Former US Ambassador Edward Peck was on the Gaza aid flotilla that came under attack by Israeli forces. At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded. Peck says Israel’s explanation for the attack is "twisting the truth" and is "as full of holes as a window screen." [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We go now to the Middle East, where Israel has deported more than 120 activists seized after a deadly raid in international waters on a humanitarian aid flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade. The activists were taken to Jordan and released. Hundreds more, most of them Turkish, remain in custody. In the face of mounting world criticism, Israel said it will release the rest of the detainees within the next two days.
This is Mark Regev, the spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
MARK REGEV: We don’t want to see foreign activists in an Israeli detention center, and so we’ve decided to speed up the process of deportation, and our hope is to have all these activists out of the country within forty-eight hours.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: At least nine people were killed when armed Israeli commandos, using helicopters and dinghies, stormed the six-ship Gaza aid convoy early on Monday. The identities of the dead have not been released, but four of them are said to be from Turkey. Reuters reports one of them is Turkish activist Ali Aydar Bengi. Speaking in Ankara, his sister-in-law Azize Tekin blasted Israel for the raid.
AZIZE TEKIN: [translated] The whole world has denounced Israel. So did we. Once again, they have shown their ugly side to the world. I cannot even consider them as human beings.
AMY GOODMAN: The attack has sparked worldwide protest and condemnation. Turkey’s prime minister said Israel should be "punished" for what he called a "bloody massacre." The UN Security Council condemned actions that, quote, "led" to the deaths and called for an impartial investigation. At a news conference, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the US fully supports the Security Council statement.
ROBERT GIBBS: The Security Council deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force during the Israeli military operation in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza. The Council, in this context, condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least ten civilians and many wounded, and expresses its condolences to their families. The Security Council requests the immediate release of the ships as well as civilians held by Israel.
REPORTER: So that would seem to cover President Obama’s personal feelings, while some of the allies are looking for a stronger statement from him directly.
ROBERT GIBBS: Well, again, I — this is supported not just by the United States but by the international community.
REPORTER: In light of what happened with the Gaza aid flotilla, is the President considering at least backing international calls to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip by the Israeli forces?
ROBERT GIBBS: No. Well, look, obviously, as we have said before, we are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and continue to work with the Israelis and international partners in order to improve those conditions. And as the UN Security Council statement says, obviously it’s an untenable situation.
HELEN THOMAS: Our initial reaction to this flotilla massacre, deliberate massacre, an international crime, was pitiful. What do you mean you regret when something should be so strongly condemned? And if any other nation in the world had done it, we would have been up in arms. What is this sacrosanct, ironclad relationship, where a country that deliberately kills people —-
ROBERT GIBBS: Well, again, Helen, I -—
HELEN THOMAS: — and boycotts, and we aid and abet the boycott?
ROBERT GIBBS: Well, look, I think the initial reaction, regretted the loss of life, as we tried and still continue to try to gather the relevant —-
HELEN THOMAS: Regret won’t bring them back.
ROBERT GIBBS: Nothing can bring them back, Helen. We know that for sure, because I think if you could, that wouldn’t be up for debate. We are -— we believe that a credible and transparent investigation has to look into the facts. And as I said earlier, we’re open to international participation in that investigation.
HELEN THOMAS: Why did you think of it so late?
ROBERT GIBBS: Why did we think of...?
HELEN THOMAS: Why didn’t you initially condemn it?
ROBERT GIBBS: Again, I think the statements that we released speak directly to that.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Gibbs being questioned at the end there by veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
All the permanent members of the Security Council except for the United States have explicitly called for Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip to be lifted. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has temporarily eased the blockade and opened the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.
Despite Monday’s deadly attack, another ship carrying aid has set sail for Gaza intending to challenge the Israeli blockade. Organizers of the Freedom Flotilla said five of those on board are Irish, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire. Israel remains defiant and says it’s ready to intercept the ship. The ship is called The Rachel Corrie, named after the American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer on March 16, 2003, as she was trying to protect the home of a Palestinian family from being demolished.
