Al Awda did not reach Gaza. It became far too dangerous and provocative for the Israeli state when a small 55-year-old peaceful and charming Norwegian fishing boat came at a speed of 7 knots on a course towards Gaza, with some desperately needed medical supplies and 22 peace- and human rights activists from 16 countries on board. Israel used its largest warships and at least two smaller patrol boats and five to six RHIB zodiacs. In total, there were about 10-11 navy vessels, probably about one third of the Israeli navy. With great brutality, the boat was hijacked in international waters, the cargo of medical equipment was stolen, and the 22 people on board were robbed of all valuables and most of their personal belongings, including the ship’s doctor’s Bible.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza is illegal. But even for legal marine blockades a rule of proportionality applies. International law requires that the degree and extent of the use of force be necessary and proportionate. This applies to both the methods used and the extent of the use of power. Maltreating people, threatening to execute them, and plundering them for their belongings is in any case contrary to international law, even in the case of a legal blockade.
It is important to share the story about the Israeli hijacking of the Norwegian MS Kårstein, which on this trip was named Al Awda – The Return. The name was connected to the Friday demonstrations in Gaza and the demand that the refugees, the majority of Gaza’s residents, be allowed to return to the areas their families were driven out of 70 years ago. The experience of the hijacking of this boat tells a lot about the character of the Israeli state and how brutal and immoral the Israeli army is. For the Norwegians on board it was a shock to experience the Norwegian government’s willingness to accept and defend Israel’s violation of human rights and international law.
We start with the report of the Swedish mate, Charlie Andreasson:
The boarding of the boat was violent and efficient. A lot of heavily armed soldiers dressed in white clothes and white face masks stormed aboard, and after only a few seconds they reached me. I was trying to block the door of the wheel house with my body. The electro-shock pistols crackled when they were pushed against my body, my legs and arms, the heart, throat, face and head, where they left burns. My head was filled with pain and it was like a crackling black and white TV inside my brain. I was pushed down on the deck, the threats poured down, and a soldier tied strips around my wrists. The soldier’s hands shook with adrenaline, disgust and hatred.
I was led to the aft deck where most of the 21 of my friends were held captive. The meaningless maltreatment of the skipper had already begun, and he was told that he would be executed. And while we were there hour after hour, the Israeli commander was bragging about how they just massacred Palestinians along the border of Gaza, and how they killed children. That is what it’s like to be a Palestinian. For a while we were exposed to almost the same violence and hatred as them.
The boat was first called by the Israeli navy about 53 nautical miles from Gaza, in international waters off Egypt. It had traveled more than 5000 nm from the starting point in Bergen, Norway, and it had visited 23 European ports, where it had spread information and activism to tens of thousands of people. Mikkel, a politician from Bergen, actually a Danish citizen, was signed on as a deck hand. He was in the wheel house along with the captain and he answered the call from the Israeli navy:
We are a Norwegian vessel, traveling under the Norwegian flag. We are in international waters, enjoying the right of innocent passage. The Israeli navy has no jurisdiction in international waters. We are traveling under the protection of international law and maritime law. We have no business with the Israeli navy. We have no intention of entering Israeli waters.
This answer did not satisfy the Israeli voice. Al Awda used the regular channel 16 on the VHF radio. The Israeli voice would switch to Channel 72 so that nearby ships could not listen to what was being said. Mikkel insisted on continuing on channel 16. We had nothing to hide. It was the Israeli actions that did not bear the light of day. The voice on the radio constantly asked new questions about the boat, about the course, about the people on board, but he never asked to inspect the boat and the cargo. However, he accused us of planning to illegally enter Israeli waters, which, of course, was pure nonsense.
For Israel it is always important to prevent other versions than the official Israeli version from coming out. Therefore, they usually put the boats’ telecommunications systems out of commission. When satellite phones suddenly stopped working, it was clear that the attack was imminent. Three relatively large vessels – at least in relation to our fishing boat – as well as some gunboats and several zodiacs approached quickly from behind. At 43 nautical miles from Gaza – still in international waters outside of Egypt – they launched the attack.
