Scottish campaigner Theresa McDermott speaks exclusively to David Pratt and reveals what she witnessed when Israeli commandos stormed the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza last week.
I was on Challenger 1, a 25-metre motor yacht that was the smallest in the flotilla. On board were 10 women and five men, among them a retired female US military colonel, two Australian journalists, four crew and the captain, Irishman Denis Healy. Our rendezvous point with the other ships was about a quarter of the way between Cyprus and Gaza.
As night fell the ships pulled closer together around the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the ships in the Free Gaza flotilla. During the night we noticed four big ships, two on either side of our group. One of the guys on our boat who had worked for the coastguard back in Ireland identified one of them as an Israeli frigate.
Just after midnight on Sunday the Israelis radioed the Marmara, which in turn contacted us, warning the flotilla would not be allowed to proceed. It was around four o’ clock on Monday morning, while early morning Muslim prayers were underway on the Marmara, that the Israeli boats and commandos arrived.
Obviously they had timed that raid to coincide with the prayers. To starboard we saw a row of lights appearing on the water as a group of small Israeli boats approached, while on the port side there were others, and we realised we were being surrounded. The fast inflatable Zodiacs with the commandos cut right through the flotilla, trying to separate us.
We were only a hundred yard off the Marmara, so really close, enough to see what was going on. The helicopter came across a few minutes after the Zodiacs.
The Israeli commandos were finding it hard to board, with those on the Marmara using fire hoses to stop them. As soon as the Zodiacs got close enough they fired smoke and percussion bombs.
Right from the beginning these weapons caused injuries. I’m assuming that at this point the Israelis were still using rubber bullets, but they definitely started firing live ammunition when the helicopter came in on its second attempt to drop off more soldiers.
It was all very loud, with people running around on the Marmara, which was shining its lights onto the helicopter. The crew even tried turning the fire hose on it but the downwash from the helicopters soaked everyone. I was told later by those on board the Marmara that the first two soldiers who abseiled down from the helicopter were overpowered and taken and searched by some of the Turkish activists.
On the commandos they found plasticised detailed maps of the layout of every boat and pictures of people on board including MPs, bishops and other VIPs. Maybe these were the people the Israelis were trying to avoid harming. I was told there were those on board who really wanted to have a go at the Israeli soldiers who were being detained, but were held back by others.
When the helicopter returned more commandos came down and that’s when the live firing started, and some on board the Marmara told me that bullets were definitely fired from the helicopter. I was on the flydeck of the Challenger on watch along with the captain and two Australian journalists, and it was maybe fifteen minutes after they boarded the Marmara that they came for us.
The captain had opened up the throttle to try and put as much distance between us and the Marmara when we saw that things were getting heavy on its deck, but the Zodiacs came up alongside us and fired more smoke and percussion bombs.
Our only resistance was to stand by the rail of the boat with our hands out, so they could see clearly we had no weapons, and try to block them from coming on board. We had no intention of fighting back.
One of the bombs hit the face of a Belgian woman, bursting her nose before exploding on the boat. She was in a bad way and started bleeding heavily.
At least 20 soldiers came on board and each had a number on the shoulder of his uniform. In charge was number 20, while a lower rank had the number one on his shoulder. They were all wearing ski masks and had on body armour and were fully armed and very aggressive. On seeing the female journalist on board, they Tasered her. I saw the electrical discharge shoot up her arm and she collapsed, vomiting, on the deck.
At least three of the soldiers had Australian accents.
Two of the women on board, Huweida Arraf, a Palestinian with joint US nationality, and a Dutch woman, Anna, who tried to block the stairs to the deck, were thrown to the ground, their hands cuffed with plastic ties that cut into their wrists and their faces pushed on to the deck that was full of broken glass.
They were also blindfolded and hooded. We shouted at them: “Are you proud of this, is this what your army teaches you, beating up women?”
