Huwaida Arraf, 34, is the Palestinian-American co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and Chair of the Free Gaza Movement, which organised the aid flotilla that came under attack by the Israeli military on Monday.
Arraf was aboard a small boat – the Challenger I – with 16 other American, British, Australian and Irish passengers which was boarded by Israeli commandos. This is her eyewitness account of what happened, as told to Saeed Taji Farouky.
“I was at sea for about five days total before the attack by the Israelis.
At approximately midnight from Sunday to Monday, the Israelis started radioing all the vessels and asking questions.
They started telling us the area that we were navigating into was a blockaded area. They demanded that we turn around, and they told us if we did not turn around, they would be willing to use all necessary force in order to enforce the blockade.
We responded we were unarmed civilians, we were carrying only humanitarian aid and we didn’t constitute any kind of threat to Israel, therefore they were not justified in using any kind of force against us.
Some time between 4:00 and 4:30 (on Monday), we saw that their naval vessels were starting to approach our vessels so we knew there was going to be some kind of takeover. On my boat, we all put our life jackets on and went outside the boat because we were fully intent on trying to defend our boat using our bodies, by preventing the soldiers from getting on, if possible.
Our ship took off and tried to outrun the Israeli navy who had started coming after us. We were only able to keep outrunning them for about ten minutes before they were able to take over our boat.
They did not open fire on us but they were pretty rough. One girl’s face was bloodied. They grabbed me, wrestled me to the ground, and at one point smashed my head against the deck of the boat and one soldier had his boot on my head.
They were trying to cuff my hands behind my back and at one point they dragged me to the front of the boat and put a bag over my head. We weren’t shot at but we were being roughed up, and in 15 minutes maximum they took over the boat. They had guns. I know they’re trying to say they didn’t, but they had M16s.
I think three or four hours later, we made it to the port of Ashdod.
I was the last one pulled off the boat and I didn’t see any of my friends after that. I also hold Israeli citizenship so I can’t be deported like the others. [The Israelis’] choice was either to prosecute me or release me and they decided not to prosecute me, presumably because they didn’t want to draw more attention to their actions.
They used violence to push me into a police van, literally pulling my hair, punching me, elbowing me in the face in order to subdue me, and then they drove outside the port and at some point stopped the van and pushed me out of it.
When they opened the car to push me out I fell onto the ground.”
Huwaida woke up in hospital where she was kept for several hours and given medical checks.
“At most I’m bruised, but compared to what I later learned happened to our friends on the other boat it’s nothing to complain about. I’m pretty happy and lucky to be alive and not seriously injured.
I am devastated about the loss of lives…But at the same time, I am heartened to see that there has been an international response and an outcry in many circles. That is very promising and we hope to build upon that. So despite the violent attack on our last flotilla, we’re already planning the next steps.”
Another aid ship, the MV Rachel Corrie is currently docked somewhere in the Mediterranean. The Free Gaza movement still intends for it to reach Gaza, but is investigating ways to ensure its safety before it is allowed to set sail.