Canadian activist Kevin Neish smuggled photos off the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the Free Gaza flotilla that was raided violently by Israeli troops last week, killing nine peace activists.
Neish’s photos were published Monday in the Middle East, in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet and in this blog along with images taken by others, to name but two. Two are reproduced here for rabble, and he is awaiting the return of the remainder.
The retired marine engineer from Victoria says he hid a photo card from his camera in his mouth, pockets and on his body while he was being detained by Israeli soldiers. He later handed the photo card to a Turkish aid group.
Here is the transcript of an interview with Neish by rabble.ca’s podcast network executive producer, Meagan Perry.
Canadian peace activist Kevin Neish has been released by Israel and is now in Turkey. He is expected to be in Canada within the week. Rabble radio reached him to record his first interview about his experience as part of the free Gaza flotilla. Here’s part of that interview:
Hello Kevin, we’re so glad you’re okay.
Kevin Neish: Hello there…I’m, well I didn’t realize I was dead but …I’m glad I’m not dead. I mean, I was kind of surprised…needless to say, everybody thought I was dead.
MP: There are varying reports about what had happened…
KN: It seems [the last time] anybody who wasn’t in jail or you could get a hold of saw me was at the front of the ship along the hand railing talking to a colleague in the moonlight… beautiful evening.
And that was the spot that I guess several people were murdered earlier on in the fighting and they thought I was one of them and that I’d been pitched over the side by the Israelis or something. So yeah, the Israelis knew I was alive but weren’t telling anybody and I asked for my rights to the embassy, I bet you, 20 times. It got to be comical at the end because they’d smile and say “yes, yes, yes, they’re on their way” and “blah blah blah” and simply have a good laugh about it, I guess, and ignore me.
So the embassy actually found me because the prisoners were all in Be’er Sheva [Prison] and they literally just went from cell to cell calling out my name asking if anybody had seen me and nobody had seen me. I think they came to almost the last place I think… and they called me out and I stepped out and their jaws dropped.
The funny joke of all this is they made the comment that “you realize that you’re closer to Gaza now than when you were captured on the ship?” because the ship was 100 miles offshore and Be’er Sheva’s just a stone’s throw from the Gaza border. And I commented that maybe I should make a run for it and they said “no, no, no! Don’t even bother trying… Just stay here and we’ll see about getting you out!”
MP: Nobody knew what had happened to you… what did happen to you?
KN: What happened from that spot on the front deck. I think that was about midnight. I think the attack happened around 4 in the morning, I didn’t check my watch. What happened was I took a little wander around after chatting with the friend there… I had seen the Israeli ships in the distance.
I’ve got colour blindness partially and I’ve got really good night vision because of that so I actually pointed out to the Turkish aid workers: “See those identical lights way off in the horizon,” and they squint and say “Probably the Israelis,” and everybody got their life jackets on except me and they were quite concerned that I didn’t have my life jacket on yet because I didn’t take it seriously. You know, the Israelis they wouldn’t attack us, a ship full of civilians. It just wasn’t going to happen…I told them so and they thought I was nuts and they were right, I was nuts.
So I walked around. They had wooden stakes and wooden handles of things, and they had pipes and they had links of chain — small chain, you could lock up a bike with kind of thing. Across along the front railing, the teak railing on the front of the ship, was lined with old rusty pipe fittings and nuts and bolts, the size of a walnut… things like that. This is madness, I said what are you going to do with nuts and bolts you’re throwing at the most sophisticated army in the world.
After that, I thought nothing was going to happen, I thought well I’m going to go down and put my feet up and have a few hours sleep and start off fresh when daylight comes. But I woke up because of all the noise, not the attack but people doing things. I heard grinders going which was bothering me and it turned out they were grinding the chains that they hang up around the lifeboat stations. They were grinding these chains off the posts as weapons within sight of the Israelis coming… and that’s all they had.
MP: As a peace activist, what were your feelings about everyone preparing to fight back?
KN: To defend the ship? They had every right to do it. Well… peace activist, I’m not a pacifist, I’ll defend myself if someone attacks me. What woke me up was flash grenades about 15 feet from where I was sitting, from the back of the ship.
There was huge explosions and flashes, and then it was just a big cloud of tear gas, and I could see people running through the tear gas with gas masks on because they had brought a large collection of gas masks, brand new ones. And again, I thought it was silly, at one point. I saw them putting these things on. They were ahead of the curve on that one.