At one point when I was shouting and wouldn’t sit down and trying to get to the girls they were beating, one soldier cocked his automatic pistol and put the gun to my head and said he would shoot me if I didn’t do as I was told.
I didn’t have time to be scared but realised it was probably time to back off and give him space.
The level of aggression they showed was way over the top, with rubber bullets scattered everywhere. When bullets hit they seemed to release a sort of dust that glowed, perhaps so they could be picked up by the commandos’ night sights.
When they took us into port in Ashdod, we were paraded from the moment we arrived and jeered at by the large crowd there. All the time they filmed us, especially when they gave us food. They even tried to distribute some of the captain’s beer but we didn’t drink because we knew it was a propaganda thing. We were processed through Ashdod and doctors there examined us, but never really treated us. When some of us pointed out the levels of bruising they told us it was just mosquito bites. They then searched us and gave us a bit of paper to sign that would allow then to deport us as illegal immigrants, but we refused.
We hadn’t entered Israel of our own free will but were kidnapped in international waters. We were moved to a jail in Beersheva, a new prison block apparently called LA block. It was so new that there was still dust and plaster on the floor.
Here they continued filming us, and we eventually had our first food. I think the reason they put us here was because it was so isolated and there was no news for us to see about what had happened to those on board the Marmara and other ships. Later our embassy staff told us they had been kept waiting at the entrance since one o’clock that day having been refused access to us.
Separated throughout from the men, in the jail we began to get news from the other women of what had happened on the Marmara. Some of the stories were horrific. One Turkish woman had lost her husband. In our cell there was also an Indonesian woman whose husband was a Turkish journalist on board.
He had described how when the Israeli soldiers came to the press room on the half deck of the Marmara, they walked straight up to the Turkish man whose job it was to coordinate facilities for the journalists, put a gun to his head and shot the man dead at point-blank range.
Two people who worked in the medical area on the Marmara also said they had at least three bodies, who had been shot in the head in what looked like an execution style.
Another thing the Israelis did that was particularly nasty while we were in the Beersheva jail was to take a woman into a room and ask her to identify her husband from photos they had taken after he was killed. Before leaving the Marmara the crew had time to clean and prepare the man’s body for burial. She was able to say her good byes then with his body properly wrapped and with the eyes closed. But in the photos his body had evidently been left to bloat virtually beyond recognition in the sun. She collapsed on seeing these and had to be comforted by the other women.
They were also extremely aggressive during our deportation to Turkey. We were woken at 6.30am and loaded into high-security wagons, two or three crammed into a tiny cell on board the vehicles. Though the journey to the airport was only an hour-and-a-half we were kept in the daytime heat in these cramped compartments for a whole five hours. One of the women, an Australian, was pregnant and we kept shouting at the guards that she was with us and that we needed the toilet, but they kept us there.
At Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, we were jostled and jeered by huge numbers of soldiers who surrounded us, and I saw a number of the men beaten up by soldiers. One Irishman who refused deportation to Turkey, was hauled from his seat kicked and punched on the body by a large group of Israelis.
During the many hours we were forced to sit in the one spot there without moving, our consular staff were kept outside and never allowed access to any of us. At the airport too I saw many of the injured and wounded forced to make their own way to the planes the Turkish government had sent to fly us out. Unless they couldn’t physically walk, the wounded had to struggle unaided to the aircraft, some carrying drip and drainage bags and with bloody dressings that looked as thought they had not be changed that often.
Now all I have to do is draw up a list of all the things the Israelis took from me as I left with only the clothes I wore when we were arrested. Through our embassy I’ll try to get my possessions back.
If I’d had the chance I would have gone straight back and joined the crew on the Rachel Corrie, the next ship that was going to try and get into Gaza. The behaviour of the Israelis has only made us all the more determined to carry on helping with the Palestinian cause. If this is the level of random violence and humiliation internationals received, can you imagine what they do to the Palestinians?