Haneen Zuabi, an Israeli Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, the parliament, was on the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, when it was attacked. She was supposed to be on the program today, but she has just gone into session in the Israeli parliament. So, for more, we turn to Edward Peck. He’s a former US ambassador. He, too, was on the Gaza aid flotilla, and he’s joining us from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
EDWARD PECK: I’m honored.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, Ambassador Peck, what happened? Where were you in this flotilla, and what took place — what was it? — about 4:00 Monday morning?
EDWARD PECK: Four o’clock in the morning, and we were on a small ship. I was not on the one that was so heavily damaged, physically, in terms of the people. We were on a small ship under — that had come out of Athens, Greece. There were fifty-four of us onboard. And our ship was small enough so that the Israeli commandos were able to step from their deck right onto ours. So the first thing we knew was the sound of footsteps, and my eyelids flicked open, and there they were, heavily armed. And I notice 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. You know, paint guns are for fun.
And it was all over in the inside of the ship where I was. But up on the upper deck, where some people had been sitting and sleeping, they made an effort to peacefully prevent the Israelis from taking over the wheelhouse, and we had a number of people injured in that. Nothing critical of a critical nature, but we had people on crutches and people with bandages and peoples with their arms in slings, and the captain had his neck in a bracelet. And they were the first ones off the ship, when they finally forced us into — off the ship in Ashdod.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, why did you go on this mission?
EDWARD PECK: Well, that’s a good question. You know, I have been an activist. I don’t consider that to be anything but a word that informs people that I’m interested and aware. And I’ve made a number of trips to Israel and all the surrounding countries and the West Bank over the — since I retired, explaining, talking, meeting people, taking groups of people over to meet and discuss. And I decided I would like to have a chance to participate in something tactile, something that you could see, you know, something — rather than just plain words. And the Americans were added to this group, as you probably know, very late in the game. It was a European thing. And at the last minute, they said, "We need some Americans," and they contacted Paul and Janet and got the Free Palestine Movement organized. And they invited me, and I said yes, because I thought it would be helpful and beneficial to Israel to let them receive the supplies, just the convoy of the boats that carried the equipment, to come in and help the people of Gaza, a humanitarian effort not directed against Israel, but intended to deal with the humanitarian situation that needed to be dealt with by people who could help from outside. Everything we brought was donated, as you may know. Everything the flotilla brought was donated by people who said, "Yeah, we’ve got to help the folks in Gaza. They are suffering."
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, we’re going to break. When we come back, we’re going to play an interview with the deputy ambassador to the United Nations from Israel, and we’d like to get your response. Ambassador Edward Peck, on with us on the line from Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he’s just returned home. He was one of the members of the 700-strong Freedom Flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: On the line with us is Ambassador Ed Peck. He is just back from the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, one of the ships — the ships were attacked by Israeli commandos. But first, we’re going to turn to another diplomat. Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, yesterday I had a chance to speak with Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Carmon. I reached him on the phone and questioned him about the raid.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Why did Israel attack a boat carrying more than 600 international activists in international waters?
DANIEL CARMON: Israel did not attack a boat. Israel enforced a maritime blockade, which is a measure that is totally legal in international law, to enforce a blockade when there is a possibility of a danger emanating from some source. And this was exactly the case. There was a flotilla of so-called real, genuine humanitarian aid to Gaza. And when I’m saying "so-called," I mean some of this flotilla was not a genuine, naive humanitarian aid-only flotilla. And for this reason and for the danger that emanated from this, we — our navy enforced the blockade, as —-
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But this was in international waters.
DANIEL CARMON: The international law -— and I would refer you to international law — when there is a danger, when there are conditions that require this, boarding can be done on a dangerous vessel in international waters, too.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Eyewitnesses said commandos came out shooting, the Israeli commandoes came out shooting.
