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Freedom Waves Campaigners Abused and Imprisoned

West Bank.

In the immediate aftermath of the illegal capture of the Freedom Waves flotillas, Israel’s public image has been tarnished, as reports of violence at sea surface to counteract its claims of a peaceful takeover, and as human rights cyber-resistance group Anonymous retaliates by shutting down Israeli government web sites.

As Israeli naval soldiers boarded the Tahrir and Saoirse Friday afternoon, the IDF released a statement saying that the ships were intercepted peacefully, and that no activists were harmed in the takeover. In addition, in an attempt to portray its own reasonable benevolence, the IDF released a video of soldiers contacting the ship and offering to reroute its humanitarian aid by land or through Ashdod, shortly before releasing another video which seemed to show Israeli soldiers peacefully and non-threateningly boarding one of the flotillas.

When Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah, an activist aboard the Tahrir, wrote an account of Israel’s seizure of the boats after her release on Saturday, however, the world began to see a different picture.  “Towards the early afternoon,” she said, “we saw three Israeli warships in the horizon… Soon after, the Israeli presence in the waters around us intensified. We counted at least 15 ships, four of which were warships, and the rest a mix of smaller boats and water cannons. From inside the smaller boats, dozens of Israeli soldiers pointed their machines guns at us. This is when our communications system was jammed and we lost contact with the world…the Israelis sent radio messages to our boat, asking us to stop sailing because they would board the boat and take us to the Israeli port of Ashdod. When our boat refused to surrender, they aimed their canons at us, showering us with salty water. The boat had become highly unstable and panic was in the air… Israeli ships hit our boat and soldiers started boarding. Dozens of masked soldiers screamed “on your knees,” and “hands up.””

The violent nature of Israel’s takeover of the Tahrir and Saoirse became more apparent with a statement released mid-Sunday by Fintan Lane, the National Coordinator of the Irish Ship Saoirse, in a hurried phone call made from an Israeli prison. “The whole takeover [of the Saoirse by Israeli naval authorities] took about three hours”, claims Lane. “It began with Israeli forces hosing down the boats with high pressure hoses and pointing guns at the passengers through the windows. I was hosed down the stairs of the boat. Windows were smashed and the bridge of the boat nearly caught fire. The boats were corralled to such an extent that the two boats, the Saoirse and the Tahrir, collided with each other and were damaged, with most of the damage happening to the MV Saoirse.  The boats nearly sank. The method used in the takeover was dangerous to human life.”

The same day, Saoirse activist Paul Murphy, Socialist Party and United Left Alliance MEP for Dublin, related in a 3-minute phone call, monitored by Israeli prison authorities, that “our boat was almost sunk by the manner in which it was approached and boarded by the Israeli navy. People were shackled and deprived of all personal belongings. In Givon  prison the authorities tried to disorientate us through sleep deprivation and the removal of our watches and the prison clock recording the wrong time. We have been given no time frame as to how long we will be kept here before the deportation trial. We were denied our right by Israeli law to contact our families within 24 hours of our arrest.”

Also on Sunday, Greek captain of the Tahrir Giorgos Klontzas, after his release from jail, told Greek Omnia TV that during interrogation, Israeli forces handcuffed him tightly and stuck fingers in his eyes.

The clearest testament to the abuse suffered by the activists at the hands of the Israeli military has come from British activist David Heap, in a letter smuggled out of his prison cell.  “I write to you from cell 9, block 59 Givon Prison near Ramla in Occupied Palestine”, the letter stated. “Although I was tasered during the assault on the Tahrir, and bruised during forcible removal dockside (I am limping slightly as a result) I am basically ok… [we] were transported in handcuffs and leg shackles…[we have created] a political prisoners’ committee in order to press our collective demands- association in the block, i.e. open cells; adequate writing and reading material; free communication with outside world- i.e. regular phone calls; [and] information about shipmate women held at same prison”. In response to the shortage of information regarding the female activists currently behind bars, the Women’s Organisation for Political Prisoners (WOFPP) offered Sunday night to send a lawyer free of charge to visit the female prisoners.

As reports of Israeli military violence leaked throughout the weekend, an international group of hackers named Anonymous released a video threatening retaliation against “a clear sign of piracy on the high seas.” The ‘Open Letter from Anonymous to the Government of Israel’ was pointed in its critique- “your actions”, it claimed, “are illegal, against democracy, human rights, international and maritime laws”, and an example of “justifying war, murder, illegal interception and pirate-like activities under an illegal cover of defense” which “will not go unnoticed by us or the people of the world”. Anonymous, which has temporarily disabled many web sites in past publicized acts of moral retribution, further threatened that “if you continue blocking humanitarian vessels to Gaza or repeat the dreadful actions of May 31st 2010 against any Gaza Freedom Flotillas, you will leave us no choice but to strike back, again and again, until you stop….we do not forget, we do not forgive. Expect us.”

A day later, Haaretz reported that “the websites of the IDF, Mossad and the Shin Bet security services were down”, likely due to an Anonymous cyber-attack. Hours later, however, the Israeli government released a statement on Facebook claiming that the websites were down “due to a systematic malfunction of the servers”, denying that Anonymous was behind the crash. It is highly unlikely, however, for this shutdown to follow so soon after Anonymous’s threat as a matter of pure coincidence.

As the international community rises in condemnation of Israel’s illegal takeover of a ship in international waters, 21 of the 27 activists captured by Israel remain in prison awaiting deportation, and the whereabouts of one, PressTV journalist Hassan Ghani, remains unknown. The Irish activists have refused representation by a lawyer in the Israeli court system, on the grounds that they do not acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel’s legal system. In addition, they refuse to sign a waiver which would forfeit their claim to legal representation before a judge and allow for their immediate deportation, because the offered waiver claims that they came to Israel voluntarily and entered illegally, statements which are patently untrue in light of the fact that Israeli naval boats seized the activists from the Tahrir and Saoirse, and forcibly transported them to Ashdod. They will therefore, according to Israeli law, be detained for 72 hours and then brought to court, where they will almost certainly be deported- though, because they refused to sign the waiver, the deportation will occur without their consent.

As Israel unsuccessfully attempts to save face in the aftermath of its illegal and violent seizure of innocent civilians on a humanitarian aid mission in international waters, the international community once again bears witness to the fact that, in the words of a Saturday press release by the Canada Boat to Gaza team, “there is no legal justification for stopping or in any way impeding the passage of the totally peaceful Freedom Waves boats from the international solidarity movement with Palestinian people”. What is clear to all, in spite of Israeli repression, is that the recent aid mission is only the first of many Freedom Waves bound for Gaza’s shore. “Whatever the Israeli Occupation Forces do to us,” said David Heap and Ehab Lotayef, steering committee members of the Tahrir, from behind Israeli prison bars, “this flotilla marks the launching of the Freedom Waves. It is the continuation of many efforts over the years to bring the plight of Gaza and Palestine to the world’s attention. We will keep coming again and again, until the closure of Gaza is ended and Palestinians have been able to achieve liberation and justice… Expect us. Again and again. The Freedom Waves are just beginning.”

Ben Lorber is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Nablus. He is also a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He blogs at freepaly.wordpress.com.

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