs and tear-gas canisters back to where they came from.

Despite thoughts of what might lie ahead, there was good humour. Matthias Gardell, a key figure in the Swedish delegation, was getting used to his lifejacket, unaware that even though it was 3am back home, his 12-year-old daughter was out of bed and watching a live video-feed from the ship on the Free Gaza Movement’s website. Seeing him in the video, she shot him an email: ”Dad, take it off – you look ridiculous.” To which he fired back: ”It’s past your bedtime.”

In an interview aboard the Mavi Marmara two days before the Israeli assault, Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish NGO IHH, which effectively ran the flotilla, said he believed Israel could not afford to pay the price of what he predicted would be a disaster if it intercepted the convoy.

The Jewish state was still smarting from international backlash over the use of passports from allied nations in the Dubai assassination.

Now European diplomats in Tel Aviv have denied the Israeli government’s claim that the flotilla organisers had ties to Al-Qaeda.

Both sides are documenting their case.

The flotilla organisers accuse the Netanyahu government of hijacking their vessels in international waters, killing nine and wounding about 30 people in the process; of then taking almost 700 humanitarians and peace activists prisoner and forcibly taking them to Israel – and then charging them with illegal entry to the country.

The organisers will face government allegations that steel bars were used to beat troops; that weapons confiscated from captured commandos may have been used against their comrades.

Israel argues that 60 to 100 ”hard-core” activists had been embedded in the Mavi Marmara. They included Turks, Afghans, Yemenis and an Eritrean who were experienced in hand-to-hand fighting.

Yesterday, the Israeli Navy claimed three commandos had been dragged unconscious into one of the ship’s halls ”for several minutes”, before regaining consciousness and escaping. It was not clear if any of the three were among three commandos who the activists on board the Mavi Marmara have said were beaten, then sheltered and given medical treatment.

However, the flotilla crisis is not just about Israel.

The virtual takeover of what was a coalition of groups from a dozen countries by Turkish NGOs plays into regional politics. Long an Israeli ally, Turkey is flexing its muscles regionally, bonding with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Qatar and Hamas – and at the same time, awkwardly exposing the Arab world’s flip-flops on the Palestinian cause and by its demonstrable actions, almost shaming them to do more.

Tucked in under all that, is Washington’s role in the region. The rest of the world was quick to criticise Israel in the aftermath of the flotilla fiasco, but the Obama White House called for an Israeli inquiry, the kind of response that placates Israel but erodes US credibility in the region.

SOME on the ship thought the Israelis did not put enough into their opening shots.

Espen Goffeng, a Norwegian, said: ”I looked over the rail and saw the zodiacs. It seemed hopeless for the Israelis – they tried to lock-on their grappling hooks, but they were hit by the fire hoses and their own projectiles going back to them.”

He wondered if the boats had been a decoy to draw passengers to the rails while helicopters were used to land Israeli commandos higher in the ship. But that proved difficult too, with the first two lots of chopper-borne commandos being captured by the activists.

”The first ammunition I heard striking the ship sounded like paint balls,” Goffeng said. ”But some people said there had to be glass in them, because of the wounds they caused. There was a lot of blood in the stairwells and then the sound of the ammunition hitting metal changed again – I decided that was the live ammunition. People were yelling, ‘Live ammo! Live ammo!”’

He said that people in the TV broadcast area on the aft deck were being targeted. ”I helped to carry one of the dead down to the second deck, and as I returned, a man who had been shot in the leg was being carried down. And when I moved to the press room, one of the men who worked there was dead, with a hole in his forehead and half his head missing. Then there was an announcement on the PA system telling us, ‘Keep calm; it’s over … they have taken the ship and we have lost’.”

Soon after, Israeli soldiers smashed the doors to the press room, The Age was told, and then called the media workers forward one at a time. ”They searched us,” said a cameraman who had managed to unpick the waistband of his underpants sufficiently to create mini-pockets in which he successfully secreted most of his cameras discs – a strip-search revealed just one of them. ”They took cell phones and hard drives . . and anything else that was capable of capturing or storing images.”