So that happened, and I mistakenly thought I was safer on the big ship: a) because I thought the big ship would get through to Gaza because it was such a big ship. I thought “what could they do to such a big ship like that?” and I thought for sure the small ships would get picked off and they were picked off in seconds. They were shut down immediately, no resistance. Even the freighters were shut down, they had very small crews. At the end they made a combined effort on the main ship and that’s when all hell broke loose.
MP: What did you see then?
KN: I saw dead bodies. I saw captured Israeli soldiers. I saw men fighting machine guns with three-foot length of chain. It was phenomenal.
When the flash grenades went off at the back I took note of what was happening there but I didn’t approach it I backed off and just took note of what they were doing. They were hauling fire hoses out and what not.
After the fact, I found out that the fire hoses actually worked. The Israelis backed off. They had zodiacs and speedboats with grapples trying to climb up the side of the ship. The fire hoses and, I guess, the nuts and bolts actually drove the Israelis off.
At the same time, they had commandos coming down from helicopters over top. So I moved to the aft stairwell, and took photographs. Went up and down the stairs following people and being of whatever assistance, witnessing and helping with things if I could.
I was actually when they hauled the captured Israeli soldiers in. I can’t imagine how these young fellas, with all the weapons you could possibly want, how these commandos got captured by humanitarian aid workers.
And to make the point, they had a tough time holding [one soldier] down. They were disarming him, pulling all his belts off, his weapons, taking his helmet off. And a big fellow, enraged, reached over this circle of men trying to pin this fellow, and tried to take a swipe at the Israeli. I guess he was trying to get at him. And there was a great uproar. Shouts and voices and they wrestled him out of the way, to stop him hitting the Israeli. And I saw that. I’m sure people would call me a liar, but I saw that.
What I saw was nobody laid a hand on these two soldiers. I heard there were more captured.
When it started I took photographs of this landing and they had a tarp for one person, an I.V. pole and a nurse and a doctor and basic instruments for medical emergency care there.
And in the end that whole area was full of bodies. And it was a sort of a writhing mass, because there was people pounding on people’s chests trying to bring people back.
I saw for sure two people dead — there were two bullet holes in the side of the head, very neat; and I think one other guy died in front of me, he was sucking wind and his eyes were going, going, going. I took a picture and brought put the camera down and he just sucked his last breath, I guess. And there was blood, blood all down the stairs, blood everywhere. I got blood on my pants and boots. It was something else.
Anyway, the Israelis shot everyone on the deck either from helicopters or from the commandos coming up the stairs on the outside. They didn’t get inside, or, at least on my part of the ship. I went up top and was witnessing, I got pictures of it, it was a wooden door hatchway with a porthole in it. And, it would swing open and there would be machine gun fire coming in and I’m pretty sure I saw the barrel coming in the door and the aid workers, fighters, whatever you want to call them — they were aid workers to start with — I watched these guys with lengths of pipe and two chains flailing away at this open doorway at whoever was on the other side shooting in the door.
And then somebody reached out and pulled the door shut and closed it again because the porthole was blown out and he was able to reach around. At that point I ran up onto the landing and, I haven’t seen it yet, but I got a shot of the porthole, of the door and the broken glass and these guys huddled on either side with their wooden staffs and pipes and chains. I never saw a gun in anybody’s hand in the area I was in and the Israelis were sticking this barrel in this opening.
I haven’t seen any reports, I’ve seen nothing but I’ve heard the Israelis are saying that they attacked because they were shot at from the ship and that’s a bald-faced lie. Unless I missed something pretty dramatic somewhere, I heard no weapons fired, nobody else heard weapons fired.
What I heard was the flash grenades and the tear gas of the start of the Israelis attacking. And then when they were repulsed, the helicopters started shooting onto the deck and that’s when I started to hear gun fire from up above.
MP: What were you hearing from the other activists on the ship, what were they saying?
KN: I didn’t see them. I didn’t bother to try to go anywhere but to try and stay with the Arab workers in my area.
MP: What was it like in detention when you got there?
KN: Eventually, an announcement came over the air from the captain because the Israelis got to the bridge because they’d shot the people that were defending the bridge, and the captain surrendered the ship and he got onto the PA system immediately, I guess, because there was still fighting at the doorways, and then the announcement came over the air in Arabic but I knew what it was because there was no other announcement.
