On May 31, former U.S. Marine Kenneth O'Keefe was aboard the Mavi Marmara in the Free Gaza flotilla. He witnessed the passengers' preparations for a clash and the confused takeover by Israel troops that resulted in nine dead.
BELFAST - "I don't remember exactly how long we were at sea. Maybe three-four days. There were all kinds of delays, but the atmosphere was good and our spirits were high. I was certain we would succeed in entering Gaza. I brought my expensive possessions - a computer, cameras. People came to me two-three hours before [the takeover of the ship] and told me, 'There will be an attack.' I replied, 'No, that can't be.' I really didn't believe it. In the 2008 flotilla I was the captain of one of the ships and there, too, Israel said they would stop us by force, but in the end let us through. I was convinced that it would be the same this time."
Belfast, Northern Ireland. Kenneth O'Keefe is sitting at the bar of the Europa Hotel in the center of town. Guests are seating themselves all around on comfortable couches for afternoon tea. Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong play softly in the background while O'Keefe describes his one-on-one combat with an Israeli commando unit.
Kenneth O'Keefe has no hesitations about saying that he failed completely to foresee the Israeli naval operation against the Gaza flotilla, even though he had a convenient observation point aboard the Mavi Marmara.
On the night of May 31, the former U.S. marine who became a devoted activist for Gaza found himself at the center of one of the major fiascos of the Israel Defense Forces in recent years. The confused takeover by naval commandos of the flagship in the flotilla that aimed to breach the blockade of the Gaza Strip ended in a pitched battle, the killing of nine of the passengers, the temporary capture of three soldiers, 10 soldiers and dozens of passengers wounded, a revision of Israel's blockade policy and a rash of investigative commissions, Israeli and international alike.
O'Keefe, who lives in Ireland with his wife and son, devotes most of his time to Aloha Palestine CIC, created to promote trade with Gaza. According to him, he boarded the Turkish ship in order to reach Gaza and advance his organization's goals. After seizing the ship, the IDF claimed that O'Keefe wanted to get to the Gaza Strip in order to set up and train a Hamas commando unit, a charge O'Keefe denies vehemently (see box). O'Keefe maintains his political activity is out in the open and he offered to be interrogated while in Israel. Our conversation is his first meeting with an Israeli journalist.
"We knew there was at least a theoretical possibility that the Israelis would try to stop us, and Fehmi Bulent, the president of IHH [the Turkish NGO that organized the flotilla], told us from the outset that this time we were not simply going to sit and wait for the soldiers," O'Keefe continues. "He said this publicly even before the flotilla set out. When we were at sea, the IHH asked some of us, the passengers, if we would agree to take part in the defense. I was asked whether I wanted to film or help out. Team leaders were assigned to every area of the ship. Our area was the stern. I was one of a group of six and there was a Turk who was in charge of us. Because of my background and military experience, I was appointed his deputy.
"On the night before the attack, a meeting was held of all those who had volunteered to take part in the ship's defense. We were told that our goal was to prevent the soldiers from boarding the vessel, and that if they did board, maybe to try to disarm them. We were told explicitly not to use knives; even before we set sail we were told not to bring knives. I had a small knife that I used to peel fruits, but when I heard that no knives would be allowed on board I left the knife in Antalya.
"We were told in the briefing, 'If they throw a rope with a hook onto the deck, throw it back.' Things like that. They said explicitly not to kill. I don't remember anything being said about the possibility that we would seize a few of the soldiers.
"That night we were told to rest now, because the closer we would get to Gaza, the more likely it was that something would come up. We were surprised to be attacked in international waters. We weren't afraid. It was only just before the assault, when we saw the ships, the helicopters and the drones, that people really began to be afraid.
"We were resting in the sector that had been assigned to us when the boats carrying the commandos arrived. There must have been 10 or 12 boats behind the Mavi Marmara. We could see them getting closer, and when they drew close they threw stun, gas and smoke grenades at the ship. Most people don't know the difference between a stun grenade and a real grenade. It was about 4 A.M. It didn't feel like an innocent boarding of the ship, it felt like an assault.
"After they threw the stun grenades and approached the ship, people threw chairs at them and whatever came to hand. I tried to tell one of the Turks not to throw anything - I must still have been under the notion that they wouldn't try to board - but within a few minutes I already saw the first dead body. It was the Turkish photographer. He was killed even before the first soldier landed on the deck. That man was not even on the upper deck. He was not in any contact with the soldiers. He took a bullet in the forehead and then he was carried to the stern, where I was. When I saw him he was already dead." (For the IDF response, see box.)
