Addressing a mixed crowd including Palestinian and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish supporters at a conference in Montreal on Sunday, Canadian activists Kevin Neish and Farooq Burney, who participated in the “Free Gaza” flotilla, announced that they are planning to join another convoy aimed at bringing an end to the Israeli embargo on Gaza. Only this time, they say, ships will also sail from Canada and the United States.
Hoping to garner support in Quebec, the activists say that they are currently raising $30,000 in order to send a Canadian ship to Gaza with Canadian citizens onboard.
Relating their experiences during the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara on May 31, Burney said that he saw two people killed. “They were right next to me and I saw them die.” He said it gave him a new perspective on life in Gaza, “Palestinians go through this every day.”
Neish concurred, saying, “We learned what it is like to live as Palestinians.” He stressed the nature of the deaths of nine Turkish activists on board the Marmara and claims that some were killed in the manner of an execution. “I saw one man who was shot directly between the eyes,” he said. He also mentioned that the flotilla would not have gotten as much media attention had it not been for the deaths of those on board, saying that it had only strengthened their resolve to breach the blockade. Neish then asserted that before boarding the flotilla en route to Gaza all passengers were searched for weapons, “They [the organizers] found a small pocket knife in my backpack, and tossed it overboard…”
Neish said that once the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was on board the Marmara, certain Turkish activists improvised using parts of the ship itself as weapons. “They were courting death,” he said, stressing to the Turkish that the Israelis were armed with guns and “live ammunition,” and saying that he had warned them not to resist violently. A few activists had also smuggled makeshift slingshots onboard, which they used to launch nuts, marbles, and bolts at the soldiers.
While he admitted that the activists had captured two guns from the IDF, he claims that these weapons were not used against the soldiers as was alleged by Israeli sources.
Neish saw one Turkish passenger make threatening gestures at an injured Israeli soldier and speculated that he may have wanted to kill him, but was prevented from doing so; he said the organizers of the flotilla made sure that no captured Israeli soldiers injured in the fighting would be killed.
Suggesting that the IDF may have targeted specific activists for execution, he claims to have seen what he thinks could have been a “hit list”— with names and pictures of specific activists— in the bag of an injured Israeli soldier.
Neish stated that the IDF was “committing an act of piracy” by boarding the Marmara while the ship remained in international waters.
According to the activists, the flotilla rendezvous point was in international waters. Their plan was to approach Gaza during the daytime to facilitate media coverage of their attempt at crossing into Gaza.
As they had been informed by the Israelis that the blockade had been extended from eight to sixty kilometres from the coast, they adjusted their course in order to buy time and avoid being boarded at night. Burney said that they expected to encounter the IDF as far as eighty kilometres from the coast.
They were contacted by the IDF and asked not to continue on to Gaza. They refused, and say that they were pursued by Israeli ships while still in international waters.
They claim to have been surrounded by Israeli naval vessels, called Zodiacs, right after the morning Muslim prayers (at around 4:10 according to Neish). Burney claims to have seen the first Zodiacs approach while helicopters simultaneously descended from above the ship. He saw smoke grenades, though he could not determine the source.
Spotlights and water cannons were turned on the IDF vessels by the Turkish organizers, who Neish says also launched nuts and bolts at the small zodiacs. The activists claim to have heard gunshots but said that they didn’t know where they were coming from, “One guy who was very close to me got hit in the chest. You could clearly see a gunshot wound on his chest… soon after the individual passed away,” said Burney.
According to Burney the skirmish lasted anywhere from half an hour to forty-five minutes. He said it ended with an announcement over the loudspeaker stating that the bridge had been taken by the IDF and the passengers should return to the sitting area. After hearing the words “We are not going to Gaza” over the loudspeaker, Burney claims there was no further resistance to the Israeli soldiers. “We went down to the main area and blockaded ourselves in,” he said.
“At this point there were three dead bodies where I was stationed,” said Burney,
“Finally they opened the door and delegated two women to start bringing the injured out.”
After being searched, Burney said they were taken to the deck and had their hands tied behind their backs. “We were told to kneel down and face the wall,” he said.
‘We were made to remain in that position for about six hours as IDF helicopters removed the dead and wounded, “They made it a point to remove all the people with gunshot wounds… “They had ransacked the whole place,” he said.
By Burney’s account, the Marmara approached the Israeli port of Ashdod at about 6:00 in the morning and docked at 7:00. They were then handed over to the Ministry of Interior and Immigration. He says they spent five more hours on the ship. As they debarked from Ashdod, Neish said a crowd had gathered to applaud their capture.
Having recently been refused a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Neish says that he received little help from Canadian officials while in Israeli custody, apart from being allowed to call home. He claims that were it not for Turkish assistance he “might still be sitting in Tel-Aviv.”