First-hand Account of Israeli Assault
Editor’s Note: Early on Monday, Israeli commandos descended on a convoy of humanitarian aid vessels in international waters, dubbed the Freedom Flotilla. Filled with over 700 activists and 10,000 tons of aid destined for Gaza, the boats were captured and their passengers either killed or seized and taken to Israel’s port in Ashdod.
Huwaida Arraf was one of those kidnapped activists, on board a US-flagged vessel called Challenger 1. In the following interview on Wednesday, Arraf recounted her experience during the commando attack, in Israeli detention, and her brutal release:
Dennis Bernstein: First of all, how are you doing? How are you feeling?
Huwaida Arraf: A little bruised, but no complaints. I'm okay, I'm just worried about the rest of my colleagues, especially those that are in hospitals who we don't have complete information about. I'm definitely devastated about the loss of lives that was completely unnecessary.
DB: Do you have any information now about who died … and how many are wounded?
HA: Unfortunately not yet, and I just spoke to the lawyer that we have coordinating visitations to everybody that is still held, whether in a hospital or in jail here, and he said that they're desperately trying to ascertain this information from the Israelis, and the Israelis are not being forthcoming — denying information when actually the lawyers go to the hospitals to try to check up on people to find out where they are, who they are, how they are doing. They [the lawyers] are not being allowed access.
DB: We've seen a lot from the Israelis, we've seen some edited tape, the story is that these commandos came under fire, under attack, that they were violently assaulted and thrown over the side of the ships, which left them no choice but to defend themselves. You were on one of these ships, you were with a lot of people who have seen a lot. Give us your best shot in terms of what you understand happened here.
HA: I was on board the Challenger 1, which was an American flagged vessel, the smallest travelling in the six vessel flotilla. We were supposed to have nine, but we had some problems with a couple of the other ones, and they were held back. We had suspected sabotage, and actually a statement made by the Israelis today confirms that it was sabotage. We weren't saying anything before, but that's not going to hold those vessels back, they will eventually travel to Gaza.
Anyway, that's why we had six vessels instead of three more that we had planned to have. Approximately halfway between Cypress and Gaza, about 100 miles off the coast of Gaza, the Israeli navy started radioing the various vessels on the Flotilla, and we responded providing the information they had asked for as to who we were, what flag we were sailing under, where we came from, where we were going.
Then they started issuing threats and saying that we were navigating into a blockaded area and demanding that we turn around, saying that if we don't turn around they would be prepared to use all necessary means in order to enforce the blockade.
We communicated to them over the VHF radio reiterating who we were, stressing that we were unarmed civilians carrying only humanitarian aid destined for the Gaza Strip. We repeated this over and over again and let them know that we constitute no threat to them whatsoever so they should not use force against us, and they would not be justified in using any kind of force against these unarmed vessels.
A few hours later at about four or four-thirty in the morning their naval ships started approaching us. On our vessel we were planning to defend our ship to the best of our capability just using our bodies. We didn't have any weapons or anything, so that when we heard they were coming we all deployed outside the vessel, at which point I could see the beginnings of the attack on the Turkish ship, the Marmara, because we were traveling almost side by side with it.
I saw the Israeli naval zodiacs approach that ship, I heard explosions which I took to be concussion grenades because they later used them on our ship also. These concussion grenades are sound bombs, and then shooting. I don't know if it was rubber-coated bullets, live ammunition, or what kind, but there definitely was shooting coming from the Israelis toward the ship before they even boarded, and then I saw a helicopter overhead. That's all really all that I was able to see before our vessel took off.
We had planned to stay together and help each other as much as possible, but even the captain of the Turkish ship told us to go on ahead and told us to get the news out that we were under attack, and that's what we did. We tried to race ahead to prevent or at least delay the takeover of our ship until we could communicate to people what was happening. We tried to outrun the Israeli naval vessels that were chasing us, and we were only able to do that for about ten minutes.
