Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Irish Peace Activist Speaks About Gaza Flotilla

Posted by Kevin on August 22, 2012

[Note: This is the second of two articles I wrote on behalf of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group of which I was an officer during my time at Vermont Law School. I was relatively happy with how they turned out and thought sharing them here would be a good way to break my nearly two-year absence from blogging. This originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Forum, the VLS student newspaper, and can be found here (PDF, starting on p.1). For the first article, see here.]

On May 31, 2010, Israeli helicopters and assault boats attacked a multinational flotilla en route to the Gaza Strip in international waters. The ships carried humanitarian aid, and the human rights activists on board intended to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The most notorious aspect of the attack was the boarding of the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara, in which Israeli commandos killed nine passengers, including 19-year-old U.S. citizen Furkan Dogan.

One eyewitness to Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla was Fiachra O’Luain, an Irish citizen who acted as second mate on the American-flagged ship Challenger I. O’Luain spoke at VLS on Jan. 12 at an event hosted by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), discussing his experiences on the flotilla and his subsequent abduction to Israel.

Israel’s land, air and sea blockade, begun in 2007 following the takeover of Gaza by the militant group Hamas, has drawn widespread international condemnation as collective punishment against the people of Gaza. Despite claims that the blockade was necessary for self-defense and aimed primarily at keeping weapons from entering Gaza, the Israeli government has blocked shipments of food, medicine, construction materials, and various other civilian goods. The people of Gaza are still reeling from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s late 2008 – early 2009 invasion, which left up to 1400 Palestinians dead and devastated Gaza’s economy and civilian infrastructure.

Wanting to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, O’Luain joined the Freedom Flotilla in attempting to break the Israeli blockade. In explaining why he became interested in the conflict, he compared the fight for Palestinian freedom to the history of liberation struggles in Ireland. He also cited the use of Irish passports by agents of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, in the 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas official in Dubai as a reason why the Irish should pay particular attention to Israel’s actions.

The flotilla participants were initially optimistic about their chances of success, O’Luain said. Several previous aid convoys had managed to enter Gaza by both land and sea, and they did not think that Israel would use deadly force against a nonviolent humanitarian aid flotilla that included journalists, politicians, and prominent peace and social justice activists. As a result, the attack on the Mavi Marmara came as a shock, he said. He and the rest of the Challenger I crew could hear the gunfire as Israeli forces boarded the ship, and urgently tried to warn them that the passengers were unarmed, he said.

Many of the details of what transpired on the Mavi Marmara are disputed. An Israeli inquiry into the attack claimed that the soldiers acted in self-defense, but the passengers maintained that the soldiers showed little concern for innocent life, firing live ammunition both before and after landing on the ship. It is clear that the passengers fought the commandos, but there is little publicly-available evidence that they were armed with anything other than improvised weapons. The Israeli narrative dominated mainstream media coverage of the attack, in large part because, as O’Luain noted from his own experience, Israeli forces carefully worked to confiscate photos and video possessed by the flotilla participants. In fact, O’Luain argued that Dogan, who was later determined to have been shot in the head at close range, was targeted because he was carrying a camera.

Eventually, the other ships in the flotilla were captured and towed to the port of Ashdod in Israel. The passengers of the Challenger I formed a human chain to prevent being taken off the ship, O’Luain said, but they were eventually forcibly removed. O’Luain said that he and other flotilla participants were beaten and threatened at gunpoint while in Israeli custody, and held incommunicado for several days; he showed obvious discomfort discussing his imprisonment. He refused to sign deportation papers, fully intending to contest the proceedings against him on the ground that he had not entered Israel voluntarily. Despite this, he was eventually forcibly flown out of the country along with other international activists.

International reaction to the attack on the Freedom Flotilla was swift and fierce. Although the Obama administration fully supported Israel’s actions, many other countries criticized the attack. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described Israel’s blockade as illegal and criticized Israel for using disproportionate force against the flotilla. The harshest denunciation came from Turkey, which unlike the United States took issue with its citizens being killed on the Mavi Marmara. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the attack as “state terrorism”, and Turkish-Israeli relations reached a historic low point.

The attack on the flotilla resulted in an investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). O’Luain testified to an HRC fact-finding mission, and the commission’s report published in September 2010 condemned Israel’s use of force as “not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrat[ing] levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence.” O’Luain’s evidence was also used in a separate inquiry into the attack commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon: the so-called “Palmer Report”, named after former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, who headed the committee that produced it.

The Palmer Report, which declared Israel’s blockade legal and questioned the motives of the Freedom Flotilla, was criticized by some observers as a whitewash. O’Luain compared the report to the Widgery inquiry into the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, which exonerated the British military for the killing of civil rights protestors in Northern Ireland. He accused the Palmer inquiry of being more concerned with repairing relations between Israel and Turkey than reporting the truth about the attack on the flotilla.

O’Luain, ready to take a break from activism following his experiences with the flotilla, plans to pursue a Master’s degree in Development Practice at Trinity College in Dublin.

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