THERE are fears for two Bristol men who were part of the Gaza-bound aid convoy that was attacked by the Israeli military. Armed forces boarded the eight vessels clashing with some of the 600 people on board and killing up to 20 of them.
Dad-of-three Sakir Yildirim and Cliff Hanley, of Bristol, were on one of the ships carrying thousands of tonnes of aid to Gaza. Ed Hill, of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Bristol said “We are in state of shock. If these reports are true, how could the Israeli Government allow such a barbaric act? We have no information about how Sakir and Cliff are. Cliff is single and Sakir has three young children and a wife. When will governments around the world enforce international law on Israel?”
The boats were anchored off Cyprus on Sunday and were expected to proceed toward the Gaza coast later in the day. Israel said its forces were attacked by activists when they got on board. The incident happened at about 4am on Monday after the boat was stormed by commandos descending from helicopters.
The interception reportedly took place in international waters, more than 150km (90 miles) off the coast of Gaza. Apparently the ships were yesterday towed into ports in Israel and injured people evacuated by helicopter to hospitals in the country. Mr Yildirim, 41, a kebab seller, and Mr Hanley, 61, an artist, are organisers of fund-raising project The Bristol Cement For Gaza, formed by members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The friends flew to Turkey early last week and boarded the passenger ship Mavi Marmara, which sailed on Friday.
The ships had been organised by the Turkish aid organisation IHH and were carrying 10,000 tonnes of cargo. The aid included prefabricated homes, building materials, cement, steel, spare parts, medical supplies, a CT scanner, a complete dental surgery and paper for schools. Crayons and chocolate were also on board for Gazan children. They planned to meet up with four boats from other countries including Greece, Kuwait, Algeria and Ireland.
Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said on Sunday night: “The boats will not be allowed to enter Gaza territorial waters. This is a territory in a self-declared state of war with Israel. There can be no uncontrolled transportation in or out of Gaza.” Foreign secretary William Hague said the British embassy was in “urgent contact” with the Israeli government, asking for more information.
He said: “I deplore the loss of life during the interception of the Gaza flotilla. Our embassy is in urgent contact with the Israeli government. “We are asking for more information and urgent access to any UK nationals involved.”
Both Mr Yildirim and Mr Hanley have visited Gaza before. Mr Yildirim, originally from the Black Sea area of Turkey, drove an ambulance to Gaza in February 2009. He was so shocked by the devastation there that he pledged to return. Last Christmas he did – driving a massive 44-tonne truck organised by Bristol-Gaza-Link as part of the Viva Palestine convoy.
Mr Hanley, secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Bristol, has visited Gaza once before, in January, also as part of the Viva Palestine Convoy. Before leaving, Mr Yildirim said: “In the past Israel has been ruthless and unlawful with boats heading for Gaza; they’ve threatened to fire on them, rammed or boarded them, and imprisoned everyone on board. So obviously everyone is a bit tense right now. “But what’s different this time is it’s a really big project. Plus it’s backed by the Turkish Government right up to the Prime Minister and other governments around the world. And we have right on our side of course. So I’m sure we’ll get there safely.”
Mr Hanley said before the trip: “I’d sooner be over here doing something practical to help Palestine. Instead of sitting at home and writing futile letters to my MP. “Once again the people of Bristol have generously supported our appeal. So we’re determined to get to Gaza and to see the money being used to rebuild homes, schools, and hospitals.”
A spokesman for the Foreign Office could not confirm whether the two Bristol men were among those injured or killed. The spokesman said: “We are seeking urgent clarification of the incident.”