Glyn Secker, Captain of the Jewish Boat to Gaza
Getting to Farmagusta was a long long trip, the longest passage we’d made – two nights and three days, and having to manually helm every minute of the way as we never managed to get the auto-pilot working. Usually after such passages there’s the expectation of being able to catch up on sleep, to relax a little and to re-charge ourselves. But we were only too aware that as the last port of call this stop was going to be be the most demanding of all: we had intentionally chosen a port which was not set up for small craft and knew that even finding a berth was going to be a challenge. Then we had an intensive schedule of press conferences, loading the boat with the aid and the banners, re-fueling and watering enough for double the length of the final passage (in case we were forced to return), getting the passengers on board, and all this under the watchful eyes of the port authorities whose attitude we were uncertain of.
We arrived as Sven-Y-Two as a tourist boat. A local fisherman allowed us to use one of his berths and then amazingly organized fuel from the town which he brought in jerry cans, and water, and helped me buy the outboard motor for the Gaza fishermen, spending most of the afternoon driving me round the town looking for a dealer open on the weekend. The port police were friendly but of course bound by their own cumbersome procedures, then surprised us by summoning other officials to come to us rather than us having to find them in town.
Meeting up with the London team and the passengers was straightforward and a mixture of hugs and kisses and anxiety and frenetic action. The press conference the next morning generated its own momentum and and it was then that I really began to feel the whole project lifting off. And it did so with a bang – the AP team were local Turkish Cypriots and as a matter of routine sought permission from the port authority to film our departure despite all the strictures to keep beneath the radar. Our hearts sank when returning to the port we were greeted by the sight of a police car. Not to arouse suspicion we had invented a story that we had just met up with a group of friends on a separate holiday and that we wished to take them for a spin around the bay. But we then discovered that the regulations required the port police to hold the passports until people return. At this point we realised the story may not hold, and we were at a loss as to what to do. After more discussion between the authorities it became clear that they had probably cottoned on to whom we really were and simply stated ‘Look, if you all just want to get on the boat and go and not return, that’s fine with us.’ ! So we were then into a frantic scramble to get away before there were any calls to higher authorities or they changed their minds. Hurriedly we laid out all the aid to be photographed, got all the banners out, got all passengers on board and within half an hour had cast off. The friendly fisherman had invited the AP media on board and as we left the port holding aloft the banners he cast off and circled us giving them the shots which went around the world and which alerted the IDF to our imminent arrival.
The weather was still very kind to us and we made better progress than expected. Not wanting to time the encounter with the IDF in the dark we slowed down and when the morning had warmed up I suggested that a good way to de-stress would be to stop the boat and for us all take a swim in the sparkling deep blue water. We put out a long line with a fender on the end and in we all plunged – a swim to remember. Reuvan was amazing, confidently swimming away from the boat and me trying to keep him within reach of the safety line! I think I was the only one who had any breakfast – home made muesli (wonderful almond nuts).
And then finally after all these days and weeks of anticipation we identified a frigate on the horizon. It shadowed us for some considerable time, keeping on our port side about five miles off. Then we saw a number of smaller craft lined up and realized that the encounter was approaching. We rehearsed our strategies and waited, with adrenalin levels slowly rising. Shortly there came a call on Ch 16 over the VHF from the frigate asking us our intentions and the flag of the boat. I informed them that we were heading for Gaza port, that we were in international waters and had no intention of entering Israeli waters. They replied that Gaza was within a prohibited area and that we should change our course. I responded by stating that that did not accord with international law, that we were unarmed, had no materials which could be put to military use, that we carried a consignment of aid for Gaza and that we expected safe passage. They then warned us that they would intercept us, that this could be dangerous for the crew and damaging for the boat. I reiterated that as a British flagged boat they had no legal right to intercept us and that we intended to maintain our course to Gaza. There was no reply and we continued on our passage for perhaps another twenty minutes – presumably they were waiting for us to cross the boundary of their unilaterally declared prohibited zone.
