Mainer Brings Home Memories – But Alas, No Film – of the Gaza Aid Clash
For Scott Hamann, the overwhelming relief came not as he arrived in Portland Friday night but as his flight out of Israel touched down in Istanbul, two days earlier.
As the activists climbed down from the Turkish Airlines craft, they were greeted with cheers and hugs. The nightmare was over, though at least nine people had been killed.
Hamann, of South Portland, had set out May 27 from Cyprus with a small flotilla of ships attempting to bring cement, medicine and prefabricated houses to the Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.
He had been hired to record the event, which presumably would end with a non-lethal boarding by Israeli Navy forces, as had happened on earlier attempts.
His job was to record the attempt and the Israeli response, and upload via satellite as many images as he could before the Israelis confiscated computer hard drives and digital memory cards.
Hamann is a 29-year-old filmmaker who has focused on poverty and oppression in the Third World. He opposes the blockade of Gaza and the heavy-handed tactics of the Israeli military, though it has not been his overriding cause as it was for some of the activists on board. He also opposes the violence of the Hamas government in Gaza, which is the reason for the blockade.
On May 30, at about 11 p.m., the Israeli Navy began contacting each ship in the group. The scripted exchange sought the ships' destination and then denied them passage. The navy threatened military action if they proceeded.
Then, just before sunrise, as the Muslims on board were concluding morning prayers, Israelis started their boarding attempt.
Hamann was 75 to 100 yards away from the Mavi Marmara, the ship carrying the bulk of the activists. His boat had 17 people on board; others had just crews and supplies.
He could see the Israelis' rigid inflatable boats pull alongside the Mavi Marmara. Then he saw the people on board using fire hoses to fend off the commandos.
As the commandos came on board, the crew and passengers started using pipes and pieces of the boat as weapons. Hamann said there were a few "bad apples" that were beating the soldiers.
He believes they had a right to defend themselves, but that doing so changed the encounter from previous attempts to run the blockade.
"From the beginning, the plan was nonviolent resistance. That's what I signed up for. When they used violence, that opened the floodgates, because it gave the Israeli army reason to use live ammunition," he said.
As the Israeli boat had drawn alongside the Mavi Marmara, he heard the distinctive sound of compressed air shooting paintballs coming from the commandos, then the loud crack of stun grenades, followed by the shrill report of live gunfire. He couldn't visually make out details of what was happening.
Then there was a rigid inflatable alongside his boat.
Hamann took pictures as fast as he could, unwilling to take the time to change lenses or double-check his exposures.
As the soldiers came on board, they hurled stun grenades, one of which bounced off his foot and exploded behind him.
Two women activists on his boat refused to comply with the commandos, he said. The soldiers grabbed one and, as she struggled, threw her to the deck. Both women had their hands tied behind them and bags put over their heads.
Hamann remembers paintballs, which sting but don't seriously injure, whizzing past him. He could hear people screaming.
He retreated below deck to a bathroom and waited what seemed like a long time, but was just five minutes. He was discovered and ordered up to the wheelhouse at gunpoint, where several of the passengers and crew were held until the boat docked in the Israeli port of Ashdad.
Hamann's efforts to record the event were for naught. He didn't have a chance to upload images via satellite and the security forces confiscated all his equipment, leaving him only his wallet and passport.
Hamann says he was not allowed to make a phone call or see a lawyer. One man who demanded a lawyer was beaten, he said.
Hamann only learned of the fatalities on board the Mavi Marmara after he was in prison along with others from that boat.
They described a gruesome scene, of people being shot without provocation, he said, though he did not witness it firsthand.
Most of the activists were Turkish, though there were many Irish as well as other Europeans, Hamann said.
"Some of them are hard-core activists. They'll jump in front of a bulldozer to save a Palestinian home," he said.
Hamann says he believes the Israeli action, which he said was in international waters, was piracy.
Hamann, who says he is not anti-Semitic but anti-violence, said he hopes some good will come of the brutal encounter, that international pressure will mount to lift the blockade.
He declined an invitation to be flown by military helicopter to the Mavi Marmara because he says he didn't want to be part of military or state-sponsored action.
The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, he said, has left Palestinians there deprived of basic goods, and he believes Israelis have been excessively violent in dealing with the people.
When he and the other activists arrived in Turkey, Hamann spent the night at a five-star hotel, which was paid for by the Turkish government, and then flown first-class back to the States.