“We were unarmed and didn’t provoke anybody” – aid flotilla member

Activist Youssef Benderbal gave RT a first-hand account of Israel's attack on the humanitarian Freedom Flotilla which had been heading for Gaza this week.

RT: Mr Youssef thank you very much for talking to RT. We've already heard the Israeli point of view over the humanitarian aid ship seizure. We would now like to hear yours. Can you tell us how it all happened?

Youssef Benderbal: First of all, you should understand that all the ships that were taking part in that action had gathered in one place in international waters. I am insisting that they were in international waters because, in accordance with the free access principle, a presence in international waters doesn’t require permission from any country. This is the first thing I would like to say.

Second, the ships were close to each other. I was on the Greek vessel. There were also some influential people on board and peace activists of various nationalities: Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen and even Americans. I’d love to give credit to the US ambassador, the former US ambassador in Iraq. He is 81 years old, but he accompanied us all the time on our sea voyage.

I should say that there were all sorts of people there. Representatives of about forty nationalities were on board. It was a Greek ship. Its name was the Sfendoni. It was 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning. We were asleep. Some of us were sleeping on the floor, others were sleeping below. I was sleeping below. I woke up. I climbed to the deck. What did I see there? I saw my French friend. I asked him: “What’s up?” “Look, what’s up,” he answered. I saw a Turkish vessel which was well lit. It had several floors, two at least, I think.

There were at least 500 people on board that ship and I saw them. There were women, old people and children. A helicopter was descending from above, and then it dropped soldiers.

Then I saw commandos coming in motor boats. They were masked and armed and were heading for the ship. I heard shots being fired.

They were approaching, and were practically on board the vessel. As I turned my head, I saw a raincoat. I should say that the attack was simultaneous and well-co-ordinated. All the ships were stormed and captured simultaneously.

When I turned around, I saw a soldier, a commando who had climbed up on board. He was wearing a mask, and he was armed. What was I supposed to do? We had to do two things: to stay on top and warn the others about the commandos and the attack. We had received orders. There were three of them. First, we had to protect ourselves, but without using weapons. Therefore, we sat down as the activists of Greenpeace do: they sit very close to each other. So, we stuck together so as to prevent the Israelis from passing to the captain’s cabin and to protect it for as long as possible. We were putting up resistance. In short, we were showing our disobedience.

Second, we had to sit and guard the access to the engine room. Third, we had to meet the aggressors halfway, not to settle scores, but to establish dialogue. We wanted to talk to them calmly, as we are talking now, in order to defuse this military tension. I emerged in front of them just as I am now standing in front of you. I moved slightly, there was a stir. I rose to my feet like this and said that I was a peace activist and that we were all peace activists.

It was clear that I didn’t have any evil intentions. But they didn’t understand anything and they didn’t do anything. They had very clear orders. In a very aggressive manner they said to me: “Sit down! Shut up!” They took us and the Americans of whom I’ve told you, aside. They put us into a big room together with our friends where we ate and slept. It was our bedroom and our canteen. But the most terrible things happened to the people who tried to defend the captain’s cabin with their bodies.

My French friend was struck with a fist on his jaw. That was ruthless. We were unarmed and we didn’t provoke anybody. One of the activists was hit straight in the head and another one had something like a black eye. One more person suffered light injuries in the arm and body.

But the man who was worst hit was behind the ship's wheel. Yes, he was the captain, and I admire his courage. He was seriously injured. He had a torn ear. Yes, it was the captain. He was wounded in his ear, it was torn.

He was holding something close to his neck to fix it because he was hurt. He also had a leg injury, but despite that he kept talking.

RT: Did you notice what was happening on board the Turkish ship at that moment?

YB: No, no. Since they neutralized us and placed us in one room. It was only upon my return to France that I learnt about those human casualties. This act deserves to be condemned.

RT: Did you hear of other people using guns?

YB: No, not a word.

RT: Cold steel?

YB: No, no one did that on board my ship. Please, believe me. We didn’t do that. We had very clear orders which banned us from provoking them. We stayed calm and defended ourselves only with our bodies.

RT: Were your instructions the same for all the ships?

YB: I don’t know what happened on other ships because each vessel had its own rules. It should be understood that we should consider the whole situation. It was at night when the Turks were praying. We heard how they were called to pray. We could hear those calls every evening through a speaker.

So that was clear. And what did the Israelis do? They approached the praying people. From that moment everyone was in danger. The Israelis expected those people to give them a hearty welcome and greet them with apples and tangerines. But that was impossible. It’s absolutely normal that they received that kind of welcome. But I disagree. Who gave them the right to climb onto my ship? It’s illegal.

RT: What happened after you all gathered on deck?

YB: We were detained from 4 o’clock in the morning until 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We had to be in the sun all the time. This is piracy. The Somali pirates have the same style of behavior.

They captured us and sent to the port of Ashdod. Later, I understood that the Israeli soldiers were shooting the whole thing on video: they picked up bottles and handed them over to us to show how humane they were. But all that was for the camera, because when they took me into custody I asked them for food and they refused to give it to me. They didn’t give me anything and left me hungry until the morning. They didn’t even bring me water. They locked us up and each time we needed to use a toilet, we had to bang on the door. First, we were locked up in terrible conditions.

Later, when we arrived in the port, the drapes were pulled down and we couldn’t see what was going on. We asked one man to tell an Israeli soldier that we wanted to meet the consuls of our respective countries. He said: “No problem.” He lied because when we arrived at the destination, there was no one there except Israeli soldiers. When we arrived, we saw a lot of Israelis dressed in uniforms of different colors. We were constantly taken somewhere: to pose for a photo, to get a medical history card or to fill in the questionnaire. And each time they subjected us to a humiliating search. That happened again and again. Four hours passed. They took each of us out individually, so we couldn’t communicate with each other.

RT: What were you asked to do after the interrogation?

YB: We were being told that we had committed a serious offence, but in fact we didn’t do anything wrong. The law was on their side and not on ours. They told us that we had provoked the soldiers, that we would face an Israeli court and that we would get long prison terms. But then they told us: “You either stay or leave. But if you want to leave, you need to put your signature here and then we are going to deport you.”

RT: What did they want you to sign?

YB: To sign a paper that we promise to leave Israeli territory by first flight.

RT: Was there any condition not to repeat what you had done?

YB: I don’t know about that.

RT: Did you know what you were signing?

YB: Partly.

RT: In what language was that document?

YB: It was in French. Even their translator who came to us said: “I am with them, not with them.” He said to me: “Here is the document, saying that you should leave.” So we solved everything. The reason for my presence here is to tell the world that France is expressing solidarity, because there they do what they like with you.

RT: Other ships are now heading to Gaza. Are you thinking of going back there or you doubt that you would?

YB: No, of course not. We don’t regret anything. But we wanted to bring home two things. On the one hand, we wanted to give the much needed aid to the Palestinians, the besieged Palestinians who are suffering from hunger and who were hurt after the terrible attack in December 2008. But on the other hand, we wanted to tell the world about the inhumane siege, which resembles a collective punishment banned by international law. Yes, we will keep sending help. Help is not a crime. Help is honor.