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article imageCanadian Gaza aid flotilla survivor tells story of deadly raid Special

By Stephanie Dearing     Sep 7, 2010 in World
Guelph - The passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara had been optimistic and upbeat about their mission to take aid to the Gaza Strip, defying Israel's blockade. Survivor Kevin Neish even described the hours before the raid as romantic.
It was a beautiful night, Neish said, the moon was out, the sea calm. But the mood quickly changed around midnight after the Israelis had been seen closing in on the flotilla.
Neish was in Guelph briefly and unexpectedly Monday evening, and word went out via Facebook that he was in town to share his story of the raid and his subsequent arrest and detainment by the Israelis. About twenty people showed up for what turned out to be an intimate evening of gore and horror.
Neish was part of the flotilla as a human rights observer, heading to Gaza for a six month stay. Describing himself as "more a direct action" type of person, Neish said "I've done this all my life. I've been to Guatemala as a human shield, Columbia as a human rights interpreter and a human shield, an election observer in El Salvador. Lots of activism. I went to the West Bank in 2002 when the Israelis invaded the West Bank, so I was there when there was shooting on the street. Anyway, the reason I mention all that is 'cause people try to portray me as anti-semitic. It's happened before and I just mentioned what I've done in the past to make the point I'm not anti-semitic. I'm anti-bully, I'm anti-racist, I'm anti-whatever, I'm pro-peace and justice. It just happens that at this particular time I was heading into Gaza." At the time, Neish was with the organization, Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Democracy Now interviewed Neish when he was still in Turkey.
Neish provided some background on the Free Gaza Movement, saying it started in 2008 with the intention of breaking the blockade on Gaza by delivering humanitarian aid directly to Gaza. Neish spoke briefly about the ships in the flotilla and the aid they carried: shoes, clothing, pencils, pens, cooking spices, etc. "I could go on for a long time about that," Neish said. He said the boats in the flotilla came from Sweden, Germany, Turkey, and Greece. The Free Gaza Movement had two boats. The Irish boat, the Rachel Corrie was to be part of the flotilla as well.
Neish flew to Cyprus to board the Challenger 2, but was rerouted to board the Challenger in Crete. Once aboard and underway, Neish said after Israel disabled the steering of the ship and the boat began taking on water, the trip for the Challenger 2 was cancelled because the crew couldn't fix the boat. Fortunately, the Mavi Marmara was nearby and Neish and another dozen activists were able to transfer to the Mavi. Neish made a point of stating that he and the other Challenger passengers were searched for weapons and alcohol when they boarded the Mavi.
Almost all the passengers aboard the Mavi were Muslim, Neish said, but not all were actively practicing. There were people there from about 40 different countries, including all the Gulf nations. 60 of the passengers were journalists.
The Free Gaza banner   Freedom Flotilla  created in late 2009.
The Free Gaza banner, "Freedom Flotilla" created in late 2009.
Free Gaza
Neish described conditions aboard the Mavi, saying people slept on the floor as there were no staterooms. People were assigned places on the ship. Saying he had full access to almost all parts of the ship, Neish noted "the ship was festooned with security cameras. Almost 100 cameras pointing out," along with floodlights.
Then Neish started the video footage, saying it had been smuggled from the Mavi Marmara. He said film maker Iara Lee, from Cultures of Resistance, was able to smuggle a good amount of footage out in her underwear. While the video played, Neish began a commentary to explain what the audience was seeing.
By the time the ship was boarded at around 4 am, the flotilla had halted about 60 miles offshore from Gaza. They were waiting for daylight before proceeding, Neish said.
The initial footage showed passengers on one deck of the Mavi wearing life jackets. "This film here is a half hour before ... It shows everybody in life jackets. They already knew the Israelis are there. So, about midnight ... I thought it was crazy, they're all getting wound up for nothing, but I was wrong. I thought, well, I'm not going to get all wound up. We're 60 or 70 miles off shore, I'm not going to get wound up for nothing.
... They're rushing around. They're laying out fire hoses and getting out big ten-foot boat hooks out ... to ... push the Israelis away. They were going to spray water at the Israelis with the hoses. And um, there were sticks and pipes showing up. They cut the chains off the stanchions around the lifeboat stations... About 3 foot long.
... There were no weapons on board that ship, but these guys were making their own primitive weapons after they saw the Israelis."
Saying he was a marine engineer, Neish said he made his way up to the third deck where he saw "little stacks of nuts and bolts, rusty old nuts and bolts in little piles, like stations, about every ten feet, and I thought 'They're going to throw nuts and bolts at the Israeli military?'" The audience laughed. "Well you laugh," said Neish. "I laughed as well. It's not funny. At that level, they weren't going to kill Jews, they were trying to keep them off their ship." Neish explained the passengers were more afraid the ship would be sunk than anything else.
As the footage continued to show images of the passengers just prior to the raid, Neish said, "It's important to see what kind of folks you've got here. Pot bellied, balding men, older men, just retired men, just guys like me..."
At 4 am on May 31st, when the Mavi's observant Muslims were praying, Israel began its raid on the flotilla. "Muslims can't leave prayers once they start," Neish explained. He said some men had received special permission from the Imam to leave prayers early if there was a need, but the rest of the observant passengers did not get the special dispensation.