"Less than five minutes after the [soldiers in] the boats failed to board the ship, the helicopters appeared. Now there was no longer any doubt about what was happening, but people around me were still in shock, not believing that it was really happening. Now there was also fear. I have been in difficult and dangerous situations in my life and I learned that at moments of tension the way to overcome fear is to control your breathing and focus on the things that have to be done.
"I went from the stern to the middle deck, below the upper deck, on which the soldiers landed. Just as I got there, one of the commandos fell from the upper deck, just a meter and a half from me, in front of my eyes. I think it was the soldier whose photograph was later published looking straight into the camera. The first thing I saw was the 9 mm pistol he was carrying, and I immediately tried to take it. The soldier was conscious but pretty much in shock, and it was easy to deal with him. I took his firearm but didn't know what to do with it. The whole time I heard shots from the upper deck, both the sound of paintball guns and firearms, simultaneously. It wasn't automatic fire, but there were a lot of single shots. There were many shouts all around.
"In the meantime, more people arrived and took the soldier inside. I went on from there to the middle deck holding the pistol in my hand, close to my chest and pointed upward. People passed me saying, 'They are killing people, they are using live ammunition.' I saw more wounded being rushed inside, and another body.
"One of the Turks asked me what I was doing with the pistol and I told him I didn't know. I tried to find one of the IHH leaders to ask him what I should do with the pistol. I didn't find the person who was in charge of our sector in the stern, so I went to the other side of the ship and then went back again, but none of the leaders was [sic] there. I went up to the command bridge and asked the captain if he could take the pistol from me. He said, 'No, I don't want firearms here.' In the end I decided to separate the weapon from the bullets. I gave the bullets to someone and hid the pistol. The logic was that if I succeeded in getting out of there the pistol would serve as evidence of the attack on the ship. I thought the pistol was evidence, so it shouldn't be thrown into the sea.
"After hiding the weapon I went back to the middle deck from the other side, when another commando was thrown down. This soldier had an assault rifle and was fully conscious. It was a lot harder to cope with him than with the first soldier. I and another Turk tried to take his firearm, but the strap was tied behind his back and he lay on his back and fought us. I saw that he was trying to reach the trigger, so we both made sure not to be opposite the barrel. He held the weapon so tightly that I had to pry his fingers loose from it. In the end we managed to get the rifle away from him and the Turk who was with me took it. Another two people arrived from midship and took this soldier inside, too.
"After a few minutes I went into the room where our wounded were. The three soldiers were there, too. They were without their masks, helmets and communications equipment and they were frightened. Very frightened. That was clear. They didn't speak. They looked like scared kids whose dad is about to beat them. I think they thought that we would do to them what they had done to us. They thought they were going to die, or at least they feared for their lives, you could see that on them.
"On this deck there were people who had lost their dear ones at the hands of the Israeli army and there were people who had lost their friends just now, in front of their eyes. By this stage I had already seen two bodies and a few more wounded. In these circumstances, there is no doubt that there were very angry people who wanted revenge of some sort, but they were an absolute minority. We all felt anger, but from the point of view of the absolute majority and from the point of view of the leaders there was no question of revenge, or even anything like it. The moment the soldiers were below they received medical treatment and no one hurt them anymore. Before they were taken there they took a few blows, there is no doubt of that. I think most of the blows were quite superficial, even though some of them may have been more than just blows. As far as I know, no soldier absorbed an injury he will not recover from or that will remain with him all his life, and the moment they got below they were given medical care.
"After about 15 minutes the order came to release the soldiers. I don't remember if it came over the speaker system or was given orally, but an order like that came through and six or seven of our people took the three soldiers and went out with them toward the bow of the ship. One of the soldiers was in worse condition than the two others. He had taken more blows and was in shock. The two who were in better shape jumped into the water and the third remained at the bow, from where the other soldiers rescued him.
"The IDF account according to which the soldiers escaped under cover of the melee and the shooting is simply untrue. I was inside the ship with the soldiers. There were at least a hundred people around the soldiers when the order came to release them. There was a small group of people, six or seven, who took the three soldiers from the room to the bow. There were shots or stun grenades there, and because they were about to be released anyway, our people just turned around and went back inside. Otherwise, from their point of view, what was the point of taking the soldiers outside? After all, there were helicopters and snipers there. If we had wanted to hold on to them, the right thing would have been to leave them inside.
"After the soldiers were released I saw another two-three bodies and I heard more explosions and shots, but less consecutively. A little more time passed and then the ship's captain announced over the speaker system, 'They have taken control of the command bridge, stop resisting.' And that was the end."