I knew what it meant… it was a very calm voice. Then a female voice came on announcing in English that everybody stop fighting, stop resisting, the bridge is seized, the Israelis have command of the ship, there’s no sense risking your lives anymore, go to the lounges and drop your weapons, you know, weapons drop your pipes and chains and wooden staffs.
I just retreated with all the other Arab and Turkish folks. I sat where I was before, very close the back of the ship and there were Israelis peeking in the windows and flashing their laser-sighted guns all over the place. It was quite surreal.
But they wouldn’t step in and the woman’s voice kept on coming over saying “Israeli soldiers please, please stop shooting, we’re not resisting anymore, we’ve released your captured soldiers. They’re unharmed and they’re released. Stop attacking us. Stop attacking us.”
Eventually the Israelis, the soldiers, [Haneen Zoubi] she’s an Arab Israeli Knesset member, she’s in big shit, she’s in jail right now, it’s simple they took away her immunity so they can do whatever they want to her now.
She acted as a liaison, brave woman, she walked right out with her hands up because anyone who was standing, was a target, basically… She had her hands up and she came forward and explained that there were numerous injured. Then they packed these people off in makeshift stretchers and whatnot out to the Israelis. And the Israelis hauled them out to the doorway
When that all happened they took us and hogtied us with plastic tie wraps behind our backs and marshalled us all up onto the open deck. There were 280 of us all tied up.
MP: Where did they take you? What did they do with you?
KN: They left us there for quite a while and you couldn’t move. Talk about stress positions…you hogtie someone behind their back and force them to sit on their knees or on their ass, however they’re first put down and not move, you didn’t move. Eventually you’d start to hurt and try to wriggle around and then you’d get yelled and screamed at.
There were two young, big strapping guys and I guess they had had enough of being humiliated, and being abused. They rose up and immediately you could see, the sun was coming up, the soldiers charging through the people on the grounds with their guns up.
And these guys were toast so I got up… it made the Israelis stop because they knew who I was. They had my passport and they gave it back to me and they took 4,000 bucks of my friggin’ money but anyway, we won’t get into that…. So yeah I stood up with these two guys hoping that the Israelis would pause and consider, not shoot and they didn’t… the guns went down but yelling carried on… then next they used batons to beat them down. Then these two guys, I guess they’d made their point, and they kind of gracefully eased down and when they eased down I dropped pretty quickly…
I was there to protect either side.
We were still hogtied there, and I guess there’s a certain point of the day when morning prayers happen for the Muslim faith and everybody’s still crouched down, laying low. All of a sudden the imam he rose up and I thought holy shit and he started the call for prayers, a beautiful voice.
He got about 10 seconds into it and an Israeli officer barged up and got within 15 ft from him and pulled his pistol, aimed it as his head and said ‘shut up’ in English and I knew the guy didn’t speak any English and the guy carried on with the call for prayers, and I thought I can’t let this guy die and so I stood up.
And, I’m not bragging, but I heard 300 people suck wind because the gun swung around and aimed at my head and the Israeli looked at me but I didn’t look at him. I turned away and looked at the Imam and I wasn’t sure if he was finished, I wasn’t keeping track, but one way or another he stopped… hopefully he was finished and he lowered himself to the ground and I lowered myself to the ground.
Immediately after I guess a senior officer came up and came forward spoke to the imam and he had some important followers around him and leaned down to speak to them. At that point they had their cuffs off and the officer allowed them to come forward to wash their hands, and I guess it’s one step of the prayer service, and he allowed them to come forward and join the imam in bowing, and pointing towards Mecca and doing their prayers.
Afterwards, I had my hands behind my back, there were three or four young Muslim women, I think they were journalists. I sat down and she leaned forward and said ‘oh, this fell out of your pocket,’ and she reached around and fussed around in my pocket and I thought well there’s nothing in my pocket because the Israelis took everything. Much later on after my hands were released I reached in and here she had put two $100 bills, U.S. funds, crumpled up in my pocket… and that was, actually that still is, the only money I got.
I got a taste of life in Gaza for the day.
MP: What does this experience do for your commitment to activism?
KN: Doesn’t change a thing. I knew what was coming, well I knew what was possible. I didn’t realize that they would lay into all the westerners… well they didn’t lay into all the westerners, they didn’t. The bulk of the westerners, the women weren’t cuffed, other than this one German next to me. I don’t know why he was kept so long, I couldn’t quite understand it. I have suspicions, but anyways.
