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As Obama Refuses to Condemn Flotilla Assault, Survivors Recount Shootings, Beatings Aboard Mavi Marmara

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While the Obama administration has refused to condemn the Israeli flotilla raid outright, survivors of the assault continue to challenge Israeli military claims that soldiers acted in self-defense after rappelling onto the lead vessel, the Mavi Marmara. We speak to two passengers who were aboard the ship: Kevin Neish of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and Kevin Ovenden of Viva Palestina. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Up to 20,000 people gathered in Istanbul on Thursday to pay tribute to the nine activists killed by the Israeli commandos in the Gaza aid flotilla attack. The coffins were carried through central Istanbul, draped in Turkish and Palestinian flags. Larger services are expected today.

Eight of those killed were from Turkey, and one, the youngest, was a US citizen. He was nineteen years old. His name was Furkan Do?an. He was born in Troy, New York. He moved to Turkey when he was two with his family. An autopsy showed he was shot at close range, four times in the head, once in the chest. He’ll be buried today in his family’s hometown in central Turkey.

Back in the United States, President Obama has refused to condemn the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. He was questioned by CNN’s Larry King.

    LARRY KING: Former President Carter has condemned the Israeli raid against those ships in the flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza.


    LARRY KING: Where you stand on that? A former American president has condemned it.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, you know, the United States, with the other members of the UN Security Council, said very clearly that we condemned all the acts that led up to this violence. It was a tragic situation. You’ve got loss of life that was unnecessary. And so, we are calling for an effective investigation of everything that happened, and I think that the Israelis are going to agree to that, an investigation of international standards, because they recognize that this can’t be good for Israel’s long-term security.

    Here’s what we’ve got. You’ve got a situation in which Israel has legitimate security concerns when they’ve got missiles raining down on cities along the Israel-Gaza border. I’ve been to those towns and seen the holes that were made by missiles coming through people’s bedrooms. So Israel has a legitimate concern there. On the other hand, you’ve got a blockade up that is preventing people in Palestinian Gaza from having job opportunities and being able to create businesses and engage in trade and have opportunity for the future.

    LARRY KING: Premature, then, to condemn Israel?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think that we need to know what all the facts are, but it’s not premature to say to the Israelis and to say to the Palestinians and to say to all the parties in the region that the status quo is unsustainable.

AMY GOODMAN: While the Obama administration has refused to condemn the Israeli flotilla raid outright, the attack has sparked worldwide protest and outrage. The Turkish president has said the once-close Turkish-Israeli ties will never be the same, and South Africa has recalled its ambassador to Israel.

Meanwhile, survivors of the assault have challenged Israeli military claims that soldiers acted in self-defense after rappelling onto the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara. Some say Israeli troops opened fire before boarding the vessel. Passengers on other ships in the flotilla say they were threatened at gunpoint.

Kevin Neish is a Canadian citizen who was aboard the Mavi Marmara. He’s with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. He’s joining us on the phone from Istanbul.

Kevin Ovenden was aboard the Mavi Marmara, as well. He’s the coordinator with Viva Palestina. He joins us now on the phone from Istanbul.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Kevin Ovenden. Where were you on the ship? What time was it? And what happened?

KEVIN OVENDEN: It was 5:25 in the morning, there or thereabout. I was on the second level down on the starboard side of the ship. The assault began with percussion grenades, which were thrown onto the deck of the ship and onto be roof. Israeli soldiers were in commando units, were in militarized dinghies on either side of the ship and a helicopter above, from which they parasailed — sorry, abseiled down onto the roof of the ship.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened next?

KEVIN OVENDEN: What happened was that there were the initial gunshots of what we presumed to be rubberized bullets. I hesitate to say rubber bullets, because they’re steel bullets with a rubber coating. And then very, very rapidly afterwards — I’m talking a matter of some seconds afterwards — there was the unmistakable sound of live fire, and we started to take heavy casualties.

A colleague of mine, a New Zealander with Viva Palestina called Nicci Enchmarch, she was on the top deck. She was next to a man, a Turkish man, who was holding a camera. He was shot directly through the forehead. The bullet, the exit wound, blew away the back third of his skull, and she cradled him as he died.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, you are just coming from one of the funerals?

KEVIN OVENDEN: I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I couldn’t hear.

AMY GOODMAN: I know you’re having a little trouble hearing. Are you just coming from one of the funerals?

KEVIN OVENDEN: I am. I, just this minute, left the Beyazit Masjid in Istanbul, where there was a huge funeral for Cevdet Kiliçlar .

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Neish is also on the line with us — Kevin Ovenden, I want you to stay on — a Canadian citizen with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Where were you on the Mavi Marmara when the Israeli commandos came onboard?

KEVIN NEISH: I was initially at the rear of the ship on deck two. I had just finished having a bit of a nap and was getting ready to get up and do some things, and flash grenades and tear gas rained down on the back of our ship, and general mayhem. I was inside the ship. I could see through the windows on the back of the stern that it was tear gas and flash grenades and lots of noise and ruckus and whatnot.

I then went from there on deck two to the landing of the stairwell going up. There was a medical station on the first deck, a small little medical station. Two people could lay down on the tarp. Then I proceeded up the stairs to the third and the fourth level. I think that’s the way we call it. First deck is right down below with no access to the other side, where the women were. Anyways, then I proceeded up to the top and watched the proceedings from inside.