All the 22 people aboard Al Awda had put on life jackets, which could also partially protect against electric shock guns, so-called “tasers”. Everyone placed themselves in accordance with a plan they had prepared. There had been a two-day seminar in non-violence in Palermo, and on the whole voyage from Palermo there had been daily training in how people should act. Vulnerable individuals especially those with medical conditions were to sit at the rear of the top deck with their hands on the large wooden table there. Gerd, a Norwegian professor of sports sociology, was in charge there. The others stood arm-in-arm in different positions to delay access to the wheel house. It was important to hold it for as long as possible. One reason for that was to try to film the attack.
This is the cook and handy man Jan Petter’s story:
It did not take many seconds before the first soldiers stormed the ladder. Everyone was masked and waved with machine guns and other weapons. Some ran aft while others came against us. Sarah, Joe and Jørgen (chef on board) desperately tried to hold them back. The soldiers kicked, smashed and used gun stocks to beat people. The three were gradually pushed down on the deck, it did not help that Sarah and Emilia yelled and tried to keep the tasers away from their bodies. Fortunately, they avoided being tasered, but Sarah had to lay on the deck to let the soldiers pass by. When Jørgen tried to get up, I noticed that a soldier put his taser under his life jacket, and Jørgen was knocked down on the deck again with a crash. He and Joe were pulled aside, while Sarah, was lifted up and thrown aside.
It was our turn next, and two soldiers attacked Emilia, who still yelled desperately and tried to avoid being tasered. She managed to avoid the tasers, but eventually she was also knocked down and thrown aside. Two soldiers stormed forward with their machine guns in firing position and managed to pass us. Yonatan and I were still standing and tried to prevent more people from passing, but were forced down on our knees.
While this was happening, I noticed an intense hullabaloo at the wheel house where the soldiers tried to remove Charlie and Mike from the door. They were repeatedly shot down with tasers, but got up again after a few seconds and kept standing. There was yelling and shouting, an inferno of blows and kicks. Yonatan and I had attacking soldiers both behind and in front of us, and more resistance was eventually useless. Two soldiers pushed Yonatan to the rear when I saw a soldier attacking me at high speed. He tried to kick my knee brutally with a big military boot, but I managed to twist and got some help from the boat that tilted to one side. He missed and almost kicked a hole in the water tank. At the same time, I noticed that soldiers sat astride Mike and Charlie and “finished” them by shooting them repeatedly with tasers, both in the body, face and head. Mike bled a lot from his face.
With Mike and Charlie more or less unconscious, the way to the wheel house was open. The door to the wheel house was locked with a padlock which the soldiers cut off. Then they were inside the wheel house, where Mikkel and the boat’s captain Herman could not prevent the soldiers from taking control of the boat. Mikkel and Herman surrendered with their hands in the air. They were led to the aft deck, where most of the people on board were now assembled. Jan Petter goes on:
After the boarding was accomplished, Mike, Charlie, Herman and Mikkel were behind us on the aft deck. The soldiers used plastic handcuff strips, and Mike’s strips were very tight. We asked for the strips to be removed, but it did not happen until all of us in unison began to shout and roar. Mike apparently was completely dazed, bloody in his face, and he was examined by the ship’s doctor, Dr. Swee Ang, and the Israeli Army doctor. Charlie was a bit better, but seemed a little dazed and did not react when I talked to him. Chef Jørgen was in shock. After a short time the soldiers came and seized captain Herman and brought him to the wheel house. They wanted him to restart the engine which he had stopped when the boat was attacked.
The captain suspected what they had in mind. He wanted someone to follow and witness what happened. The ship’s doctor Dr. Swee Ang volunteered. She is a highly acclaimed doctor, 70 years old, born in Malaysia, but British citizen for more than 30 years. She is based at the St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and she has extensive experience in disaster and war areas, including for the United Nations in Gaza and the WHO on the West Bank. In 1995, she published the book “War Surgery” together with the Norwegian physicians Erik Fosse and Hans Husum. She is a small and slender lady that the soldiers threw around during the hijacking, breaking two of her ribs. She says:
The Israeli soldiers demanded to take Herman to the wheel house. Herman asked for someone to come with him, and I offered to do so. But as we approached the wheel house, I was pushed away and Herman forced into the wheel house on his own. Divina, the well-known Swedish singer, had meanwhile gone to the front to look through the window of the wheel house. She started to shout and cry “Stop, stop they are beating Herman, they are hurting him”. We could not see what Divina saw, but knew that it was something very disturbing. Later on, when Divina and I were sharing a prison cell, she told me they were throwing Herman against the wall of the wheel house and punching his chest. Divina was forcibly removed and her neck was twisted by the soldiers who took her back to the rear of the deck.