DANIEL CARMON: Not at all. Not at all. The Israeli navy, after repeatedly offering a remedy and an alternative for transferring the humanitarian aid to Gaza through the port of Ashdod, the Israeli for weeks now, after updating the organizers and the relevant governments about our intentions, did exactly what we said we would do: boarded the ship — the ships, and I’m talking about there were six ships, by the way. Five ships adhered totally to what they were supposed to do and replied and reacted positively to the communications done by the Israeli navy. One particular ship, the Marmara
, which had onboard not humanitarian activists only, but some activists of a very extreme organization called IHH, which had other intentions, had other plans, and the plans were to provoke. And more than this, when the Israeli navy —-
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What evidence do you have of those plans? IHH is an organization that works across Turkey and the world.
DANIEL CARMON: Yes, and is also connected to terrorism and to al-Qaeda and some elements from the people of this organizations, when the Israeli naval soldiers came down to the ship in order to -— to enforce the blockade, after repeated advertisement that were answered by "negative" or four-letter words, which I will not repeat here, were attacked. And I think you saw that on TV also. I hope you did.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, let me ask you —-
DANIEL CARMON: By knife, clubs, shooting from live ammunition. One soldier was thrown overboard. You have it all in the media. And the reaction is a very natural reaction, unfortunate result, but a natural reaction of self-defense.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Let me ask you about that video that was released by the Israeli military. Will you release an unedited video of the excerpts that have been playing on the networks?
DANIEL CARMON: I am not -— I’m not aware of what you mean by "edited" or "unedited," but I think you saw that — you saw that, and it speaks by itself.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And do you know who filmed it?
DANIEL CARMON: No, I have no idea.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And why haven’t you released the names of the dead? At least nine were killed. First of all, do you know how — can you confirm the number of dead?
DANIEL CARMON: As much as I know, there are nine dead in this unfortunate incident, some injured and Israeli soldiers wounded, including two gravely wounded.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there are families around the world who are anxiously awaiting news. Why have the names of the dead not been released yet?
DANIEL CARMON: We would have to check it with the local authorities.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And why is Israel continuing to hold hundreds of international activists? What is their crime?
DANIEL CARMON: Any of the participants in this so-called protest, which is much more than just a — even much more than just a protest, those who are suspected of trespassing the law, there will be measures that would be applied. All those who don’t will be released as soon as possible. We have indicated this from the start of this operation. We have indicated this in the planning stages. We had no intention of doing anything — anything — that was problematic. The problems and the confrontation and the violence came from the other side, from those who misused the disguised — the disguise of humanitarian aid to do something else. And this something else is the lynch that we saw in this clip that — in this horrible clip that we all saw.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the UN Security Council has condemned the raid. What is your response?
DANIEL CARMON: I would — I would suggest to read exactly the text of various communications in the last few days. I haven’t seen — the condemnation is a condemnation of the act that brought this incident to be what it was, and I think that you can interpret exactly, meaning that the flotilla by itself — and we have heard it in various communications and speeches in the Security Council. If the flotilla was a genuine, innocent humanitarian aid flotilla, things would go the other way, exactly as other flotillas went and other convoys went there before. But unfortunately, this was not the case. They had other intentions. They had other connections. And they wanted to provoke. And provoke, they did.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Carmon, speaking with me yesterday. Edward Peck, you’re a former US ambassador. You were on this aid flotilla. Respond to some of the comments of Daniel Carmon.
EDWARD PECK: Well, sir, you know, it’s interesting. He did what he was supposed to do, and everything he said, as far as I’m concerned, is what you find in a meadow somewhere where they keep large animals. You know, here, one of the things I find that is the twist in this thing was that these peaceful, heavily armed commandos who were in international waters to capture a ship full of men and women, who were not bothering Israel, and who took what steps they could to try to prevent these pirates from doing it, are accused of attacking them. Mr. — the deputy ambassador, they were defending the ship. The Israelis were attacking it, and the passengers didn’t want them to do it. And to see somebody using a deckchair against a heavily-armed and armored Israeli soldier, I mean, my god, that’s a dangerous weapon. It’s called twisting the story. If you come to attack me and I defend myself, you know, that’s considered legal in law.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Edward Peck, he kept saying this was not a genuine humanitarian-only flotilla. What do you say to that?
