This week, Ret. Col. Ann Wright returned home to Oahu, a little more than two months after she was taken into custody by Israeli soldiers in an incident that left nine dead, including one American. Wright—a former state department official who resigned on the eve of the Iraq war—was part of a flotilla trying to bring supplies to the embargoed Gaza Strip. Even as the investigation into the incident continues, she’s already trying to raise money for a return trip (learn more at ustogaza.org).
We spoke with Wright via phone ahead of an upcoming Maui appearance, and found out about her arrest, the aftermath and why she’s still waiting for a call from Hillary Clinton.
What have the last couple months been like for you?
We were in an Israeli jail for about two days; I got out on June 3. We were flown to Istanbul on Turkish airliners, stayed a day in Istanbul and then the Turkish government paid for the return of all us internationals to wherever we needed to go. So I’ve been back in the United States for almost two months, on the Mainland.
Describe your arrest and the events leading up to it.
We had been at sea for three days by the time the flotilla finally formed off the southwest coast of Cypress and headed for Gaza. We took off at about four in the afternoon on May 30 and within about twelve hours, at four the next morning, the Israeli commandos had begun attacking each of the six ships to board them forcefully. I was initially on the Challenger 2, a small boat, then was put on the Mavi Marmara, the large, 600-person Turkish ferry boat. Then, just as we were leaving the meeting place, I was put back on one of the smaller ships so that three German parliamentarians and a Scottish parliamentarian could go on board. About midnight, we started getting radio calls from the Israeli Navy saying, you’re approaching a security zone, you must turn back. And each one of the captains of the ship would explain, we’re here to break what we feel is an illegal siege and blockade of Gaza; we’re unarmed civilian ships, we have no weapons on board, we’re carrying construction materials [and] medical supplies and we’re going to proceed. At around four in the morning, the lights that we’d been seeing in the distance off the stern of the ship came up to us, and the [Israeli] commando boats started shooting percussion grenades into each of the boats. We were about 150 yards off the port stern of the Marvi Marmara and saw the commando boats going up to its stern, shooting percussion grenades into all levels, with great noise and lots of smoke. We saw people on the ship using fire hoses, pouring salt water down on the commandos to try to get them off the stern of the ship. And then the captain of the Marmara and the captain of our [ship] had a discussion, and since ours was the speediest boat they decided we should try to go further ahead. That lasted about 15 minutes, until a large light started looming from the port side of us, and came in front of us. It was a big [Israeli] Navy ship, and our captain had to pull the power and stop, because we weren’t there to ram one of their ships. We were instantly boarded by commandos from both sides. They also used the percussion grenades, blowing out windows and doors; glass was flying everywhere. We had women along the railing to yell at them that we were in international waters and they had no right to board our ship, that we were unarmed civilians. They of course just ran over the women, shooting paint bullets and hitting one of the women in the face, barely missing her eye but hitting her nose; there was blood going everywhere. They used stun guns, tasers, and within 20 seconds they were in control of our ship. It wasn’t like it was a major military operation. I could have taken over the ship in 20 seconds myself.
I know you weren’t on the Mavi Marmara, the boat where the fatalities occurred, but what do you know about the altercation between the Israeli soldiers and the people on board that may not have been reported in the mainstream media?
[According to some accounts] the firing of live ammunition [by Israelis] started as the helicopters were hovering above the ship. If that’s true then one could anticipate that as these young commandos started repelling out of the helicopters that they were going to be met by people who were very angry about being shot. The footage that was shown here on American TV that was shot by Israeli defense forces certainly showed passengers taking sticks and metal bars that they had broken off the railings and beating up commandos. I don’t [condone] that at all, but if indeed it’s true that people had already been shot, I can see how it happened. However, the Isreali military film doesn’t show how that ended. My understanding is that about 10 seconds after the tape ends, the captain of the ship and the director of IHH [a Turkish human-rights group] came out of the wheelhouse with bullhorns, telling passengers to stop beating up commandos. They then had a Turkish doctor take the commandos down to a first aid station, treat them and return them to the Israelis. In the end, there were nine people who had been shot dead by Israeli commandos, with 35 bullets found in the nine bodies, five of them shot in the head. The 19-year-old American citizen has five bullets in him, including two in his head. Over 50 other people were seriously injured with live ammunition. The women who were working in the first aid station who were in prison with us 24-hours later said that at times they were up to their ankles in blood.
Are there ongoing investigations? If so, what’s the status?
Well, there needs to be a truly independent investigation, but unfortunately it’s not happening. The Israeli military has already done its investigation, which absolved its forces of any wrongdoing. They do acknowledge there was a lack of intelligence, or poor interpretation of the intelligence. They seem to be surprised that 450 Arab Muslim men who were on board a ship might not be too pleased with commandos shooting up the ship and trying to board it. The civilian side of the Israeli government is just starting its investigation; I saw today that Prime Minister Netanyahu had been interviewed. The United Nations has now formed a panel that is only going to review the investigations done by the nations involved. The UN Security Council actually ordered the UN to conduct its own investigation, but [Secretary-General] Ban Ki-Moon has only mandated that they review the reports sent in by Israel and Turkey. I don’t agree with that at all. A third party needs to look at all the evidence, from both the passengers and the Israeli military. But of course the passengers’ evidence is all in the hands of the Israeli government, because they took all of our cameras, cell phones, computers. None of that has been returned to us.
How do you feel about the United States’ response?
I’m flabbergasted and heartbroken that the Obama Administration has chosen to protect the wrongdoings of the Israeli government, as virtually every past administration has done. It was a pitiful response. The United States says that the attack on these flotillas that were in international waters, 70 miles off Gaza, was “regrettable.” Yet when they talk about Helen Thomas and her very poor choice of words [denouncing Israel], that was “reprehensible.” One would think that the murder of nine people would be reprehensible and [Thomas’s] words regrettable. I demanded meetings at the state department when I got back, and had one meeting with an office director. I presented them a letter for Secretary of State Hillary and they promised to forward it. Here it is, eight weeks later, and I haven’t heard one peep.
Ret. Col. Ann Wright will appear Wednesday, August 18, 7pm at UH Maui College; the event is free, call 984-3305 or visit mauipeace.org for more info