I stepped out on the deck at just one point, just to look at the Israeli rigid-hulled Zodiacs, big — I think forty-feet long, I believe, they’re huge — and gunboats, regular-hulled gunboats, just sort of, I guess, roaring up on either side. And then, I spent — I don’t know what time it was. I’ve been told it was 4:00, 4:30. I didn’t check my watch. But then, from there, I watched them pull in a couple of Israeli commandos, I guess, and strip them of their weapons and then pack them down the stairs. And then the wounded, wounded and dead — the staircase was slick with blood on one side where I came down. Blood splattered on my clothing.

And, anyways, carry on. What would you like to know?

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you after that and to the people around you? Were you, yourself, beaten or hurt physically?

KEVIN NEISH: Well, physically, I was trussed up with plastic handcuffs for twenty-five hours and refused access to any wash facility for fifteen hours. You had to beg, beg the Israeli captors. I had to grovel, basically, to get access to a bathroom. So I wouldn’t grovel. I’d basically —- well, [inaudible] I just peed on the floor wherever I could kind of thing. But you didn’t get up, you didn’t rise up, or you got threatened with clubs or a dog or a gun to your head or whatever. And, yeah -—

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you being held, Kevin?

KEVIN NEISH: Initially on the — I think it was the deck two — deck two, I believe, on the rear of the ship. We were — initially we went — when the captain announced in Arabic, but it was obvious what was happening, he announced the ceasefire, basically, or giving up of the ship, I guess you could call it, the Israeli commandos had taken over the bridge, finally. I think the struggle was about a half an hour, I’m told. It’s hard to tell, my part.

Then we just — we all went down to where we usually sat and slept, on the benches and whatnot in the cruise ship or dignitaries’ lounge, and just waited for the Israelis to decide what to do. They were all outside on the stern again, where the initial — I thought the initial attack was, from what I saw. And they sat there and watched through the windows. And anybody got out of their chair, you had two or three little red laser dots on you and yelling and screaming to sit down. And they packed up the dead and the wounded. Hanin, the Palestinian Israeli Knesset member, she was very brave. She stepped forward to speak and negotiate to get the very thirsty, injured, wounded Turks and Arab out of the medical area. The deck that I first saw, with two little — you know, maybe space for two people to lay down, it was covered in people. It was sort of a mass of — I just — you know, it’s hard to remember now, but, you know, I think [inaudible] — you know, I went, you know, four days without sleep. After I got into prison, they didn’t let me sleep.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Kevin Ovenden, the Israeli military — the Prime Minister, Netanyahu, has said that the Israeli commandos acted in self-defense. Your response to this?

KEVIN OVENDEN: It’s an utterly risible claim, which is not convincing anybody around the world, which is why this is seen, widely seen, as the Sharpeville and Soweto, not of the Palestinians themselves — they suffered many massacres, from [inaudible] and onwards — but of the solidarity movement for the Palestinian people. The facts are plain. We were in international waters in the eastern Mediterranean. This was a peaceful ship. The youngest participant was not yet one year old. The oldest was eighty-eight years old. We had, among our number, parliamentarians, including two members of the German Bundestag. We had religious people, including the exiled archbishop of the Eastern Catholic Church of Jerusalem. We were attacked in international waters, without warning, unprovoked, by a full-scale commando raid, the equivalent of Special Forces, Delta Forces, Navy Seals and so on. Each of these soldiers who attacked was heavily armed with assault rifles, side arms, commando knives and other weapons. In no sense could this be described as an aggressive move by the Mavi Marmara, a ship of peace, a humanitarian ship. The aggression, the assault, was by the Israeli forces in international waters. You know, if the Somali pirates had done this, it would be regarded as an act of outrageous brigandage internationally. The fact that it’s a tyrannical state on the eastern Mediterranean makes it no different.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you see commandos opening fire before they landed on the ship?

KEVIN OVENDEN: That’s difficult to ascertain. That’s why we require a full, independent international investigation. The Israelis cannot be trusted to conduct their own investigation. They seized evidence, destroyed evidence, seized and destroyed cameras, computers, every single camera and computer onboard. They selectively put out pictures. For example, I’ve seen pictures in the papers of knives that they collected — well, which is unsurprising. We had knives in the kitchen. It’s to cut cucumbers, to cut tomatoes. And all of the knives are indeed kitchen knives.

The evidence for the peaceful intent of people on the boat is simply this, that two Israeli soldiers that I know of were overpowered, as people instinctively resisted with bare hands and whatever was around them — they were overpowered, but they were not harmed. The injuries they sustained were only those of being knocked to the ground. They were disarmed and handed back to the Israeli military as soon as was possible, which is after they had murdered nine people onboard the ship. There was every opportunity to inflict harm on those two soldiers, and no harm was inflicted. They were simply kept apart and dealt with by the medical team onboard. So none of this stacks up.

And there has to be not simply an international investigation, but actually following on from that. We know that the report by Richard Goldstone was highly critical of the Israeli assault on the people of Gaza December 2009, January 2010, and yet Israel has ignored that report. Words and condemnation need to be followed by sanctions and the immediate — the immediate step that needs to be taken is for the siege on the people of Gaza to be lifted, because what we endured for forty-eight hours is but a concentrated form of what they endure every day, year in, year out.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Ovenden, I want to thank you for being with us, coordinator with Viva Palestina. He’s speaking to us from the streets of Istanbul, where he has just attended a funeral for one of the activists who was killed in the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza humanitarian flotilla. Kevin Neish also with us, speaking to us from Turkey, where he was deported to, a Canadian citizen with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. He is headed back to Canada.

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