Indigenous leader Larry Commodore returns to Canada after being released from an Israeli prison
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada. For the past two months, The Real News has been covering the voyage of the Freedom Flotilla from Scandinavia to Gaza. Matters came to a head last Sunday when al-Awda, the lead vessel of the flotilla, was hijacked in international waters by Israel’s navy. The second vessel in the flotilla, The Freedom has just reached the point at which al-Awda was boarded by the Navy.
Now here to discuss these events with us are first, Larry Commodore. Larry is a member of the Sto:lo nation near Chilliwack, British Columbia, and an Indigenous activist. He was a passenger on al-Awda at the time of its hijacking last Sunday. And David Heap is a professor of linguistics at Western University in London, Canada. He’s the media coordinator for The Freedom Flotilla and he himself was kidnapped by Israeli forces in 2011 as a participant in a prior flotilla mission to break the blockade of Gaza. They both join us today from Toronto, Canada. Thanks very much for joining us, Larry and David.
DAVID HEAP: Thanks for having us on the show.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, to begin I’d just like to play a clip of Larry speaking as he was being delivered to al-Awda. At that time I was aboard the the vessel that delivered him to al-Awda and asked Larry to talk about his feelings about the mission he was about to embark upon. Lets hear what Larry had to say.
LARRY COMMODORE: I’m part of the Ts’elxwéyeqw Tribe, otherwise known as British Columbia, Canada. I’m here to take a boat to Gaza as a matter of Indigenous solidarity with Palestinians and also I believe that it is my duty and obligation as a person of conscience.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Larry. I’d like to start with you. Could you please describe to us what happened when as-Awda was confronted by Israel’s navy last Sunday?
LARRY COMMODORE: Well, we had a plan ahead of time to where we would be positioned on the sixteen foot al-Awda boat. We had areas of less risk and areas of higher risk. I was in an are of lesser risk because I have asthma and I was afraid that that might cause problems. So, there was four of us that were situated on a picnic table that was on the stern of the boat. The others were situated on the wheelhouse, surrounding the wheelhouse. And I was aware, we were aware of course before that, that the Israeli navy was bearing down on us because there had been radio communications between us and the Israelis. So, we were prepared.
We took our positions, we wore life jackets. I was facing the stern, so I didn’t get a very good view of what was going on at the wheelhouse. I seen that a couple frigates in the distance, Israeli frigates in the distance, and then I seen a number of Zodiacs with armed Israeli forces aboard. They boarded the boat quite quickly, I was kind of surprised how quickly that happened. As I say, I didn’t have a good view of the wheelhouse, but that seemed to be this- they knew the strategic area to go to first was the wheelhouse. I heard commotion going on, I turned to see what was going on in the wheelhouse. I seen one of our members down on the deck with- an Israeli had put them down on the deck. I heard some yelling, some screaming going on. I wasn’t too sure what exactly was going on at that point.
And then there was others, other Israeli forces had come to us that were in the less risk area. We were quite passively sitting there with our hands on the table and making sure that we weren’t seen as being posing a threat. So, we were sitting there and we were guarded by about four Israelis at that time. And then, as I say, around the wheelhouse we could hear yelling and screaming going on but I didn’t have a good view of what exactly was going on. It was getting quite agitated, the whole situation was quite agitated. I could see the Israeli Zodiacs around us too, armed, armed Zodiacs around us kind of keeping an eye on us too.
I heard that there is was one hundred or so Israeli forces deployed to assault our vessel at that time. The commander of the forces there came to the back there and I asked him what he was doing, why he was here, asked him who he was, and he said his name was Field Marshal Rommel, he said his name was Field Marshal Rommel and he seemed to be in command of the whole operation.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: It’s a rather odd name for an Israeli soldier to claim to have, but David, now presumably you’ve had an opportunity to gather information about what happened to the other passengers, of the participants on al-Awda that day. What have you been able to gather from your discussions with the participants?