On the open decks and in the salons lower in the ship, conditions were far less pleasant than the press room.

Matthias Gardell, the Swede with a fashion-conscious daughter, complained of people being forced to kneel for hours on the open deck where prayers were held. But with an Israeli helicopter hovering constantly near the deck, its downdraft sprayed the prisoners with wind and water, in the circumstances a freezing combination. ”Keeping the choppers there seemed to be deliberate, as though they wanted to enfeeble us by holding us in such unpleasant conditions,” he said.

People were not allowed to go to the restrooms. But Gardell was especially horrified by seeing the experience of a badly wounded man in his late 50s, who the Israeli troops forced to remain on the open deck. ”Suddenly, his right eye exploded in a gush of blood – and a blob of something fell out of it.”

The Israeli troops did come prepared. Canadian activist Kevin Neish found a booklet he believed had been dropped by one of the Israelis – it contained images of the key leadership figures, including IHH leader Bulent Yildirim and the nerves-of-steel Palestinian lawyer who headed the Free Gaza Movement, 34-year-old Huwaida Arraf. On being offloaded at Ashdod, she was last seen by The Age being frogmarched away from the detainee processing centre where her activist confreres were being processed through a chaotic maze of bureaucratic and security checkpoints.

And by the time the ship reached Ashdod, the passengers complained that most of their cases and other baggage had been strewn on the inside decks.

But there was an infectious camaraderie among the protesters on the flotilla – bound by politics, prayer and song; it was a finishing school for almost 700 new and articulate ambassadors from dozens of countries for the Palestinian cause. And the Netanyahu government has given them a story to tell. Like the Mossad’s January assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai, halting the Free Gaza flotilla has been a tactical success but, in hindsight, appears to have been a strategic disaster. The cost to Israel’s international credibility may be great.

And these new advocates for Palestine were going home prepared – many were observed recording detailed accounts of their experience – with timelines and explanatory graphics.

Back home they may be better received than they might have been last week because of the tone of the trenchant criticism of Israel around the world. The images broadcast around the world, despite Israel’s best efforts, dovetailed with the forthright account of the likes of Anne Jones, a former American diplomat and US Army colonel.

”The Israel Defence Forces acted as pirates in shooting at us and stealing our ships in international waters,” she told The Age. ”They kidnapped us and brought us to Israel; they arrested and imprisoned us; they paraded us before cameras in violation of the Geneva Conventions.”

Blonde-haired and just 21, Jerry Campbell awoke at 4am to attend dawn prayers, but she had hardly bowed her head before she was dragged off to a nursing station to help treat four gunshot victims. Worse was in store for this young woman from Queensland’s Gold Coast. ”I looked up as I was caring for a wounded Indonesian and saw my husband being carried in.” That was 20-year-old Ahmed Luqman Talib who had been shot in the leg. She cut his blood-soaked clothing from him but then followed his instructions to tend to others. ”I’m OK,” he told her.

She lost count of the number and nationalities of those she tended to. ”I saw two men die out there … they floor was covered in blood and the IV units were tied to the ceiling with bandages.”

Campbell went to and from her husband who seemed to be deteriorating. ”One man’s stomach was opened – his intestines were out and the doctor reached inside and pulled out some bullets, before pushing everything back in and wrapping him up,” she said. ”I don’t know if he survived.”

Late on the second day in detention, Israeli officials showed 45-year-old Gigdem Topcuoghe, a Turkish woman, a picture of her dead husband – she became catatonic. At the Ella prison in Beersheba, she recounted to her fellow inmate and Fairfax photographer Kate Geraghty how, during the dawn prayers that heralded the attack on the Mavi Marmara, she had found her husband on the floor. He had been shot in the forehead and was bleeding from his mouth and nose.

”I think of first aid – I need to help him. I checked his breathing … he was bleeding faster. I gave him some water and started praying for him – I held him in my arms. He wasn’t conscious – I held him tight, but I realised he was gone when he didn’t react in any way, but my husband is not dead – he will live with and among us.”