There then developed a sight which will remain with me for the rest of my life – with the frigate in the background, two gunboats, two landing craft and four high powered ribs spread out in a semi-circle speeding towards us at perhaps 35 knots, with their bow waves and wakes flashing in the sunshine. It was surreal, it was like an action movie, and entranced by the sight I had to remind myself this was actually happening – this overwhelming force for a 9.7 metre 40 yr. old boat, the majority of its Jewish occupants over 60 years old, with no weapons and a publicized policy of passive resistance.
The next we knew there were two ribs very close alongside with the commander on a megaphone again warning us of the dangers if they boarded us. I reiterated our legal rights, and for what it was worth I accelerated, just to make a point that outpacing them was fantasy. Then as planned Itamar addressed the commandos in Hebrew and English, calling on them not to obey the orders to take actions which are illegal under international law. The ribs closed in, and the boarding commenced.
All the crew and passengers (apart from myself as I was steering) held hands.They boarded us simultaneously from both sides. At that moment we cut the engines and sat over the access points to the cut offs to prevent them restarting the engines. The wheel is on the starboard side of the boat. I was surrounded by three commandos, I held on to the wheel as hard as I could. It reminded me of being on violent picket lines with the police trying to break through. One grabbed my left arm, another my right arm. The third stood by with a Tazer gun. After a struggle they managed to prize my hands from the wheel and threw me down on the floor. I managed to crawl behind them and remove the engine starter keys but one of them saw me and prized the keys from my hands.
On the opposite side of the cockpit Yonatan Shapira and his brother Itamar had been identified by the IDF commander in charge. He sought to separate them from the others. Yonatan clasped Rami in a hug to prevent himself being removed. The senior officer then moved one sideYonatan’s lifejacket covering his left breast, placed a Tazer gun in contact with his clothing and fired it directly into his heart. Yonatan let out a dreadful scream and the force of the Tazer caused him to lose control of his muscles. He was pulled off Rami and across the cockpit to the middle. He was then hit twice more by the Tazer gun, screaming out again. Both he and Itamar were forcefully pulled off our boat onto the IDF rib on port side.They were driven at very high speed over the waters, which had now become moderately rough (the wind had increased to a F4) and it would have been very uncomfortable especially for Yonatan still recovering from the Tazer shocks. They were taken to the frigate where they were treated normally, then to shore and released on bail without charges.
Meanwhile I had turned off the fuel supply to the engines. After some time (the engines only burn 1 1/2 litres per hour) when the fuel in the pipes had been used up the port engine started to fail. (The starboard fuel shut-off failed to work). After many attempts to restart the engine the IDF took the boat in tow. The boat is designed to go through the water at a maximum speed of about 8 knots. They towed us through the rough waters at 12 – 14 knots. The boat was bouncing about violently, it was dangerous for the remaining passengers and crew, including Reuvan, our 82 year old holocaust survivor. We all sustained bruises and the passage to Ashdod was exhausting. There was something like eight commandos on the boat in addition to ourselves so it was grossly overloaded. It was surprising that the boat did not begin to break up, the whole structure was groaning and making cracking sounds. It was clear that they intended to seriously mistreat the boat. During the passage they tore down all the banners and flags – including the red ensign (the UK flag) which legally has to be displayed in all foreign waters.
As a gesture of defiance I decided to cook lunch! Not easy in the circumstance but I managed to produce omlett (with garlic) sandwiches which Reuvan, Lillian and I think Eli and I shared. Whilst in the galley I took the opportunity of chucking out of the window the carving knife, the bread knife, a chisel and two hammers from the tool box, remembering that similar items had been photographed as evidence of weapons on previous boats.
I’d like to point out that in the USA it is illegal for the police or the army to fire Tazers directly into the heart as there have been a number of cases of heart failure and death as a result of such targeting.
The fact that Yonatan was released without charge makes it very clear that the use of the Tazer on him was purely malicious.
Contrary to IDF reports, there was therefore, considerable resistance, be it non-violent, to the IDF’s illegal hijacking of our boat, and there was considerable, unprovoked and very dangerous violence perpetrated by the IDF.