DAVID HEAP: So, from our eyewitnesses on different perspectives on the boat, you could see different things from what Larry was able to see, folks in the wheelhouse, the crew and participants around the wheelhouse say that at least three people were repeatedly tasered with electric shock weapons. I was tasered in 2011 once, and I can tell you once is plenty to gain compliance from anyone. So, repeated tasering is just gratuitous violence, including one person, Charlie Andreasson, who you’ve interviewed and we all know, was tasered in the head, which is again, unacceptable. None of this violence is acceptable, but it’s particularly egregious. This also happened to Mike Treem, a trade unionist from New Zealand who was around the wheelhouse, and Mikkei Gruner, a Norwegian-Danish municipal politician. So, that was the assault on the wheel house.
And then, the captain and the engineer were beaten, as well. The captain had his beaten against the metal wall, the engineer was punched, and this was in order to force them to start the boat. The captain was also threatened with being taken below and executed summarily. So, the level of violence, physical and verbal violence, was quite unacceptable, especially taking into account that none of this happened in Israeli waters, this all happened in international waters, just inside the fifty nautical mile march from from Gaza. So, as always, boats have a course through international waters to Palestinian waters off Gaza. Nowhere near, very clearly, from the aerial satellite images, it’s very clear that the tracking has been nowhere near Israeli waters. So, this is done completely outside Israeli jurisdiction.
It’s illegal, extraterritorial act to stop these boats, to assault the people on board and then to take them away from their destination, to legally take them to another country which was not their intended destination is also an international crime.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: As you’ve indicated, the participants were forced to enter Israel against their will. What is their status currently? Do any remain incarcerated, if so, who are they and what is being done to liberate them?
DAVID HEAP: I have here, today was the last one to leave illegal detention in Israel. So, this bringing Israel against their will was illegal. Two of them were bailed right away, the two Israeli citizens, Zohar Chamberlain Regev and Yonatan Shapira, were bailed out the next morning, Monday morning, and the rest were deported under this false charge of being in Israel illegally over the last four days, right up until yesterday, Thursday, when we welcomed Larry home to Turtle Island.
Again, this charge of being in Israel illegally is completely ridiculous because the reason that any of these people was in Israel at all was not their idea. They were taken there illegally by the Israeli occupation forces, navy. So, if anybody is going to be charged with the illegal act, it should be the Israeli naming themselves. Of course, they never let these things get to court because they know that even under Israeli law, they would have no case for having brought these people to Israel, let alone charging them with being in Israel.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Larry can you talk to us briefly about the conditions of your incarceration and whether there was an attempt made to interrogate you, and if so, what happened?
LARRY COMMODORE: Well after they took control of our vessel, we went through Ashdod, Israel. And at that time, as I say, I was with the four others that were less risk area. Each of them, they asked them to go with them off the boat. Myself, when they got me, I asked for my passport and my money and they didn’t comply with that at all. I said three times I won’t I won’t get off this boat until I have my passport and my money. And then they said, “If you don’t comply with us, we’ll force you to comply.” So, at that point after I refused to comply with them, they dragged me up- it’s a bit of a blur here I’m not too sure what exactly happened, it was a bit of a blur. They dragged me up, they wrestled me around. They got handcuffs on me, then I was dragged from the boat. I got blood on my foot, I got a cut on my foot there and there was a lot of blood on the boat and on my foot too.
They brought us into a warehouse where we were processed. I was questioned by an Israeli Army or Navy person. The first question they asked me is, ” Where’s your passport?” So, after all that they firstly asked me, “Where’s your passport?” It was a bit of a blur. I can’t quite remember when it all happened there. After a while, I was brought to a hospital, I went unconscious for a while in the hospital. I came to and they were stitching up my toe, I had a big gash on my toe and they were stitching that up. And then I went on unconscious again. And then I came to, and I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know what was going on. I was quite dazed and and then I ended up in the Givon Prison after that.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: You spent how many days in that prison?
LARRY COMMODORE: Altogether, four days in Gavon. At that time, after I’d seen the Canadian Consulate and the lawyer that was assigned to us from the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, I realized I had another injury to my bladder. I was unable to urinate for two days and I was, we were, I was trying to get to see a doctor, we were banging on the cells, all of us were banging on the cells calling to see a doctor. They ignored that altogether. The next day,they brought me into a hearing and I told the that judge or whoever he the I couldn’t go along with anything until I see the doctor he said. He said okay and then left me. And then I seen another Israeli official who said, “You can leave tomorrow, I’ve got the tickets right here.”