In his report, Mikkel from Bergen goes into more detail:
The captain was beaten up, beaten and banged. They threw his head against the instruments. And they threatened to execute him. I also got my part, an elbow here and a knee there. But nothing compared to the captain and activists on deck. And what we experienced is also nothing compared with what the Palestinians experience every day.
Herman tried to get the soldiers to understand that the boat was now in a condition where the engine could not be started from the bridge. The engineer had to start it in the engine room. The engineer, Arne Birger, explains that he was on his way up from the engine room:
At the top of the ladder, a soldier demanded my passport which I had in my pocket. After I had handed it over to him, he then demanded my watch. I gave it to him, he put it in his pocket and I never saw the watch again. Then I was led to the wheel house, where the captain was with some soldiers. They were very aggressive because the captain could not start the engine again. They ordered me to start it, but I pointed out that something was wrong, so the engine could not be started from the bridge. Then one of the soldiers hit me in my face and threatened me: You’ll see that we’re as brutal as you read in the media. The other soldier hit the captain twice in his stomach and shouted at me: – If you do not start that fuckin’ engine, your captain will suffer a lot!
Arne Birger continues:
I looked at Herman. He was obviously in a lot of pain. His face was completely white. He stared out in the air with an empty look, and did not say anything. Obviously, I could not let them go on hitting Herman, so along with a few soldiers I went into the engine room and started the engine. But afterwards I learned that they still had continued to beat him.
When the engine was running, the soldiers led Herman back to the aft deck. At the very back there was a rubber mattress that served as the ship’s doctor’s “examination table”. The doctor explains:
I looked at Herman and saw that he was in great pain, silent but conscious, breathing spontaneously but shallow breathing. The Israeli Army doctor was trying to persuade Herman to take some medicine for pain. Herman was refusing the medicine. The Israeli doctor explained to me that what he was offering Herman was not army medicine but his personal medicine. He gave me the medicine from his hand so that I could check it. It was a small brown glass bottle and I figured that some kind of liquid morphine preparation. I asked Herman to take it and the doctor asked him to take 12 drops after which Herman was carried off and slumped on a mattress at the back of the deck. He was watched over by people around him and he fell asleep. From my station I saw that he was breathing better.
Herman himself tells that before he fell asleep, he had a strange feeling of relief:
Now I can relax. They have taken command of the boat. Everyone is alive. I cannot do anything more about the safety on board. I have done what I should do.
There were two leaders on the boat: The captain was the maritime leader, responsible for the boat, the crew and the safety for all on board. In addition, there was a Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC) boat leader, with political responsibility: to keep in touch with local activists in all ports, arrange events, arrange appeals and attend meetings and demonstrations, be in contact with journalists, with local, national and international media and social media. The boat leader was Zohar Chamberlain Regev, Israeli citizen of Jewish family, born and raised in Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh near Nazareth. She is now living in Spain and has for many years devoted her life to solidarity with the Palestinians:
As a human being first of all, but also as an Israeli of Jewish origin, I am appalled by what is being done by Israel in Palestine in general and in Gaza in particular. We have always been told ‘how could the world be silent during the Holocaust’, now we know how…we have to stand by our Palestinian sisters and brothers in Gaza to save our own humanity.
She came on board in Kristiansand, Norway, and from there she was on the boat for three months, all the way until it was hijacked and led to Ashdod. The cooperation between her and the captain was obviously very important. It was characterized by mutual respect; they did not always agree but they had the ability to find common solutions. This was a very crucial factor in our mission’s success.
The captain, Herman, is 28 years old. He is actually one of those with the most extensive experience from these solidarity boats. He was on the bridge on the sailing ship Estelle flying the Finnish flag in 2012, and on the fishing boat Marianne flying the Swedish flag in 2015. He has extensive experience in particularly demanding situations. As a 14-year-old sea scout he was on board the sailboat Mohawk II when it was hit by another boat off the coast of the Netherlands and sank in 2-3 minutes. He played a central role in getting everyone safely off the boat on record time. Nobody drowned, everybody survived.
To be continued