On arriving at Ashdod we were greeted by perhaps 100 people in uniforms of one sort or another within an a secure area created by ships containers. We were obliged to pass through a tent where we were subjected to detailed body searches and luggage searches. I was the last out as I insisted on making an inventory of the boat valuables, though I was unable to get any officer to countersign it it, it was taken by a female officer from I believe their foreign office, but this was not clear. Before I was allowed back on the boat to do the inventory it was searched, including the use of a dog. None of us of course had any illegal drugs, but I have to admit of a nervous moment when someone asked me if any previous owner might have stashed anything away – this hadn’t occurred to me. Whilst waiting I was approached by a Major who stated that he was in charge of Gaza boarder security and he offered to transport our aid to Gaza. He arranged for us to go onto the boat, I extracted the aid from the lockers and he placed it where he could find it later. The boat was in a state of chaos, having been ransacked by those searching it. I don’t suppose they intend clearing out the fridge and other food, so god knows what it will be like after a few weeks in what is still a hot time of year. Combined with the split bellows on the loo pump whoever goes on the boat next will need a good face mask and a strong stomach.
I was taken to the Immigration and Boarder Authority where I experienced a truly Kafkaesque moment. We were presented with a form to sign which stated that I was due to be deported being suspected of residing in Israel illegally. When I pointed out that the only reason I was in Israel at all was that the IDF had kidnapped me and forcefully brought me into Israel on the orders of the government, the reply was that it did not matter who had brought me in, but that now I was there I was there without permission and so due for deportation. They were not amused by my laughter.
The regulations allowed for a rapid departure at their expense if I signed the form, but I was anxious not to be seen to recognize the Israeli law creating the blockade and therefore the basis for deportation.Then equally bizarrely, they stated that I could add whatever statement I wished to the form and could have a photocopy, so I added a clause stating that I did not recognize the legal basis for the deportation as it had no basis in international law, and duly signed.
Eventually the lawyers then arrived – really great people. I checked that my understanding of the law was correct and that if I had opted to go to court to appeal the deportation the result would have been the same and they confirmed I had it right. The IDF had smashed up the sat phone I had hired in front of me. I hope they will explain to the insurance company why they had not just taken it so that it could be returned later.
I was then taken to the detention centre at Ben Gurion airport. Again we and our luggage were all subject to yet more detailed searches. The smallness of the minds of those whose job it is day in and day out to carry out these numbing tasks can only be guessed at. Then, I was alone with Vash, banged up for the night – banged being a very appropriate word describing the door slam behind you. Having many times visited clients in detention or prison as a social worker it was odd indeed being on the other end but my complete self confidence in the absolute correctness of our principles and our understanding of international law never deserted me.
Despite asking for water I was left without a drink for 12 hours. When I asked again in the morning I was told to drink the tap water – which was warm. Later they provided a cup of tea and a roll and a towel, so I was able to shower. The officers who were to take me to the airport were Ethiopian Jews and were required to put me in ankle cuffs for the journey. I told them it was not at all necessary – they were rather embarrassed and apologized but said they were obliged to use them. At least they carried my bag to the minibus. I was taken directly to the plane on the tarmac and had to climb a metal staircase up to the access, the cuff chain clanking on the steps – reminded me of Winton Marsarlis’s song about the chain gangs.
They removed the cuffs out of sight of the other passengers and then another Kafqeresque moment when I am welcomed aboard by the chief steward as any other passenger, informed that there will be a meal and drinks provided and wished me a comfortable journey! There was sophisticated inflight entertainment – it was a Boeing 777 – but there was no news service at all, very odd, I was in an El Al bubble.
I didn’t think anyone at home knew of my flight arrival time as I didn’t know it until I was on the plane, but the lawyers must have told Miri and it was absolutely great, in fact overwhelming, to be greeted by Vanessa and a welcome party of close friends – amazing, what a two days, never to be forgotten.
Its fantastic coming back to amazing support that’s buzzing. I’m overwhelmed with the results I think it was really successful. We made our point to the world very powerfully that there are probably hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world who are appalled at the Israeli policies to the Palestinians; the violations of their humanity and their human rights.
Glyn Secker, Captain of the Jewish Boat to Gaza. This article was first published at Jewish Boat to Gaza here.