No invitation to tea
O'Keefe's body is covered with political tattoos such as "Citizen of the world" and "Truth, justice, peace." He is against all forms of nationalism ("It's ironic that because of opposition to the occupation I find myself supporting a Palestinian national struggle. I long for the day where all people see each other part of one human family, regardless of lines drawn on a map." ). He believes that the United States government was involved in the 9/11 attacks and views Zionism as an offshoot of Western imperialism. Personally, he does not call for an armed struggle and thinks that "the most powerful weapon the Palestinians have is the truth; violent resistance is nothing in comparison."
In a BBC interview he referred to some of Hamas' actions as "violation of human rights" but in the conversations with me he was adamant not to condemn Hamas: "I am against such attacks in the same measure that I am against state terror. Hamas has not perpetrated suicide attacks for years now, and when they won the 2006 elections everyone who prevented them from taking part in the political process is as much to blame as they are for the violence that followed. You hate them because they are violent, but what do you do when they take part in the elections? You kick them out and push them into a corner."
O'Keefe has devoted himself to the Palestinian cause since 2004. He has visited Israel and the West Bank twice. The first time he was caught by the IDF trying to enter the Gaza Strip without a permit, was incarcerated for 20 days and then deported. In the flotilla of 2008, he was the captain of one of the two ships that eventually reached Gaza. He spent a few weeks in Gaza before managing to leave via the Rafah crossing. The suffering of the population in Gaza, he says, which he witnessed firsthand, together with the sense of honor and pride that the Gazans showed, reinforced his determination to continue the struggle for Gaza.
Were you present when Bulent said the flotilla participants would struggle to defend the ship?
"I knew before we set out that the Turks are not like the other Westerners, that there would be no passive resistance in this case. The Turks are a tough people. They are people you don't mess with too much. In the United States or Britain people are asleep, there is no danger of rebellion. The Turks are different. I knew that if the Israelis boarded that ship, it would be a disaster. Not only from the aspect of the people who would be killed, but that it would also be a disaster for the Israelis."
Did you see them sawing the beams in preparation for the attack?
"I knew we would defend the ship. That was stated publicly a great many times. You have to be an idiot to board that ship and think it will be a ship of passive resistance."
So the same things would have happened even if the confrontation had taken place in the territorial waters of Gaza?
"That is my feeling, yes. Even though the fact that it was done in international waters - every Israeli will agree that that was a terrible mistake. If you attack, do it in the region of dispute. Apparently the army wanted to do it at night, because a trained force equipped with night-vision instruments possesses a tremendous tactical advantage. You know, the Israelis didn't send police or riot units to handle the demonstrations. They sent commando troops who are trained to kill. Ehud Barak said he would stop the flotilla at any price - and that is what they set out to do.
"If they thought we were a group of passive peace activists and that there would be no resistance to boarding the ship, what was the logic in coming in the middle of the night and using grenades? It's an insult to the intelligence to say that. Is Israeli intelligence so useless that they didn't even bother watching international newscasts, in which the leader of IHH said explicitly that we would defend the ships bodily? Did they know so little about the mood on the Turkish street that they thought boarding the ships would be an invitation to tea? Or did they know all that and because of it came at night, with stun, gas and smoke grenades and sought to gain a tactical advantage, in the clear knowledge that there would be a confrontation?
"There were helicopters there with snipers. The first to be killed was the photographer. That's the proof of the way the army behaved there, that and the 250 bullet holes in the ship itself, including places where there was no fighting."
Israel claims there was a planned ambush for the soldiers by a few dozen passengers.
"How exactly did they plan to attack? That's bullshit. When someone comes aboard with a rifle and shoots you, you don't start to think, 'Is it moral to raise an iron bar and protect myself?' You do what you have to do. The theory about 40 or 80 extremists is simply nonsense. Where is the proof? Israel says the passengers shot at the soldiers. Where are the gunshot wounds? Where are the weapons, the shells?"
Didn't the resistance to the soldiers make their reaction legitimate?
"I am not even going to pretend to persuade the Israeli public to adopt my point of view. It's clear that the Israelis believe that the army had every right to board the ship, international waters or not. It's clear that they believe we were terrorists or connected to terror. It's clear that the Israelis believe that we had no right to resist, because you are right and we are wrong and that's that.
"But if you look at it from a different perspective, there are a million and a half people in Gaza of whom the overwhelming majority are not Hamas, there are 800,000 children who are suffering from trauma and diseases. We wanted to help them. And in my opinion, that is also an Israeli interest, because the present approach to the Palestinians will not bring you security. We defended not only ourselves but also the mission, to aid innocent people. How is it possible to believe that it's justified to punish 800,000 children? If you see things like I do and like the people aboard the ship, it's as though they are your children. What would you do to save your child?"
