In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, May 31, showing a terrifying disregard for human life, Israeli naval forces surrounded and boarded ships sailing to bring humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip. On the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli commandos opened fire on civilian passengers, killing at least 9 passengers and wounding dozens more. Others are still missing. The final death toll is yet to be determined. Cultures of Resistance (Culturesofresistanc.org) director Iara Lee was aboard the besieged ship and has since returned home safely. Despite the Israeli government’s thorough efforts to confiscate all footage taken during the attack, Iara Lee and Director of Photography Srdjan Stojiljkovic were able to retain some of the video they captured. Below is the unedited footage from the moments leading up to and during the Israeli commandos’ assault on the Mavi Marmara.
Iara Lee recently gave this exclusive phone interview to Intifada Palestine’s Elias F. Harb.
EH: Were people aboard the Mavi Marmara who had been shot by the gunboats alreadybeing medically treated as the helicopter assault began?
IL: It’s hard to say exactly when these things happened, everything just happened so fast, that is why an international inquiry needs to investigate the events of the Flotilla Raid. Shots were fired, maybe it was mixed rubber bullets and live ammunition. I saw people who had been shot, and were bleeding to death. We never expected they were going to attack and kill. We weren’t prepared and didn’t have the necessary medical equipment to treat so many passengers who were shot, and some died by bleeding to death.
EH: The Israeli attack on May 31 in the dead heat of the night must have been a terrible experience for those in the free Gaza flotilla. Please tell us what happened that day
IL: The Flotilla was on a humanitarian mission. These were war commandos, they came to kill. We were unprepared for this attack. We knew that the Israelis would deter us, but never expected the Israeli commandos to open fire on civilian passengers. And what we witnessed was outrageous brutal force. Few of the Israeli Commandos were subdued and one of our doctors treated the Commandos. We showed restraint and gave medical aid to Israeli soldiers. Autopsy reports indicated that the activists killed were shot in the back of the head at close range. This was a criminal act by the Israel Defense forces.
EH: Israel declared that there were terrorists among the activists, how do you respond to that? Can you give us a makeup of the passengers?
IL: In their defense of the indefensible, the Israeli government has attempted to slander the character of the victims and other flotilla participants by drawing false links to terrorism, and portraying us as a lynch mob of anti-Semitic Muslim fanatics.
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EH: Israel declares that it had the legal right to confront the flotilla from reaching Gaza. What is your position on that?
IL: Israel had no legal right, we were in international waters, and their actions were illegal and worse than the Somalia Pirates'. It was a criminal action. Fortunately, we were able to smuggle some footage of the Israeli assault off the ship and safely back to the US, and which I was able to screen at the United Nations. It paints a picture in stark contrast to Israeli claims of a violent mob looking for a fight. I encourage everyone to view this footage.
EH: How were you and other activists treated by the Israeli Authorities after you were detained?
IL: We were incommunicado with the outside world. The men were treated very brutally. The women were treated better, but many complained they were treated disrespectfully. All passengers were videotaped through the time they were detained. We were incommunicado for a few days, but it felt like a month.
EH: Israel seized all cameras and communication machinery. Do you have a plan for getting your personal possessions back from Israel? Do you know how others are doing in this same respect?
IL: When the IDF commandos entered shooting, the first thing they did was jam the ships' communications. They confiscated our cameras, cam-recorders, laptops, and footage. They edited the footage to show a different story than what really happened to the Flotilla passengers. Several countries are urging their governments to demand that Israel release the property illegally seized from the passengers in international waters on 31 May, in particular the many cameras, camcorders, mobile phones etc. that contain evidence of at least the beginning of the shooting of civilians by Israeli soldiers. This demand is for property only and is independent of the many legal briefs already being worked on due to death and wounding of the passengers.
EH: Israel has announced that there has been an “easing of the blockade” Some say this is P.R. stunt or Israeli propaganda. What is your position on Israel’s easing of blockade restrictions?
IL: I am cautiously optimistic about Israel’s announced plan of “easing” the Gaza blockade. Easing, after all, is not the same as “complete lifting,” and it is yet to be determined what the nature of this easing process will be. Still, I am encouraged by the fact that this small step resulted in the first place from the Freedom Flotilla’s nonviolent act of civil disobedience. What is needed is a total lift of the Siege, and freedom of movement of people to live normal lives.
EH: Israel says there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. How do you respond to that?
IL: There is a humanitarian crisis, Israel lies, and the media reports what Israel wants.
EH: Israel has refused an independent international Inquiry on the Flotilla raid, and has assembled an internal inquiry ”Turkey Committee” to investigate the raid. How do you feel about that?
IL: We need an inquiry that is truly impartial, transparent, and which satisfies international standards. Despite the fact that the youngest of Israel’s victims on the flotilla — 19-year-old Furkan Dogan — was an American citizen, we cannot rely on our American leaders in this pursuit of justice. And so it is our moral obligation to speak out, even as our government remains silent. The same courage, creativity, and determination which were applied to exposing the illegality and cruelty of the Gaza blockade must also be applied to ensuring that Israel, as well as every other nation in the world, can no longer brutalize civilian populations with impunity, and will act in accordance with international law.
Thank you, Iara
Iara Lee: Director
Iara Lee, a Brazilian of Korean descent, is an activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Caipirinha Foundation, which supports projects to secure peace with justice. Iara is currently working on a variety of initiatives, grouped under the umbrella of CULTURES OF RESISTANCE, an activist network that brings together artists and changemakers from around the world. At the center of these initiatives is a feature-length documentary film entitled CULTURES OF RESISTANCE, which explores how art and creative action contribute to conflict prevention and resolution.
As an activist, Iara has collaborated with numerous grassroots efforts, including the International Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions, the Conflict Zone Film Fund, and the New York Philharmonic’s groundbreaking 2008 concert in North Korea.
While residing in Lebanon in 2006, Iara experienced first hand the 34-day Israeli bombardment of that country. Moved by this experience, she created the Make Films Not War campaign. Since then, she has continued to actively promote peace in the Middle East. In 2008 Iara lived in Iran and supported a number of cultural exchange projects between that country and the West. During that time she also worked with U.S.-based peace organizations on efforts to promote peaceful diplomacy between Washington and Iran. Iara is currently working in support of Gazan civilians who have been victims of war crimes committed by the Israeli miltary and who suffer from the Israeli government’s ongoing acts of collective punishment.
From 1984 to 1989 Iara was the producer of the Sao Paulo International Film Festival. In 1989 she moved to New York City, where she founded the mixed-media company Caipirinha Productions to explore the synergy of different art forms (such as film, music, architecture, and poetry). Under the banner of Caipirinha Productions, Iara has directed short and feature-length documentaries including Synthetic Pleasures, Modulations, Architettura, and Beneath the Borqa. She has also organized lectures, photo exhibits, and fundraising events related to these initiatives.
Iara Lee is a member of the President’s Council of The International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Council of Advisors of the National Geographic Society, as well as a trustee to the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), North Korea’s first and only university whose faculty will be entirely composed of international professors.
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