EDWARD PECK: Yeah, this is the other thing. You know, I did not expect that the government of Israel would refer to us as tree-hugging, you know, flowerchildren. Of course we’re also savage, murdering, you know, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian — aw, come on, get off it. But of course he has to say this. This is Israel’s position. But it’s as full of holes as a window screen. You know, if you look at the people who were there and the stuff that we were bringing, and he quotes — forgive me, I get — I’ve been talking about this since I got back yesterday morning, just about this time, I guess. The international law, he says, you know, you can do this if it’s provoking a danger, but Gaza does not belong to Israel. It is illegally occupied by international law, so you can’t really stop ships from going there. Well, you can, and they did, but if people try to resist what you’re trying to do, you cannot really accuse them of attacking your heavily armed soldiers. And they were heavily armed. On our little boat, a couple of them had paint guns attached to their submachine guns, along with stun grenades and the pepper spray and the handcuffs and the pistols, you know. So this is sort of a twisting reality, which of course I understand why they’re trying to do it. I’ve been a diplomat. But it’s laughable.
Sir, just try one more thing. He didn’t mention this because he may not know it, but all of us — I was expelled. I was deported for having violated Israeli law. And I said to the gentleman, "What law have I violated?" He said, "You have illegally entered Israel." I said, "Well, now, wait. Our ship was taken over by armed commandos. I was brought here at gunpoint against my will, and you call that illegally entering Israel? You and I went to different law schools, guy." It’s kind of a — it’s a fiasco. It would be amusing if it weren’t so damned sad, because, unfortunately — and I speak with total sincerity here — I think Israel has done itself some serious damage. And in addition to just what they did, it was the way they did it and the way they’re presenting it. Nobody regrets what happened on the Israeli side, because those were all terrorists, you know, violating our laws. Guys, get a grip. This isn’t going to work.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, who did you serve under as ambassador in the Middle East?
EDWARD PECK: Well, I was ambassador, essentially, in Baghdad under a man named Jimmy Carter, and then I was an ambassador in Mauritania under a man named Ronald Reagan. But I served under — you know, I was a career guy, so I served under, I think, eleven presidents. I’ve forgotten exactly. I guess it was eight presidents, excuse me.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peck, what do you think President Obama should do? Are you satisfied with the US response?
EDWARD PECK: No, I’m not, and it concerns me. I understand as well as most people, I suppose, and better than most, the relationship that links the United States to Israel. I think certain aspects of it are wonderful, and certain aspects of it are detrimental to the interests of both countries. But I understand it exists. I would wish that Mr. Obama — "deeply regrets," my goodness, you know, and Secretary Clinton is talking to their foreign minister about how we handle this crisis? Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute. What do we have to do with this crisis? Well, I know, the world perceives us as aiding, arming, financing and supporting Israel in pretty much whatever it does. That’s our national policy. But if I were he, it strikes me as an opportunity that he could use to take some of the steps that he obliquely referred to in the early days of his administration, which raised people’s hopes, that perhaps the United States would distance itself a bit from what Israel does rather than supporting it all blindly.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Ambassador Peck, finally, the United States is the only permanent member of the Security Council not to explicitly call for an end to the three-year Israeli blockade of Gaza.
EDWARD PECK: Well, sir, that doesn’t surprise me. You know, I think we vetoed twenty-nine Security Council resolutions over the years that were directed at trying to get Israel to do various things or stop doing them. This is our policy. You may know that one of the gentlemen on our particular little boat was a veteran of the attack of — Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty in the '67 war, in which 200 American servicemen serving on a US Navy ship were killed or wounded. And what did that lead to? So, the situation is imbalanced. You know, we're not looking at our own interests the way we should. The President should pay perhaps a little more attention to how to advance America’s interests, rather than protect Israel, because this is costly. And The Rachel Corrie, if they attack The Rachel Corrie, named after —
AMY GOODMAN: The ship that’s headed to Gaza now. We have five seconds, Ambassador.
EDWARD PECK: Thank you. And that will be a tragedy for everyone. And I don’t want that. No one with half a brain wants anything bad to happen to Israel, but I fear that they’re going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Former US Ambassador Edward Peck. He was on the aid flotilla.