Approximately half an hour later, nine Mavi passengers were dead, another 40 injured. Eight of the dead were Turkish nationals, while the ninth was Turkish-American. Three Israel commandos had been captured by some Mavi passengers. While many wanted to harm the captured Israelis, the captives were protected and released to Israel after Israel gained control of the ship. Neish said the three Israelis were terrified, "their eyes were as big as saucers."
For his part, Neish said he stayed in the stairwell where he took photographs of the injured passengers, which he later turned over to IHH. Neish said he was able to smuggle the memory card for his camera by hiding the card in his undergarments. He threw the camera overboard to avoid suspicion. Some of his photographs were published by Hurriet.
In the background of Neish's commentary were the recorded sounds from the Mavi ... the shouting of the Mavi passengers, the multiple gunshots from the Israeli military who were running small boats alongside the Mavi. Throughout his presentation, whenever Neish heard gunshots on the video footage, he would stop in mid-sentence to soberly and quietly say "Gunshots," or "more gunshots."
"The bodies just poured in," Neish said, gunshots punctuating his testimony. Later in his commentary, speaking about the four Turkish men who had been shot execution style, with two shots in the head, Neish said he didn't see the executions happen, but he saw the bodies of two of those men after they had been shot, and he had seen the head wounds. "... There was blood running down the stairs. There was blood running down the stairs. Yeah. You can see it there on the walls ... There were pools of blood. They weren't shooting to wound. They were shooting to kill. They were shooting in the chest and in the head."
This tshirt was being sold to help raise funds for the Canada Boat to Gaza  which organizers say wil...
This tshirt was being sold to help raise funds for the Canada Boat to Gaza, which organizers say will cost $30,000.
Neish described a "steady stream of dead and wounded" being carried down the stairs. Prior to the attack, the activists aboard the Mavi had prepared a small area for treating injuries, with one doctor and one nurses available to tend injuries, with room only for one patient. "They were ready for like a soccer tournament," Neish said, ready for broken bones not gunshot wounds. Neish became agitated when describing the footage depicting the injured. "This young Jihadist ... Shot in the leg. He survived. And the other fellow survived as well. ... I believe he survived ...
This guy coming up the stairs, he's been shot in the back. See the blood running down his legs, from his back? This man died. He's been shot in the back... "
During his presentation, Neish maintained that if the activists aboard the Mavi passengers had planned to attack Israel, "... there wouldn't be women on the ship."
Neish said three of those killed by Israel were shot before Israel even boarded the Mavi Marmara. Initially Israel shot percussion bombs, rubber bullets and a chemical-filled bullet which was similar to a pepper spray. After the first attempt at boarding was unsuccessful, however, the Israelis began to shoot at the Mavi with live ammunition.
An Israeli member of parliament who had sailed on the Mavi Marmara as part of the flotilla, later said her country's military intended to kill passengers. YNet news reported Hanin Zoabi held a press conference on June 1 saying "It was clear from the size of the force that boarded the ship that the purpose was not only to stop this sail, but to cause the largest possible number of fatalities in order to stop such initiatives in the future." Neish said she was "a very brave woman for being on the ship," adding she needs bodyguards to protect her.
Neish said the Israelis jammed the radio signals from the Mavi so that the journalists couldn't get their reports to their employers, although some tried.
Held for four days, Neish said he had been kidnapped by the Israelis. They charged him and others with entering Israel illegally. Alleging Canada did nothing to help him after he was arrested, Neish credits his release to Turkey after officials insisted all detained passengers, no matter what nationality, be released together. After his release, Neish was taken to Turkey, then after a brief stay, sent home. Neish said Turkey paid his way out of Israel and home to Canada. "Our government is probably the most in bed with Israel right now," he said wryly.
As for the results of the attempt to break the blockade? Wendy Goldsmith, who is helping to organize the Canada Boat to Gaza, the organization that helped to arrange Neish's presentation in Guelph, said "It's the first time Israel has been shamed and their propaganda hasn't worked 100% in the newspapers and the media. And we've seen evidence of, albeit very minor and insignificant in terms of what the issue is, but they did respond after the massacre by easing the siege. So they're allowing more goods in, still not nearly enough, and they're not allowing things like cement in, they're not allowing building materials in. More importantly, they're not allowing people out. So it's insignificant in the sense of actually ending the siege, but it's significant in the sense that its the first time they've actually done anything and responded. So we know its making an impact ..."
Speaking to Neish after his presentation, he detailed how, while being held in Israel, he broke down over the deaths of the nine men. Learning that Neish was crying over the deaths of 16 people, the death toll they had thought at the time, one of the Turkish men he incarcerated with reassured Neish by saying "Kevin, they saved so many lives in Gaza. They knew what they were doing. They knew exactly what they were doing. They went on deck and risked their lives. They made a huge impact. The flotilla was more effective than 10,000 rockets fired at Israel." Free Gaza has posted photographs and brief biographies of the nine men who were killed on board the Mavi Marmara.
Neish said he wouldn't be able to sleep after his presentation, saying the presentations always stirred things up.
A United Nations inquiry into the deaths of the Mavi Marmara passengers during the boarding of the boat wrapped up last week. The team conducting the inquiry is expected to report back to the UN Human Rights Council in the next month. Insisting the Turkish aid group, the IHH, is affiliated with terrorists. The BBC reported last month that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, said Israel had acted in accordance with international law.
Neish has a similar full presentation available online through WorkingTV.
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