Unfortunately during that time we were unable to get any information out because our satellites were jammed, and then our boat was taken over. Israeli commandos came up on the side of the boat, and like I said, we tried to defend basically by putting our bodies up against the railings where they were trying to jump on [to our vessel]. They used sound bombs that exploded on deck and they also used tazers to subdue people, for lack of a better word.
As much as we could we scrambled to prevent them from getting into the boat. They smashed the glass doors of the boat to get in, and beat people down that tried to get in their way. A young volunteer from Belgium, she had her face bloodied. There was at least one dog, also, that I saw on the ship as they were wrestling people down.
DB: Did you say a dog? Like an attack dog?
HA: Yes. To be fair, he was muzzled, but it was definitely an attack dog. And they proceeded to beat us down and to, and like I said, subdue us. At one point my head was slammed against the back end and a soldier was stepping and stomping on my head while they were tying my hands behind my back, and then they put a bag over my head and dragged me to a different area of the boat, so I didn't see exactly how much more they did to my colleagues, but after about 15 minutes they had taken over the boat.
At that point, they started steering the boat to the Israeli port of Ashdod. They pulled us all into one room. After they had taken over the boat, they uncuffed us, and just had us all in one room. I should note that one of the first things they went after were all of our cameras, all of our phones, any kind of communication or recording devices.
As I was cuffed, they were going into my pockets to look for phones, and they did find a phone in my pocket, and then to keep it away from them for a while I did shove the phone down my pants thinking they wouldn't go in, but they did hold me down and have a female officer come and actually reach down and get the phone.
They took all those communication devices, and then at a certain point, after they already had the boat taken over, and they gathered us in one room and took our cuffs off, they started video-taping, presumably to create their own version of the story. That's what happened on our ship.
DB: Once you reached port, what happened?
HA: We reached Ashdod maybe three or four hours later. We protested getting off the ship—we told them we considered ourselves kidnapped from international waters, we were not headed towards Israel, we don’t want to be in Israel, we are not getting off the ship; at which point they started pulling and dragging people, lifting us up by hands and feet and carrying us off the ship.
I was the last one off the ship and I was separated from the others, so after that I didn’t see anybody else. I would assume all of us—but I was put through interrogation, patched from officer to officer for a few hours.
DB: What kind of questions were they asking you? What kind of information were they seeking?
HA: Basically what happened on the ship, my version of the story; but I didn’t answer any of their questions. I told them I wouldn’t answer any questions until I get to see a lawyer and/or a consul representative, and I repeated the same thing: “Your armed and masked men kidnapped me, brought me here—I don’t want to be here—and I need to see a lawyer before I answer any of your questions.” And indeed they were masked. They never took their masks off their faces for one second.
DB: They were all wearing masks as you were interrogated?
HA: Not the interrogators, but the commandos who jumped on our ship, they were all wearing masks. They were all heavily armed and wearing masks, and they never lifted their masks. After a few hours of interrogation, they decided to let me go.
As I also hold Israeli citizenship they can’t really deport me, they either have to prosecute me or let me go, and I’m guessing they didn’t want to draw any more attention to what they’ve done—a very bloody operation that didn’t have to happen, that led to the loss of lives, all to enforce an illegal and immoral and lethal blockade on the civilians living in the Gaza Strip.
They decided to let me go at a certain point, which I also protested because I didn’t want to leave my colleagues, and at the same time they had all my personal belongings, from my money to my phone, my watch—everything; and I asked them to at least give that back to me, and they refused and forced me into a police van, literally, by pulling me up by my hair and my hands and feet and beating me in order to get me into the van.
They drove me out of the port, stopped the car at some point—I’m not sure where because I was a little bit disoriented after being punched in the face and the jaw, and then they just opened the door and threw me out of the van.
DB: They just sort of left you on the side of the road?
