Trevor Hogan, best-known as an international rugby player, was one of 14 Irish people detained by Israel over the past week after they tried to break the illegal siege of Gaza.
In a telephone interview this morning, Hogan recalled how the MV Saoirse (called after the Gaelic word for freedom) and the Canadian-flagged Tahrir were approaching the waters off Gaza last Friday (4 November) afternoon when they were intercepted by the Israeli navy.
“They were circling us for ages, with their rifles trained on us,” he told me. “It was surreal looking out our window at these guns.”
Still in international waters, the two boats were surrounded by numerous Israeli vessels. Hogan estimates there were 15 or 16 vessels in total, including several full-sized warships. Eventually, the MV Saoirse was attacked by water cannons.
“The water cannons destroyed the electricity,” said Hogan. “They flooded the engine room. We had to use emergency power. The boat could have sunk if it went on much longer.”
Balaclava-clad Israeli commandos then boarded the Saoirse. “We just stayed sitting down peacefully,” he added. “They wanted to search us on deck but we refused. We all acquitted ourselves well. One sudden move and they were sure to fire. My heart was pumping looking at this.”
Hogan expected to be beaten when the Israelis brought their captives to the port of Ashdod. But the arrival of an Irish diplomat at the port “calmed things down.”
Women “stressed and traumatized”
Hogan said that the Israelis kept him and the others awake on their first night in Givon Prison. But the treatment was even worse for the two women, Zoe Lawlor and Mags O’Brien, on the boat, who were detained separately from the 12 men.
“There was solidarity among us [the men],” he said. “We were all together. We managed to meet them [the two women] for 20 minutes each time the consular was there. You could see that the girls were stressed and traumatized. They were under serious pressure.”
Yesterday morning, seven of the 14 were scheduled to be flown from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to London. Yet they were prevented from boarding a British Airways flight by the Israeli authorities and placed into cells in the airport.
“Givon was tough enough,” Hogan said. “Ben Gurion was a lot worse. We thought we were going home and then we were banged up in cells. It was more decrepit. There was no information and no free association. We were held apart.”
Israel has blamed British Airways for the episode at Ben Gurion, alleging that the carrier would not take the seven campaigners. “Maybe there was an element of the airline being at fault,” Hogan explained. “But there was more to it than that. It was part of a pattern. They wanted lessons to be learnt and that’s why they made life as difficult as they could for us. We didn’t sign anything saying we were criminals, [even though] there were threats made that we would be kept [in prison] indefinitely.”
Five of the Irish, including Hogan, were put on a later flight and arrived in Dublin late last night. Two others, Fintan Lane and Zoe Lawlor, were stopped from taking that later flight and were instead made to travel via Istanbul. They and the seven remaining prisoners are expected to land in Dublin today.
Hogan retired from professional rugby earlier this year because of persistent knee injuries. His efforts to reach Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla II during the summer and now with the smaller Freedom Waves initiative have been supported by a number of Irish sports personalities.
He is adamant that the attempts to penetrate the Gaza blockade have been worthwhile. “We don’t want to make out that we are the victims or martyrs,” he said. “We were in Givon Prison. But Gaza is the world’s largest prison. Whatever we have gone through, the Palestinians have to go through 10 times worse.
“It was very interesting to notice the attitude of the Israelis towards us. They couldn’t comprehend why were doing this. What we were doing challenges their mindset and that is why it is such an effective tactic. They treat the Palestinians as if they are subhuman. They don’t think Palestinians deserve to live in a normal society, to be able to import and export and fish and farm. It’s great to be able to meet that mindset head on.”
●First published by The Electronic Intifada