Several witnesses have recounted in awe how Topcuoghe accepted condolences briefly – before leaving her husband’s body to throw herself into helping the injured.

Later in Israeli detention, the new widow addressed her tearful friends, turning to the state of Israel. Describing the assault on the Mavi Marmara as inhuman, she urged Allah to show the people of Israel the right path, but then added: ”May they face more cruelty that we have, and when this happens we’ll be there to help them – and to take humanitarian aid to them, just like centuries back when the Ottoman sultan sent aid and ships to rescue the Jews from Spanish cruelty.”

Time, brief as it was, spent inside the Israeli apparatus was revealing.

Whenever the flotilla prisoners were processed, security and other workers gathered to gawp, frequently producing mobile phones to shoot happy snaps of themselves in front of the prisoners. As a big group of men – your correspondent included – waited in Block 5 at the Ella Prison at Beersheba to be bussed to Ben Gurion Airport for deportation on Wednesday, a big group of security cadets was wheeled in to stare in wonderment, licking ice-creams as they did.

Several Europeans were distressed by the distinction the Israelis made between prisoners. The Norwegian activist Randi Kjos was genuinely shocked by what she observed. ”They treated us with hatred – the old were made to kneel for long periods and women had to sit with their arms crossed. Some of the wounded were naked to the waist … many were in shock.

”Palestinians and Arabs were treated very differently to Europeans or Westerners. Palestinians who asked for anything were belted, pushed around or treated with contempt. People warned me of the hatred I would see – but still, I was shocked.”

The Norwegian observed that many of the women prisoners were denied a phone call on the grounds that a functioning telephone ”was broken”. Others were furious on behalf of many Turkish women who were denied a call home because they could not satisfy their guards demand that they converse in English.

AT ELLA prison it quickly became clear that the guards were under strict instructions not to inflict physical violence on the prisoners. The detainees taunted the guards. ”We’re all Palestinians,” one of the prisoners delighted in telling an officer, over and over; while another guard became visibly upset when one of the prisoners told him, when he already was upset about another matter: ”You’re not really cut out for this job – you should have been a school teacher.”

Whenever an officer clenched his fist in such exchanges, a colleague would move in and take him away.

But amid much taunting by prisoners, the refusal to lash out could last only for so long and at the airport a brawl erupted between deportees and their keepers, with several of the activists getting on the planes bruised.

As they left a detention system in which some had been subjected to more than half-a-dozen body searches, many still were subject to a humiliating, painfully slow strip-search by smirking airport staff as they quit the country.

As the Israelis continued to hold Bulent Yildirim till late into Wednesday night, a group of 15 detainees still being processed through the airport staged a protest when they observed Yildirim being put in a cell. ”So the security guys just attacked us,” said Mohammed Bounoua, an Algerian who complained that he had been beaten three times during his less-than-72 hours in Israeli custody.

The 10-hour wait on the Ben Gurion tarmac and the late-night flight to Istanbul was joyous.

Three Turkish aircraft were parked adjacent to terminal 1 and as the Israeli authorities processed passengers at snail’s pace, each was welcomed onto the aircraft with clapping, cheering, crying. There was a festive mood as friends who had been separated were reunited and pensive tears for those waiting for husbands, siblings, friends who had not been seen for days.

After several hours on the tarmac, the pilot announced that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had insisted that none of the aircraft would leave until all the Turkish activists and the bodies of the dead had been loaded.

There were bursts of song.


Australian student tells of his flotilla ordeal


June 7, 2010

THE challenge for 20-year-old Ahmed Luqman Talib was to follow the trail of blood.

Blacking out several times as his captors forced him to drag himself up a flight of stairs, pushing and kicking him along the way, the Gold Coast student finally fell through a door leading to the top deck of the Mavi Marmara, the protest ship on which Israeli commandos killed nine foreign activists during a dawn attack last Monday.

The trail of blood led to a ladder, up which he was made to haul himself, to a position from which helicopters were evacuating the injured. But he was given no assistance despite two gunshot wounds in his right leg.

