INTERVIEW 'We'll be back - with bigger flotillas'
By Mel Frykberg
RAMALLAH - In an exclusive interview with Inter Press Service, Huwaida Arraf,
the chairwoman of the Free Gaza (FG) movement that tried to break Israel's
blockade on Gaza, explains what happened on the night of May 31 when Israeli
commandos raided the FG humanitarian flotilla, shooting nine people dead and
injuring dozens more.
Controversy surrounds the events following the deadly commando raid with
survivors from among the 700 activists on board the flotilla giving a very
different version of events from that of the Israeli government.
Inter Press Service: Critics have accused FG of deliberately
provoking a confrontation with the Israelis and argued that the attempt to
break the siege was political and not just a humanitarian relief operation.
Huwaida Arraf: They are correct to say that FG's aim was more
than just bringing humanitarian relief. We are deeply disturbed by Israel's
deliberate and calculated creation of a humanitarian crisis in the coastal
territory and we intended to draw international attention to this.
We are not interested in simply perpetuating the siege and the humanitarian
crisis by bringing in aid alone. Gazans are not interested in being aid
dependent either. Eighty percent of Gaza's population is dependent on food aid.
This is not the result of a natural disaster but a deliberate and cruel Israeli
policy. We are concerned that the human rights of Gazans be respected and they
are allowed to live a normal life as human beings.
IPS: Did the activists provoke the Israeli commandos into using
HA: This is nonsense. We went out of our way to inform the
Israelis that we were an unarmed civilian boat delivering aid, that we
presented no threat to them and there was no need to board our vessels. We
explained repeatedly who we were and what our mission was. Our boats were
checked by different security at the various ports of departure and we also
hired independent security personnel to verify that we were arms-free.
We were attacked in international waters, in the middle of the night when most
people were asleep. The Israelis used a highly-trained naval force, not the
coastguard, against unarmed civilians.
IPS: But videos show activists beating Israeli navy seals with
HA: Let's not forget the Israelis confiscated all equipment from
the media and released selective video footage so as to try and justify their
Furthermore, this was the response of a small number of individuals out of
nearly 700 people. The FG organizers specifically held workshops for passengers
prior to departure to explain how to respond in a non-violent way to an attack
on the boat. However, the Israelis attacked first by shooting even before the
commandos had boarded.
When such unjustified violence is used against a civilian vessel, in
international waters, which poses no threat to Israel's security it is not
always possible to control the response of some people who are scared, angry
and who may wish to defend themselves.
IPS:You were not on board the Mavi Marmara where the
violence took place. How do you know the Israelis attacked first?
HA: I was on board Challenger One which was sailing right
next to Mavi Marmara. I saw the Israeli dinghies surrounding the Mavi
Marmara. I heard the explosions as they started shooting. They were
unable to board because activists trained hoses on them. This was before the
helicopters arrived and the navy seals succeeded in boarding. It was after this
that people were shot dead.
IPS: Reports are coming out that a number of the dead were shot
several times in the head from above.
HA: I've heard this too from eye-witness accounts but am awaiting
IPS: Activists have also claimed that during the first few hours
after the assault the dying and seriously injured were deliberately denied
HA: This is true.
IPS: The Israelis state that violence was only used against the
passengers on the Mavi Marmara who resisted. Do you agree with this?
HA: This is a lie. The Israelis used excessive force and violence
on all the boats even when no resistance was offered. Journalists were
attacked, some activists were beaten so badly that they needed to be
hospitalized when they arrived in Ashdod.
An Israeli commando stood on my head with his boot and ground my head into the
deck until I screamed. I was handcuffed and a hood was put over my head. Later
on in Ashkelon I was hit on the face by a policeman, elbowed in the jaw and
dragged by my hair when I refused to get into a police car.
IPS: The Israelis claim that some on board were "terrorists" and
had ties to "terrorist" organizations, including al-Qaeda and Hamas. What is
HA: This is part of their propaganda and an attempt to discredit
FG. They can't de-legitimize the hundreds on board, who included European Union
parliamentarians, international journalists and ordinary citizens from over 40
countries as "jihadists", so they focused on a few individuals. I don't know
all of the activists personally so I don't know what their political views are,
but the FG is not connected to any political organization.
The Turkish charity Isani Yardim Vakfi or IHH which helped organize the
flotilla, and had volunteers on board, provides humanitarian aid all over the
world. It has an office in Gaza and probably has to deal with the Hamas
authorities there as they are in charge. So do all the other international NGOs
[non-governmental organizations] including the Red Cross and the United
Nations. It is just a fact of life in Gaza. There is no military association.
IPS: The Israelis distributed doctored videos which they
confiscated from journalists on board, as well as an edited audio tape which
they later retracted and corrected. In the audio an "activist" is alleged to
tell the Israelis, amongst other slurs, "to go back to Auschwitz". What are
HA: I was near the VHF radio the entire time the captains
communicated with the Israelis. The captains were the only people who spoke
with the Israelis apart from myself. They spoke in a professional manner and I
can confirm none of those slurs were made. The so-called "activist" who made
the alleged slurs spoke in a phony American accent from the south. We had no
Americans on board from the south. They also said I was on board the Mavi
Marmara, but I was on the Challenger One.
Furthermore, the Israelis were forced to retract and correct the original tape.
A new one was released five days later but there are still discrepancies.
IPS: Do you believe that despite the bloodshed and loss of life
that the FG campaign has helped highlight the humanitarian situation in Gaza?
HA: I believe increased international attention has been drawn to
Israel's inhumane siege of Gaza and that there will be more pressure on Israel
to ease the blockade. This is part of an overall snowball effect to Israel's
occupation of the Palestinian territories in general following campaigning by
grassroots activists. This in turn has led to political involvement on an
international and diplomatic level.
IPS: The Israelis possibly hoped that the extreme force they used
would prevent future FG boats trying to reach Gaza. Have they succeeded?
HA: Quite the opposite actually. We have been inundated with
people from all over the world, from various organizations, wanting to
participate in future flotillas. People everywhere are outraged by Israel's
IPS: What are the future plans of GF?
HA: More boats and bigger flotillas until we break the siege on
Gaza completely. We will be back.