HA: I don’t even know exactly where it was honestly. I think I must have passed out for a little bit, because the next thing I knew there was a medic taking me into an ambulance. I was taken to a hospital and checked and released just a few hours later.
DB: Where was the hospital? Where were you taken?
HA: The hospital is in Ashkelon, which is near Ashdod—near the city near Ashdod where the port was. I know they’re saying they were trying to be nice and non-violent, which is not true at all, and this is what happened to us on our boat. We didn’t put up any resistance, it was a small boat, there were only seventeen people on it; it was unnecessary use of violence; and this is all from personal experience.
I, thankfully, am okay and not complaining about any of my injuries, just concerned about my colleagues and saddened by the loss of life. We repeated to Israel and Israeli authorities over and over again: “We do not constitute any kind of threat to them, and therefore there is no reason to use force against us.” And yet they decided to attack us the way they did, again, which resulted in an unfortunate loss of life.
DB: Here’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu said Wednesday morning at a press conference, “This was a hate boat. These weren’t pacifists or peace activists.” He then went on to say “we will never apologize for defending ourselves. We are very proud of what our soldiers did.” Your response?
HA: He is proud of the soldiers’ attack on an unarmed ship and aid convoy, and killed people. What does that say about Netanyahu and all of Israel’s policies? These are the policies that we’re urging people to stand up against.
One of the things they’ve been saying is that “we’ve offered to take the cargo from the Flotilla and we’ll take it to Gaza ourselves,” is what Israel is saying, which is completely ingenuous because the cargo we were carrying is precisely the kind of cargo and materials that Israel has not let into Gaza for three years, basic things like reconstruction supplies, school supplies, toys for kids, water filtration systems.
These are all things that Israel denies the people of Gaza as part of their policy of collective punishment, which is what we’re trying to mobilize the world against. We wanted to get this cargo into Gaza, and Israel was not going to let it pass through Gaza, because if they did they would have been letting it through without us. At the same time, not only did we want to get this cargo to Gaza, but we wanted to challenge this policy that leaves Palestinians in need of humanitarian aid.
We are not interested in perpetuating an aid cycle because it is exactly what Israel has been doing. It has reduced Palestinians to a state where they need to live on handouts. Eighty percent of the population of Gaza is food aid dependent, so it’s not enough just to deliver aid or to campaign for an increase in the aid that reaches Gaza. We have to challenge the policy that leaves Palestinians in need of this aid; and the violence that Israel used against us this time will not deter us.
We are now ascertaining the condition of all of the people that survived and mourning the loss of lives, but everyone is determined to continue on this path, and it really is a growing movement of people that are ready to take action—not with guns or anything else, but by exposing the brutality, the policies that Israel has been perpetuating for so long.
DB: Huwaida, one of the most punishing parts of this from my perspective is that after you wound so many people and kill—we don’t know because these are all Israeli statistics and information because they’ve seized control of that—but eight, nine, ten people dead, dozens wounded, and they’re not even telling the families who is dead, who is wounded, where they are.
Any thoughts on what’s happening with these people, with the dead, to what’s happening? And your response to the refusal to give information about this by Israel?
HA: I don’t have information. We’re trying to get this information, but the very fact of their withholding this information from families, from people who care about each and every person that was on the Flotilla, is very cruel. They are denying access to lawyers and other people, denying access to the people that are in the hospitals so that we can get their condition and talk to their families and hopefully reassure their families.
I don’t see any reason at all from withholding this information. We need to be pressuring the consul representatives here to press Israel for this information because it really is cruel and unjustified to withhold this from the thousands of people around the world who are waiting to find out what has happened to the people they care about.
DB: Israeli officials are now admitting that the boats were too large to use peaceful means to stop them and turn them back and defend Israel, so I guess that’s an admission that they had planned to use violence. In one of the stories that I read three times by the Associated Press on Monday, was that they only had paint guns because they were unprepared and they thought the boats were full of pacifists, but then they found out they were against their wall with paint guns. Did you get shot by paint? Did anybody get killed by paint?
