Freedom Flotilla activists being marched away from a bus at the Ben Gurion International airport. (Mel Frykberg/IPS)
TEL AVIV (IPS) - Attempts by media to interview some of the hundreds of Freedom Flotilla members, who were being deported from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, were thwarted by Israeli authorities.
“No you will not be able to talk to them or interview them,” Shahar Ariel, a deputy-spokesman from Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs told IPS as TV crews and journalists jammed one of the airport’s sidewalks and filmed the dramatic departure.
Foreign media, and some Israeli journalists, have accused Israeli authorities of censoring news and interfering with journalists trying to interview the Freedom Flotilla activists who were trying to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip when they were attacked by Israeli commandos.
Israeli journalists from the left-leaning daily Haaretz have complained of extreme difficulty in contacting the top brass in political and military echelons willing to give interviews and comment on the debacle.
Furthermore, the Israeli military had imposed a blackout on the names and nationalities of the activists on board the Freedom Flotilla and refused to reveal in which hospitals the wounded were receiving treatment.
Some of the details leaked out, but journalists were forbidden from talking to the wounded in the hospitals with Israeli soldiers stationed in hospital corridors to enforce the blackout.
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) reported that at least 60 of the approximately 700 passengers on board the Freedom Flotilla were journalists and slammed the treatment of the media.
“We point out that the journalists were there to do their job, which was to cover what happened. They should not be confused with the activists,” RWB said.
Some of the reporters on board the boats were assaulted and their equipment confiscated or destroyed. They were amongst the last to be released by the Israeli authorities.
“We tried to race ahead of the commandos so that we could send out pictures of the dead and wounded to the international media,” Huwaida Arraf, the Free Gaza Movement’s chairwoman, told IPS. “But our satellite phones had stopped functioning. The Israelis had scrambled the signals to prevent us communicating with the outside world.”
“It was clear from the beginning that Israel was trying to control the media coverage of the event to present its version of events to the world.”
“As soon as the commandos boarded they confiscated our mobiles, recording and video devices and then started filming instead,” Arraf told IPS.
One of the two Australian journalists on board, from The Sydney Morning Herald, Kate Geraghty, was tazered (with an electric baton). Paul McGeough, her colleague, said that the naval commandos’ pursuit of the boats had felt like “being hunted by hyenas at night.”
The two were denied consular access or legal representation. They had originally wanted to fight their deportation order but their lawyer was denied timely access. When an Israeli court eventually agreed to an urgent hearing it appeared too late as their plane was due to leave.
IPS asked Ariel why the Australian journalists had been denied consular access and legal representation and why so many of the activists had suddenly decided not to fight their deportation after initially vowing to do so.
“We want them out of the country as soon as possible. This is a normal situation, at this point in time, for them not to have consular and legal access as they as they are still under investigation,” Ariel told IPS.
The abuse and beatings of activists apparently happened on boats where no resistance had been offered to the raiding commandos, unlike on the Mavi Marmara where some activists tried to fight back with crude kitchen instruments, resulting in a still disputed number of them dead.
The Israelis had claimed there were firearms on board, but withdrew the allegations after being unable to offer proof.
Arraf disputed the accusations, saying that not only had the boats been thoroughly checked by security at the various ports of departure but the Flotilla organizers had hired independent security experts to verify that the boats were weapons-free.
In a separate incident on Wednesday IPS witnessed two very frightened activists who had arrived at the airport on buses and had been forcibly removed, being cuffed and frog-marched out of the departure terminal towards a minivan.
According to an Israeli police spokesman they had acted in a “provocative” manner.
When this correspondent took pictures of the event, she was verbally abused and physically intimidated by one of the security police escorting the Freedom Flotilla detainees before his colleagues pulled him back.
The police then blocked the entrance of the minibus with their bodies so that other reporters arriving on the scene were unable to take further pictures.
Following the incident reporters were physically prevented by security guards from entering the departure terminal.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Israel’s Knesset (parliament), who was on board one of the six Flotilla boats, was provided with bodyguards after another member tried to physically attack her, forcing other legislators to intervene.
Haaretz reported that Hanin Zoabi, the Palestinian MK, had during a parliamentary discussion, described the Israel navy’s bloody raid on a Turkish-flagged ship as a “pirate military operation.”
She had demanded that ministers explain why the soldiers had been ordered to confiscate reporters’ cameras and why the government had refused to allow the media to publish pictures of the people who were killed on board the ship.
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