The rest of them were all processed and probably paraded, you know “here’s how we treat these wonderful people,” and away they went. I was processed differently because I got on their nerves and had a bit more fun.
We were on the bus going to the airport and they had a bunch of thugs on the bus to keep us in our seats and smoked glass windows so you can’t see out and they can’t see us. You could see people waving, you know, Israeli lawyers for human rights were there trying to see us and tell us things. There were little windows high up you could slide across and hear things. So we’d open those windows the odd time while we were waiting in the prison yard — you could hear people yelling. That is when we found out the Supreme Court was due to make a decision and you could hear people yelling: “Don’t sign anything.”
But uhh…we signed just to get the hell out of there. We’d lost our leverage by the time we got to the airport and like I say if you don’t have leverage… I had leverage early on and I used it. When we got to the airport it was obvious the Israeli’s knew we had no more leverage.
MP: What do you mean by leverage?
KN: Well leverage…white privilege…my passport. The point was, the planes were there, the bulk of the Arabs wanted to get out, and the Turks wanted to get out and up to that point what I was doing was to protect them. They wanted to get out, they were co-operating. Then the point of fighting back on my part for them, there wasn’t any point to it anymore. As such, me doing anything would’ve resulted in the same as the guy in the lobby of the airport, I would have got pummeled. So I didn’t.
Over on the way to the airport, quick story I’ve got to recount. It’s good psychological therapy for me, you’re saving me a lot of money for psychology — a psychoanalyst.
We’re charging along and I can see them through the window, they can’t see us but I can see there are people lined up and waiting, they’re supporters, Israelis and cameras, there was not just supporters but media. I thought wow, look at this. Up to that point the Israelis on the bus were aiming guns at us and yelling at us: “Sit down! Sit down!”
Then we’re wandering along and I can see ahead we were coming to a corner, I could see a whole bunch of cameras, I guess it was a prime spot for media when the bus turns the corner. I though ahh! What an opportunity, they can’t see us because of the smoked glass and this little sliding glass window is sort of in front of me, so I could see it and I reached up and opened it and it was about 8 inches high and I stuck my hand out with my finger extended, which I don’t understand, but it seems that it is a sign of defiance, it’s a we are one kind of thing. So I jumped up, stuck my hand through the window, looked at the guy with the Uzi, this young guy in black and said “pardon my French,” this is word for word “You lay a fucking hand on me and I’ll break your fucking fingers.”
I stared at him while my hand was out the window and two other Turks jumped up and rammed their hands through the same window, and we had three hands out the window as we passed all the cameras. The cameras panned us as we went by and I looked back at these guys and it took about four seconds, and yeah we were by it, you know the point was made and we won.
The guy with the Uzi, the young fella, he didn’t know what the hell to do and he wasn’t going to touch me. I was four times older than him, well not four times, but anyways he was a pretty big guy, but he wasn’t going to touch me he didn’t know what to do. The young guy with the Uzi he sort just screamed his friggin’ head off and waved the gun around and leaning over at me, but the point was moot, we, activists know the four seconds were up, the cameras were behind, I slammed the window shut and I slowly lowered my feet.
We didn’t know about the response worldwide and I still don’t know about it too much, but what I do know is that there were 25,000 people waiting at the airport — 25,000 people. The streets were lined with people.
MP: What was it like to see that?
KN: Ohh! I thought when I was in prison in Brasheva I didn’t know what to think. My embassy is not around, I cannot phone out, I thought people in Victoria thought I was dead. I thought I was buried in the bowels of the earth.
First off three planes were there. Three planes from the Turkish government, and anyways, then we started to hear once we got to the airport. It was fun to see the anger in these guys, you know it is reinforcing to see that. My dad always said when the enemy is mad at you, dad would say, “you’re on the right track.” Well, the enemy was mad at me and mad at everybody in our group. Infuriated.
We passed a bus that stopped for us because they had many police cars, they must have had 30 armed soldiers in vans accompanying us, I guess anybody who saw us go by knew what we were. It must have been well known in Israel who we were, a few of these guys would look at us and run their fingers across their throat, you know, you’re dead kind of thing.
