Gaza Boat Activists Deny Israeli Story

With a bloody raid on the "Freedom Flotilla," Israel has demonstrated, once again, its willingness to kill innocents in order to sustain its punishing blockade on the Gaza strip, even when doing so raises more and more questions about nuclear-armed Israel's national sanity.

Scholar Norman Finkelstein, author of a new book on Israel's 2008-09 assault on Gaza entitled "This Time We've Gone Too Far," deemed the attack on the six ships in international waters that left nine people dead Monday the actions of a "demented... lunatic state."

According to survivors -- who include a former ambassador, a Nobel laureate and several well-known human rights activists -- the Israeli commandos came heavily armed with explosives and automatic weapons, and some opened fire from the air before landing on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged vessel leading the flotilla.

However, Israeli officials offered a competing narrative of a peaceful initiative that only went wrong because of the physical resistance from activists on the ships. The government's version was that the commandos were armed primarily with paint-ball guns.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also was unapologetic about the lethal assault, claiming that the embargo is justified by fears that military-related items could be smuggled into Gaza.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu said, "We will never apologize for defending ourselves," adding: "I'm very proud of what our soldiers did...This was a hate boat. These weren't pacifists or peace activists."

Among those offering a contradictory account was Ed Peck, a former U.S. ambassador and deputy director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism during the Reagan administration, who was on board the Sfendoni vessel of the Freedom Flotilla.

"The first thing we knew was the sound of footsteps, and my eye lids flicked open, and there they were, heavily armed," said Peck, who was one of the first hostages to be released. "The Israeli government keeps referring to the paint guns, but the paint guns were attached to the automatic weapons and the stun grenades and the pepper spray and the tasers and everything else that these guys carry."

While the Israelis claim they were attacked violently by Al Qaeda and Hamas-connected "terrorists," very few soldiers were wounded, and none died. Israeli officials showed off knives and some home-made weapons that allegedly were used by the Mavi Marmara defenders. No firearms were found on the ships.

Nor was there any military-related "contraband," other than bags of concrete and other building materials, which Israel has banned from Gaza purportedly because "terrorists" might hide in the new buildings. Because of Israel's embargo on construction materials, Gazans have been unable to rebuild following Israel's devastating offensive that killed some 1,400 people and left many of Gaza's 1.5 million people homeless.

While no Israeli commandos died in Monday's raid, nine peace activists were killed, including some with multiple bullet wounds apparently from close range and others due to what seemed like indiscriminate fire.

Sarah Colborne, director of campaigns and operations at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, was on the Mavi Marmara. Later, speaking at a press conference in London, she said unarmed activists were shot by the commandos and that the Israeli attackers ignored calls for medical aid.

"There was live ammunition flying around and I could hear the sounds of the bullets flying and the whirr of the helicopter blades as people were dropped down onto the roof," Colborne said. "Helicopters appeared and gunshots were heard. We then had the first passenger fatally injured... He was shot in the head...It was very clear it was live ammunition."

Huwaida Arraf, chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement, was on another ship, the Challenger 1, as it was attacked by Israeli commandos by air and sea. As she and other activists resisted the takeover solely with their bodies, she watched the attack on the nearby Mavi Marmara. She also said the commandos opened fire from the air.

"I could see the beginnings of the attack on the Turkish ship, the Marmara, because we were traveling almost side by side with it," Arraf said. "I saw the Israeli naval zodiacs approach that ship, I heard explosions which I took to be concussion grenades... 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."

Arraf and the peace activists who were on Challenger 1 were beaten, tasered, hand-cuffed and locked in a room. They were also threatened with a muzzled guard dog and were searched to remove any telephones and cameras.

For Arraf, the harsh treatment didn't end with the violent seizure of the boat. The fact that she was an organizer with dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship made her an interesting target for multiple interrogations. After refusing to answer questions without legal or consul representation, she ended up being one of the first to be released.

The interrogators "forced me into a police van, literally, by pulling me up by my hair and my hands and feet and beating me," she said. "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."

Peck, the former U.S. ambassador and counter-terrorism adviser, said he asked Israeli officials who were processing him for deportation why he was being deported, given that he had not violated any Israeli law. He was told that he had illegally entered Israel.

"I said 'Well, now, wait. Our ship was taken by armed commandos. I was brought here at gun point against my will, and you call that illegally entering Israel?'"

Israel and its defenders maintain that the high-seas raid was justified on the grounds of Israeli national security.

But Richard Falk, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said Israel's action at sea, in international waters, was "as clear a violation of international humanitarian law, international law of the seas, and international criminal law, as we're likely to see in the early part of the twenty-first century."

Falk said the United States might also be implicated. "We are certainly morally and politically implicit and responsible in these kinds of Israeli tactics and undertakings," said Falk, but he added, "the political will is lacking at the governmental level and at the international institutional level to provide that kind of protection" to the people aboard ships headed to Gaza.

Former British Ambassador Craig Murray, a Law of the Sea expert, made similar points about the clear illegality of the attack in international waters and observed, too, that Turkey, as a NATO member, has the right to turn to other NATO nations, including the United States, and invoke collective defense.

"I must be plain - nobody wants or expects military action against Israel. But there is an uneasy recognition that in theory that ought to be on the table, and that NATO is obliged to do something robust to defend Turkey," Murray wrote.

Yet, the strength of international law is only as powerful as major world powers allow. As investigative reporter and human rights activist Allan Nairn said, "The problem is not just one of stopping Israel's crimes, but of stopping Washington from authorizing them and exporting worldwide a U.S. version of 'rule of law' that legalizes official killings of civilians."

"In this attack on the civilian aid ship," Nairn said, "Israel is not violating U.S. doctrine; Israel is implementing it. This is what the U.S. would have done, and what the U.S. does every day in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan directly, and indirectly in dozens of other countries, where it backs armies and paramilitaries that use these procedures."

The additional fact that Israel has an estimated 200 or more nuclear warheads worries author Norman Finkelstein.

"If this is the kind of decision-making that they make after a week of intensive deliberation against a humanitarian convoy, to launch an armed commando raid in the dead of night in international waters, then what kind of action may they take in the midst of a full-fledged war, with missiles flying toward Tel Aviv, is very scary.

"I honestly don't believe that people are giving serious consideration to the fact that things are rapidly getting out of control."

Meanwhile, despite the deadly brutality of the raid on the "Freedom Flotilla," Arraf said she and her colleagues are committed to breaking the Gaza blockade, and will not be intimidated.

"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."

Dennis Bernstein and Jesse Strauss based this report primarily on interviews done for "Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at You can get in touch with the authors at and

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