But how could Israel be sure there were no weapons on the ship?
"Do you think there was any chance that the Turks would have transported weapons on their ship to Gaza? Israel could easily have approached the Turkish authorities and received guarantees that there would be no weapons and no terrorists on the ships. All that could have been done through diplomatic channels, if they were really interested in doing it.
"Personally, I have no desire or interest to bring weapons into Gaza, and I don't think anyone else wanted that. It's beyond stupidity. And what exactly could you bring that would be able to cope with the IDF? I don't believe armed resistance against Israel is anything but a losing battle. One flotilla is better than 10,000 rockets."
The second time I was to meet O'Keefe, the road adjacent to the center of Belfast was blocked by the police because of a suspicious object. The convoy of armored vehicles and vans of the security forces illustrates the fragility of the Good Friday Agreement that ended what everyone had claimed was an intractable conflict. In addition, one could not avoid seeing the support of the Catholic community for the Palestinian cause. Not far from Sinn Fein headquarters, two Britons were collecting donations for a new convoy to Gaza. It is those civil society activists who were shocked by operation Cast Lead in ways Israelis don't always appreciate. During our interview, O'Keefe asked me at least twice whether I thought that the estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the Israeli public supported Cast Lead was realistic. "It's very hard to accept that," he says. "In the eyes of the world, support on that scale for bombing civilians with phosphorus is gross."
Nothing in O'Keefe's past indicated the course he would follow as an adult. He is from an affluent family and grew up in the suburbs of San Diego. He liked soccer and football, but gave them both up in favor of surfing. Politically, he leaned toward the Republicans and admired President Reagan.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 19. He was, he says, a good soldier, popular with his buddies, until during a six-month mission aboard a ship in the Mediterranean he complained about unbecoming behavior on the part of a veteran sergeant. His life then became hell; he still becomes overwrought when he tells the story. In the First Gulf War, in 1991, he took part in the ground invasion of Iraq. There was "no serious resistance," he says. He paid no particular attention to the residents of the country he invaded.
"I was like all Americans, spoon-fed what I needed to know. I was so dumb that I didn't grasp that Saddam Hussein had been our boy for years, because he had fought against Iran; that he received weapons from us with which he killed Kurds; and that suddenly he had become a new Hitler who had invaded a defenseless sovereign country. At the time I was also an avowed supporter of Israel. I would have told you then that the Palestinians are a gang of terrorists who want to throw the Jews into the sea.
"That's why I don't hate the Israelis: I see myself in them. I also bought into that stuff. I would be happy to meet with the Israeli commandos who boarded the ship. I would like to sit down with them and talk to them respectfully. I would tell them, 'Considering the circumstances and what you were told, you are doing what you think is right. And you are fighters - I respect that. But I'm sorry, if you move away from the conditioning and the propaganda, if you are honest and fair and know history, you understand what these people are resisting.' Ehud Barak said himself that if he were a Palestinian, he would join the resistance."
After his discharge, O'Keefe entered college and underwent a conceptual revolution. He went to Hawaii and became a diving instructor, took part in activity to preserve marine life and started to take an interest in the indigenous population and in the "dispossession and land theft" that they were subjected to, as he puts it. In 2001 he renounced his American citizenship. Two months after the September 11, 2001 attacks he left the United States and requested political asylum in Holland.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, O'Keefe initiated Operation Human Shields in which hundreds of citizens of Western countries took part, in an effort to protect the Iraqi people bodily against the American bombs. "It was an extraordinarily powerful idea that simply took off, because people understood that the invasion was a disaster and was based on lies," he recalls. "Before going there I gave media interviews and made it clear that I did not support Saddam Hussein, who was a tyrant, a murderer and a dictator. That's why I wasn't invited to Saddam's palaces, as others were, but that didn't bother me.
"In the end," he continues, "the mission failed. People told the media stupid things that made it look as though we were working for Saddam Hussein. Saddam prevented us from visiting hospitals and from deploying where we wanted to. Ten days before the invasion I was deported from Iraq."
Do you understand that in the eyes of most people, if you go to Baghdad you are Saddam's ally and that if you go to Gaza you are the ally of Hamas? How could it be otherwise?