And I said, “I can’t travel in that condition I am, I need to see a doctor. And so, they brought me back to my jail cell and that it wasn’t until the next day that I was able to see a doctor. And that was two days that I’d been been demanding to see a doctor. When they brought me to the hospital, the guard that brought me to the hospital there forced me to drink water because he thought that I was faking it. And so, he’s forcing me to drink water and I was unable to urinate and my bladder got more and more painful. And it took a while before the doctor finally came along and examined me and determined what the problem was with that, and they put a catheter on me and I’m still wearing a catheter now.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: David, what do we know about the status of The Freedom at this hour?
DAVID HEAP: So, the second boat in the Freedom Floatilla after al-Alwa, The Return Boat that was captured, attacked and captured on Sunday, Freedom is approaching now, the Swedish flag yacht with Canadian Skipper, John Turnbull, is just coming up around fifty nautical miles. So, the area very close to the same distance where it al-Awda was attacked and captured last Sunday. There are twelve people on board, mostly Swedes, the Canadian Captain, as I said, another Spanish sailor, another French sailor, a couple others. So, we’re very concerned about them and we’re very concerned about two of your colleagues. There’s two British journalists on board and we know that the occupation forces are not at all respectful of journalists doing their work or journalists’ equipment or stories and material. So, we using the hashtag #DemandPressFreedom, a lot of concern for your colleagues today.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And in fact, if I understand, if I recall correctly, al-Awda’s participants included two journalists from Al-Jazeera who were also incarcerated, is that correct?
DAVID HEAP: Yeah, the two journalists from Al Jazeera were, just before Larry what finally made it out, were among almost the last to leave prison as well.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And there is an Australian journalist, too, Chris Graham, three journalists.
DAVID HEAP: It’s physical concerns for the journalists but also for their materials and their professional equipment. They need to be respected just out of a general respect for press freedoms.
LARRY COMMODORE: And an independent filmmaker, there was also an independent filmmaker from Singapore.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: David, how would you assess the Canadian government’s reaction to all of this. In your view, Has it done enough to ensure that the rights of the participants were respected and that Israel be held accountable for any violations of those rights?
DAVID HEAP: Not at all. Not at all enough. And what we heard, I’ve been talking to to Larry since he came back. I was very distressed to hear that in the past, Canadian consular officials have been carefully neutral and professional in their approach. What Larry told me is a consular official informed him that he had been breaking Israeli law and that breaking illegal blockade, which they considered to be legal, which is well beyond what consular officials have said in the past. In fact, they’ve become, if anything, more aggressively tools of the Israeli state and the Israeli occupation, which is a distressing change in the attitude of what was formerly a professional Canadian public service, at least in the foreign service, who avoided taking positions on these issues.
We know that the Canadian state is silent about this, the government, Foreign Minister Freeland haven’t said anything. Some of the Scandinavian countries are at least asking questions of Israel about trying to justify this unjustifiable act of aggression against civilian shipping. What we really need to hear is Canada and other states standing up not just for the rights of people like Larry, who were kidnapped and harmed and some of them grievously assaulted in international waters, but more generally, the right of innocent passage and international maritime law and the right of freedom of movement of Palestinians, which is violated every day. And Canada is one of the countries which allows this to happen because we’re silent about this. We don’t stand up for these fundamental rights, our government doesn’t stand up for these rights. That’s why grassroots organizations like ours and people like Larry have to go to the front line, put themselves on the line for rights light rights of freedom of movement.
LARRY COMMODORE: And I will also add, as an Indigenous person, that Canada also has a fiduciary obligation over and above what it has to non-native Canadian citizens. It has a fiduciary obligation to look out for our best interests. And that hasn’t been attended to at this point at all.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I’d like to thank you very much for speaking to the The Real News today, and welcome back to Canada gentlemen.
LARRY COMMODORE: Thank you.
DAVID HEAP: Thank you for having us.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting from Montreal, Canada for The Real News.