Israel captures and expels Gaza aid ship

Israel has deported activists and journalists from a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid ship that set sail from Lebanon on February 3. Several on the boat report being physically harassed and interrogated by Israeli soldiers. MENASSAT spoke with one of the passengers, Lebanon-based New TV reporter Ogarit Dandach, to hear her account of events.
The Gaza-aid ship Brotherhood in the hours before it set sail from the northern Lebanenese port city, Tripoli on February 3. © Marwan Bou Haidar/Al Akhbar

BEIRUT, February 6, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Carrying over 50 tons of aid to the Gaza Strip, the ship called “Brotherhood” was forcibly boarded by the Israeli navy on Thursday, and towed back to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Israeli forces beat and kicked passengers,  Al Jazeera's Salam Khoder told reporters after her return to Lebanon on Friday.

As of Friday, Israel said it had deported all of those taken into custody. Officials said that the ship had been commandeered because of security concerns, and because "the ship might be used to smuggle banned equipment."

The Brotherhood left Lebanon for Gaza on Tuesday, February 3, and was stopped in Egyptian territorial waters before it could deliver the badly needed aid.

The Israeli military said it had warned the ship on Wednesday night against entering Gaza’s coastal waters and denied using violence in the operation. 

Israel has allowed similar aid boats to Gaza and has turned others back, but it was the first time the state boarded and captured an aid ship. 

For nearly two-years, Israel has maintained a strict blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was tightened when Hamas took power from its rival Fatah party in June 2007. 

The Israeli navy heightened its naval control in late December, when Israel mounted a three-week assault in Gaza - "Operation Cast Lead" - that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.

Among the ten passengers on the Brotherhood were four media workers, including reporters and camera persons from Al Jazeera and Lebanon's New TV.

MENASSAT interviewed New TV reporter Ogarit Dandach, who was among those on board. She returned to Lebanon on Friday morning after what she said was a harrowing experience at the hands of Israeli security agents.

"We were beaten, interrogated and held in solitary confinement by Israeli soldiers," she told MENASSAT.


MENASSAT: Can you tell us, what happened on the ship when the Israelis intervened?

"We began to get worried after waiting in the Cyprus waters for 18 hours for authorization to sail to Gaza. As time passed we thought maybe Israel was trying to prevent us from getting to the Strip. We ended up calling Lebanon’s ambassador in Cyprus for an intervention.  Shortly after, a Cypriot marine checked the cargo and we were allowed to continue."

MENASSAT: When did the Israeli navy intervene?

"As we continued to Gaza, just as the sun began to set, two small Israeli vessels appeared close to us and began to threaten us.  We were still in international waters, which means, it was piracy.

"This is the Israeli navy,” they said through megaphones, “'You cannot continue.”

"The captain of the ship, Yehya Al-Ardady refused to abide by their request. 

"The navy threatened to take necessary procedures if we continued. And the vessels followed us throughout the night."

MENASSAT: Were there more threats?

"Well after that they began to call the captain, speaking in both English and Arabic.

"'One of the things they said to him in Arabic was, 'When we promise, we achieve our promises, Inshallah.'

"And they told him we have to reroute and either return to Tripoli (northern Lebanese port city that was the departure point) or go to Al-Arish in Egypt.

"Al-Ardady told them we were going to Al-Arish, but when the navy called the Egyptian authorities they realized he never made the call.

"So the captain was forced to actually go to the Egyptian port city and docked 6 miles from the coast, planning to go to Gaza via Egypt on Wednesday morning."

MENASSAT: What was Egypt’s response?

"Actually, the Egyptian authorities did not call us, which left us to believe that the Egyptians knew what was happening."

MENASSAT: And how did you end up in Ashdod?

"At one point we got a phone call, but this time it wasn’t the Israeli army, it was the Ministry of Defense. Regardless, all of the passengers were in agreement to press on and not turn back.

"Not wanting to hear or reply to any more threats, the captain had turned off his radio.

"Shortly after, the first real attack occurred, while we were still in Egyptian waters, and they starting bombing the ship.

"When we were approaching Gaza, Al-Ardady docked 16 miles from Gaza’s port and we could see the coastline of the Strip.
"At about 11pm last night, 30 Israeli solders climbed off their 12 or 13 small boats and onto the ship. They began to beat one of the organizers Hani Suleiman, as well as the rest of the passengers.

"Al Jazeera reporter Salam Khoder was on the air at that time, but the soldiers told her to shut up, beat her and stopped the broadcast.

"The Israelis destroyed the ship’s communication equipment and confiscated the phones of all those on board."

MENASSAT: And yourself?

"I was standing in front of the captain’s cabin when the Israeli soldiers came in and ordered us to kneel down. I looked at them and said, 'over your dead body.'

"So they threw me on the ground.

"When they rounded us up to leave the ship, I refused to go and threw my cigarette at an Israeli solider.

"In response, he pushed me on the ground, sealed my mouth with my keffiyeh, said, 'I know how to shut you up.'

"He put me in solitary confinement and then asked me a series of questions, which I refused to answer.
"When he asked what country I come from, I said ‘from a country you have a lot of memories from.’

"They bound our hands and legs, sealed our mouths and made us sit in a line for hours.

"When we arrived to Ashdod, they took each person aside and the Mossad began their investigations.

"They offered food and water but the crew refused to accept anything.

"A few hours later, they kept our belongings and escorted us across the Israeli border until we reached northern Lebanon."

MENASSAT: Where you afraid?

"The funny thing is that I was not scared for one moment. I was happy. I didn’t feel like they were really going to hurt me.

"If they wanted to harm us, they would have easily shot us.

"The experience was amazing. It felt like after all these years of being oppressed by Israelis, I had them in front of me and was able to say everything I had ever wanted to them."

MENASSAT: Would you do something like this again?

If it were possible I would do it again tomorrow."