Mr Talib had found himself at the sharp end of his deferred course of study at Bond University – international relations.

With demands around the world for an inquiry into the attack on a flotilla that was attempting to break the Israeli siege of Gaza, it seems likely their claims and Israeli counter-claims alleging protester violence will be tested forensically.

The first draft of Mr Talib’s testimony – and that of his Australian wife and his sister who also were on the boat – accuses the Israeli soldiers of cruel and callous conduct.

From his bed in an Istanbul hospital, he spoke of the moment when he thought he might not survive.

“I looked down and my legs were drowning in blood. I was getting weaker; it was difficult to breathe,” he said. A devout Muslim whose family migrated from Sri Lanka to Australia in 1995, Mr Talib recalled taking a moment to pray. “I said it quietly – to myself. Then I worried maybe that was not enough, so I said it again – this time out loud.”

After what they have been through, Mr Talib and his wife, 21-year-old Jerry Campbell, could reasonably opt to cloister themselves in everyday life on the Gold Coast; and in the case of Mr Talib’s 18-year-old sister Maryam, to retreat to the family home in Kuwait. The family moved on from Australia in 2000. But in 2007 Mr Talib returned to Queensland where he married Ms Campbell, who is almost three months pregnant with their first child.

Despite setting out in late May with an expectation that the flotilla was almost a Mediterranean cruise, the trio has emerged from the experience seemingly fearless.

“It was beautiful,” Maryam said. “The atmosphere . . . was wonderful . . . there was a great sense of spiritual connection. I had never felt this kind of emotion before.”

Maryam, a second-year pharmacy student, and Ms Campbell, in her second year of nursing studies, were assigned to first-aid duties on the Saturday before the incident. All three were oblivious to Israeli warnings that put the flotilla on full alert late Sunday evening.

Recounting the moment he was shot, Mr Talib said: “I saw a man who nearly got shot – I could see the red dot of the laser weapon sights on his knee, but he moved in time.

“I felt it slice through my leg – blood was squirting from my right leg and then a second bullet sliced across, just above my knee. I was still standing, but my leg jerked up in the air and froze like that – for a time it was paralysed. With my weight on the good leg I tried to put it down – but it wouldn’t move.

“I couldn’t believe I had been hit, but that’s how it looked – bullets, holes and blood.”

He attempted to find his way downstairs to the first-aid post, which by then was chaotic. But he collapsed and when others carried him in for treatment, first his sister and then his wife observed that “he seemed to be OK”, tending to others they thought were in greater need.

At this stage two of the dead had been brought in and Ms Campbell was helping to stabilise a man who had been shot five times – “he had a lot of holes in him, but none of his main arteries had been hit”.

The women told of the constant screaming of the injured; of slipping on bloody floors; of difficulty identifying their colleagues who were yelling for aid.

Ms Campbell said: “We had no pain-killers, no instruments to extract bullets. But we had heaps of gauze so we were able to apply pressure bandages to stop or slow the bleeding. The heat was intense – we were sweating as first we had 10 people to treat and then 20.”

After the Israelis had taken control, they assembled those on board on an open deck and, later in a big cabin area. Ms Campbell and Maryam accused the Israelis of not feeding them and not allowing the women to give water to the men whose hands were tied with plastic ties. They also accused them of confiscating camera memory cards as they went through baggage – and leveling threats against anyone who may have concealed data discs on their bodies.

Mr Talib said he was put into a carry frame which the commandos set about dragging up stairs. He was in great pain and bleeding, but halfway up he was tipped out and told: “You have one healthy leg – walk up.”

The trio accused the Israeli commandos of handcuffing Mr Talib to his hospital bed – but removing the cuffs before he was visited by Australian diplomats – and denying him access to a lawyer as they attempted to interrogate him. They also said the soldiers withheld information from Ms Campbell on Mr Talib’s whereabouts and condition, and mocked her conversion to Islam.

Mr Talib and his wife expect to return to Australia and Maryam to Kuwait soon. But all three are looking to the future, determined to be on the next slow boat to Gaza.

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