Once we got to the airport we started to hear from other people that all people were getting together from other, anyways, we started to hear about the worldwide reaction. I guess, I’m still not quite clear, but I guess this is a turning point from what I hear.
What I’m hearing is the Israel won’t get away with this shit anymore, from what I’m hearing. Maybe I’m making more of it because I’m in the middle of this thing right here. Like I said 25,000 — the streets were lined in spots. These people had waited I’m told, because the Israeli’s dawdled and twiddled their thumbs and had us waiting in the prison, waiting in the buses for hours. Waiting at the airport, waiting, waiting, waiting. Loading us all, they had two busloads and at one point just to humiliate us, you know, I know it sounds petty, but they loaded us all on to the one bus for no reason.
The next step was just walking across the tarmac on to the plane, but no. They loaded us all on the bus again. So they had us all slithering and doubled up, aisles full and nowhere to fit on this bus, for another, whatever the hell it was. For a length of time, no water… I think they were making fun of us because they were handing out water and sandwiches to their own people who were guarding us. They had a small army guarding us.
On the Turkish plane, on my side, there were 13 vehicles. Army, police, airport security all with flashing lights and I couldn’t see the other side. One way or the other there were soldiers everywhere and to get on the plane you had to walk through a wall of soldiers, because until you got onto that plane you were still in their hands. I guess they wanted to make that point…and people moved fast. Certainly, the Arabs moved fast, they got off the bus and just put their heads down and went right past all these (soldiers). It was their last kick at the can and that is what I said when we pulled up. I said wow this is our last kick at the can and the Arabs didn’t understand… so I explained what I meant, I was joking, just a little joke. These guys put their heads down and ran low to get up the stairs.
But nobody did anything, but the Israelis were making the point: “you’re still in Israel bucko.” People disappeared in the airport, to this moment, the two fellows on the deck who stood up, he was with us on the bus, he was in my section — a wonderful guy. He came to the airport with us, on the plane nobody knew where he was. They had hauled him out at the prison and he was talking about how: “Oh they’re not going to make me talk.” Somehow or another in all the confusion at the airport they got their hands on this guy.
MP: So there are still people missing?
KN: Yeah. The Turkish bureaucrats were on the plane and they immediately went through the planes asking: “Who do you know that is missing?” They were making a list and going from plane to plane to see if they could find that person on the next plane, or the next plane. They had this list on a piece of paper, they got more names from our people. Not me, but from the other folks on the plane. I don’t know what they were doing, but I guess they were going to go back to the Israeli authorities and say: “Where are the rest of our people?”
MP: Have you ever experienced anything close to this before, because you’ve done this kind of work before?
KN: No, no. Well, I was in Bethlehem in 2002 when the Israelis… I was there with the International Solidarity Movement, which is where I was going in Gaza. I was going to stay in Gaza as a human shield with the ISM. Rachel Corrie, she died in 2003, exactly a year after I was in Bethlehem, she was with the ISM.
Anyways, in Bethlehem it was ugly. It wasn’t as brutal, but they respected me a lot more there because they had full control.
In the case of what happened this time [on the Marmara] they didn’t have control, they weren’t calling the shots. In Bethlehem they called the shots and they were in complete control, there was no need to rough a westerner up. They were saying: “Oh aren’t we good. Look what we do for these humanitarian workers,” blah, blah, blah.
In this case they didn’t call the shots they were just outraged that these Arabs, these Egyptians, these Yemenis, these Turks had dared to fight back with nuts, bolts, fire hoses, sticks, pipes, chains and held the mighty Israeli Army at bay for half an hour on that ship and forced them to kill nine Turks. As I understand 16 (people) were killed on the deck and many more might be dead yet, because they guys that were going by me were riddled.
Like I said, I was crying at one point (pause…) and I told the (inaudible)…good people died and I know it was worth it. They’re happy. It was worth it, we won, we won, we won. Look what we got, the whole world, the whole world, he said. Look what we got, the whole world — change is coming, this is the first step. The world sees what’s really happening. I knew this shit happened, I’m well educated on what happens in Palestine, but to have it happen to me…(laughs).
Nothing has changed, I’ll go again. No question about that, I’m lined up to go back to Colombia in short order. I have a friend in prison there who is being abused, a woman trade union leader, I’ll be visiting her in prison to try and help her.
No, no, no, nothing has changed.
Meagan Perry is rabble.ca’s executive producer for rabble radio podcasts.