"Easily. At least hundreds of thousands of people died because of the invasion of Iraq. They could have been alive today. They are the proof that I went for the right reasons. How could I try to help those people without being accused of supporting Saddam? I guess there is no way. It's the same with Gaza. Probably the most beautiful moment of my life took place on August 23, 2008, when we arrived in Gaza with the first flotilla. There was a special atmosphere in the port. There was excitement like we had just won the World Cup. Tens of thousands of people were there. No one believed we would get through, but we did. We knew it wouldn't break the blockade, but it showed that it was possible to reach Gaza via the sea. For one day there was total euphoria. They looked at us like we were heroes, when actually we respected them more for what they had gone through. At that moment there was no other place in the world that I wanted to be."
After his return from Gaza, O'Keefe founded Aloha Palestine together with Lauren Booth, the half-sister of Cherie Blair, Tony Blair's wife. The organization's goal is to maintain civil trade with the Gaza Strip. Among those who have endorsed the organization are Noam Chomsky and the Dalai Lama.
"In Gaza I understood that people cannot live only from aid. They have to be capable of buying food themselves, of working. I called the initiative Aloha Palestine because the Palestinians very much reminded me of the people of Hawaii: despite everything, they have remained courteous and welcoming. Aloha is actually a way of life. The Palestinians may not have much, but what they have they will share with you. As an American, you can't go to Baghdad, but you can walk around without any problem in Gaza or the West Bank. People will look after you."
In the sun without water
O'Keefe did not make it back to the Gaza Strip. The battle for the Marmara ended around 5 A.M. and the ship made for the port of Ashdod. "It took another two hours before it was decided that we would go one by one to the stern with our hands raised," O'Keefe says. "A few dozen soldiers were waiting for us, tied our hands and searched us. I was kicked a few times, but it was very superficial, nothing serious. More attention was paid to people with a distinctly Muslim appearance. From there we were taken to a few points on the upper deck and told to kneel and wait.
"We were kept in that position until the Marmara reached Ashdod, at about 7 P.M. There was no shade on the deck and we had no food or water. An elderly man urinated on himself after all his requests to be taken to the toilet were ignored. At one point I tried to raise myself to stretch my muscles and a soldier shouted at me to sit down. When I refused he kicked me. A few others were also roughed up. It was unnecessary and unprofessional, but in comparison to the big picture it wasn't serious.
"From Ashdod we were taken to a facility in the Negev [Ela jail in the Be'er Sheva prison], where we stayed two days. The treatment we received also changed radically. True, we were not allowed to contact anyone and had no access to a lawyer, but we had food and water and were allowed to smoke.
"Gradually the number of people in the jail decreased until only 50 of us were left, and in the end we too were taken to be deported. We arrived at the airport and there was someone in charge wearing civilian clothes. Under his command were policemen in special uniforms, black or very dark blue. [There were policemen, Border Police and members of the police special patrol unit at the airport.] It was obvious that they despised us. We sat in the airport and a few meters in front of me was an American named Paul Larudee. Paul had a black eye and deep contusions on his right arm and he was in handcuffs. Apparently he had been told that he had to go somewhere and he would not do it and lay down on the floor. He was picked up by the hand and started to scream with the pain of his injuries. We all got up and started to shout at them to let him go. The police came over and shouted at us and hit us. One policeman hit me on the head with a truncheon and blood started to run down my face. I did not resist but told them everything I thought, that they were shits and cowards, so one of them started to choke me and the others kicked me in the ribs.
"There were four or five of them on me. I couldn't breathe. Just as I started to black out, they got off. That was the only moment I thought I might not survive this story. Others were also beaten in the airport and one of the Turks had his arm broken.
"I was on the floor. They handcuffed me and started to drag me. At that point I started to resist, because I didn't understand where they were taking me, so they threw me on the floor again and one of them kicked me in the head while I was lying on the floor and my head was bleeding.
"When the guy in charge brought the policemen under control again I no longer wanted anything from them. Someone wanted to wipe the blood off my face and I told him to back off. Probably they didn't want me to fly with fresh wounds and all the blood on me, so they took me to some detention facility in the airport, where I ended up staying two more days while the others had already flown back.
"I was held in a cell alone in the airport. I was not allowed to see a lawyer or to call anyone. The Irish consul general came to see me and begged me to agree to leave. I told him I wanted to see a judge. On the day before I left someone came in and said, 'A judge will see you now.' I entered a room and there was a judge there and he asked me questions and I answered him. Half an hour later he called me in and said, 'You are being deported from Israel.'
"The night before I left I was attacked in my cell by two guards or policemen. I don't know who they were. I was sleeping, they came in, beat me and left. So I had blood on my face when I was released. I would not agree to wash my face, even though the Irish consul general asked me to. I told him, 'This is the way I was treated and I will keep the blood on my face. That's how I will stay, or that's how I will leave.'"