Important testimony

June 7, 2010

In News

I joined the Mavi Marmara in Istanbul on Friday 21 May as one of between 30 and 40 journalists reporting on the flotilla’s mission to Gaza. I am a journalist for al-Jazeera.

It was at 11pm local time on the evening of the 30th, as we were headed for Gaza, that we first spotted the Israeli military from afar. I asked the organisers what they expected to happen. They told me they had decided to move as far away from the military zone as possible, and as far away from the Israeli army and as deep into international waters, because they wanted to avoid a confrontation.

At 2.30am I sent an email to my news desk to say we shouldn’t expect anything to happen during the coming hours, and I went to bed. At roughly 4am, a huge bang on the window woke me up. I could see swarms of people in small speedboats belonging to the Israeli army close to our boat. The sound was of water grenades and tear gas canisters landing on board. I quickly put on my life jacket, grabbed my satellite phone and ran upstairs. Most of the others chose to stay down.

Because many of the crew were at that time at morning prayers, there had been a quick approach from all sides, just before they had finished praying.

When I got to the top deck I could see there were more than 15 speedboats around us, which had on average about 20 soldiers each. About 12ft above me, maybe 15ft at most, I saw the bottom of a helicopter; the sound was immense.

I pulled out my phone to call the desk. But none of the phones were working. None of the satellite phones were working; they were jammed by the Israelis. They had been working two hours before. I can list you more than 10 journalists whose satellite phones weren’t working.

There was a second helicopter hovering over the ship, trying to lower Israeli soldiers down on a rope. On either side there was tear gas being thrown in from the boats, canisters which they were firing from a sort of gun. One man was shot in the top of the head from the helicopter. He collapsed on the ground. I snatched a microphone from one of the Turkish reporters to say one man had been killed. As I did that another man was shot. Those people died instantly.

Until that point I had not yet seen an Israeli soldier on deck. As far as I am concerned, it’s a lie to say they only started shooting on deck. Only then did I see an Israeli soldier on deck.

The men who were dead had been fired on from above.

[Later, about 7am] a soldier shouted to me to put my hands behind my head. Come to me, he said, and get on your knees. As I did he pushed me and shoved me to the ground. I hit the ground hard. He said put your hands behind your back; he cuffed them with those plastic cuffs. Plastic cuffs, one hand above the other, extremely tight, not even a millimetre’s movement between them. He was standing on my feet. He then kicked me down to the ground and then told me to get up. I hit the ground with my head and my shoulder. It was obviously very difficult to get up. He marched me and a woman to the end of the room.

Outside there were more soldiers. All were masked. They took my wallet and passport and threw them on the ground, so another soldier picked them up and put them in my pocket. After that they pushed us against the wall, so I was facing the wall. About a minute or so later they then took me upstairs.

On the deck above, everyone else was there. Some people were handcuffed with their hands in front, some behind. After an hour I needed to go to the bathroom. I asked one of the soldiers; he said OK. He got me up. As we started walking, I was pushed to the ground. I assumed it was just to wait my turn, so when the other got back I said can I go now? He shook his head. I said I really need to go. He said no toilet for you. I said I desperately need to go. So he ushered me with his face and gun, and said go to the toilet where you are. He said: “You piss here.”

[Eventually, three hours later, he was allowed to use the toilet.]

Afterwards, I saw two things on deck that shocked me. There was a Malaysian man sitting in front of me to the right. His hands were tied behind his back, but his hands had gone blue. He pleaded with the soldiers to release him or to loosen his cuffs, but they kept saying no. After the fourth time of pleading with the guy, the soldier went up to him and said “OK” and then tightened it. The man gave out a huge scream, a spine-chilling scream I will never forget. It was only when the superior came later, three hours later, that he was released.

The other thing that shocked me was how the soldiers would walk up and down and kick people lying there. One man, who was Palestinian, was old and had diabetes. He was not very healthy. He requested to go to the toilet on numerous occasions but was refused.

We reached Ashdod at about 8pm. When we went back down below we saw the place had been completely ransacked. Clothes were everywhere, bags emptied, as if it were the aftermath of an earthquake.

So when I came off the ship they searched us again. A man with a black and white Palestinian scarf round his neck was told, “This is illegal in Israel”. I said just take it off. The soldier then turned to me and said: “Welcome to Israel. You like Israel?” I didn’t reply.

They put us on the bus which then took us to Beer Sheva prison. I spent a night in jail and I was released in the afternoon. I was not allowed to speak to my family. There was only one meal and that was frozen slices of bread and potatoes. Two Irishmen refused to leave the jail, and one of them was beaten up horrendously. The captain of the ship had been poisoned so we all did blood tests and urine tests.

As far as I am concerned I was kidnapped by Israel and abandoned by Britain.

Jamal Elshayyal was talking with Matthew Bell