HA: No, at least not on our boats. I did see them carrying M16s. I’m not a stranger to these kinds of weapons, as I see them here in the West Bank all of the time, so it is not true when they say that they weren’t armed with these kinds of weapons, and I know we experienced their tazers, they definitely had them; they had batons with them, and they had M16s with them.
Now, they did not use live ammunition on our boat, but I don’t doubt that they used it on the other boats. To even think that the Israeli navy and soldiers would repel down into these large vessels without being armed with live ammunition or something more than paint guns is a little bit hard to believe.
DB: And finally, while this was all happening, a young student from Cooper Union in New York named Emily who was twenty-one, was shot in the face at a protest against what happened on the boats. I understand she lost an eye and is in critical condition. Were you surprised that they would shoot someone in the face like this—a young twenty-one year old? And do we have any information on her?
HA: I wish I could say I’m surprised but I’m not. This kind of violence is perpetuated almost on a daily basis, and we’re seeing more and more international volunteers being directly picked by Israeli fire. They always say that they use only non-lethal forms of crowd dispersal such as tear gas canisters.
When they shoot their tear gas from a high velocity weapon and aim it at people’s faces, then things can be lethal, and Palestinians and foreigners have been critically injured and killed by these kinds of weapons that Israel uses against unarmed demonstrators. I hope to be able to see Emily within the next day or two. I hear that she is doing okay. She has lost an eye. Her spirits go up and down. She’s also a little bit tired, but… I don’t know what to say.
It’s really hard to know what to say when you see such beautiful people being brutally attacked, losing limbs, losing lives, all to defend a policy that is illegal, immoral and lethal; and people are taking to the streets because our governments for so long have been impotent, have failed to hold Israel accountable, have failed to apply the pressure that is needed to end their apartheid and racist policies.
I’m very glad and proud to be part of the people’s movement that is attempting to change it, but also ashamed of the silence that has gone on too long around the world, and especially what some governments and people who call themselves world leaders have done in the name of democracy and human rights.
DB: Do you feel in any way intimidated? I understand that in this context, one of the boats that’s getting ready to head for Gaza has been named after another victim of the Israelis, Rachel Corrie. Does this movement continue or do you think of other directions to go?
HA: We will definitely continue in our efforts to break this illegal blockade and to continue campaigning until the occupation as a whole has ended, and then there is a system here in the Middle East, in what’s known as Israel/Palestine that treats people equally and does not discriminate against people based on race, religion or ethnicity. That’s the kind of future that we’re campaigning and fighting for, and we won’t rest until we realize that.
In terms of breaking the blockade on Gaza specifically, yes, there is the vessel Rachel Corrie which has been on her way down from Ireland. She was held back a little bit because of mechanical difficulties, which we now know that Israel has done everything but admit that they were involved in trying to sabotage these vessels; but we have overcome a lot of hurdles. We definitely intend to send that vessel to Gaza, however the timing, we haven’t agreed upon yet.
It is in the Mediterranean and ready to go, however we are adjusting right now based on the violence that Israel used against the Flotilla itself—what kind of extra preparations and campaigning and political guarantees that we should try to get before sending the Rachel Corrie, but we are feeling a lot of support and we are encouraged by that, that now world leaders are speaking up and people are paying attention—the kind of attention that they should have been paying a long time ago, not necessarily to our boats and what we are doing, but to the unjustness of the blockade on Gaza.
There are more and more voices calling now for the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, and that’s what we need to see, actually more than just calling, but putting concrete pressure on Israel to end the illegal blockade.
Dennis Bernstein and Jesse Strauss produced this interview for Flashpoints on the Pacifica network, which was broadcast across the US on Wednesday, June 2 from the KPFA studio in Berkeley, California. You can access the audio archive of that entire show on their website, www.flashpoints.net.
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