Interception of Gaza-Bound Flotilla: Discussion

I welcome Mr. Shane Dillon to this meeting. While he looks very lonely on his own, I assure him that members are not all against him. Mr. Dillon is a member of the Irish Coast Guard service and was on board theChallenger I, one of the six ships that formed an aid flotilla and which was stormed by the Israeli military early on Monday morning last. Members are keen to hear his first-hand account of the events that took place when Israeli forces boarded the flotilla of aid ships in international waters three days ago.

The joint committee had requested His Excellency, Dr. Zion Evrony, Israeli ambassador to Ireland to appear before it today. Members wish to seek answers from him regarding his Government's actions in international waters against vessels carrying humanitarian supplies for the people of Gaza and which it is understood resulted in the deaths of at least nine people. We are also particularly eager to question him regarding the Israeli Government's intentions concerning the Irish-owned ship, theMV Rachel Corrie, which is on its way to Gaza. I also should note that the Minister and his staff are keeping in contact with that situation. It is a matter of some concern that Dr. Evrony has not made himself available to meet the joint committee and has not given his assurance that his Government will allow the MV Rachel Corrie to continue unimpeded and to deliver its cargo to Gaza. I wish to record publicly this joint committee’s disappointment that the ambassador is unavailable to attend today and in the belated manner in which members were notified about this. However, I note the ambassador has undertaken to contact me with a view to rescheduling his appearance at a mutually convenient date.

In this context, members appreciate Mr. Dillon's agreement to appear before it at short notice. I ask him to provide members with a brief account of his own experience and what he witnessed during the raid. I will then give an opportunity to members to make statements on the incident and to ask Mr. Dillon questions they may have regarding his own direct experience. In addition, briefing documents have been circulated to members from the Palestinian envoy to Ireland, Dr. Hikmat Ajjuri, His Excellency Amr Helmy, Egyptian ambassador to Ireland and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. We are grateful to all concerned for so doing. In particular, I welcome the significant gesture that Egypt has made in opening the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip unconditionally and for an unlimited period to allow the smooth flow of humanitarian and medical aid into Gaza. This is very welcome. It would be useful to discuss further with the Egyptian ambassador whether this route could be used for other materials, such as the reconstruction materials for the many thousands of homes that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead. As the joint committee has always claimed, this could be managed in conjunction with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency located there, which is headed up by Mr. John Ging, who is in charge of that work.

I understand that the goods concerned are mainly humanitarian goods and do not include cement because in any event, it would not be allowed in by the Israelis. Consequently, this is one of the major problems. The humanitarian aid to which the ambassador from Egypt refers goes in under the parameters and guidelines they have for that purpose. It includes medical aid, certain foods, milk and similar goods, as well as coming and going to and from Gaza. Two very important elements of that statement are that it is unlimited and unconditional. Members are aware that the reconstruction materials, apparently even the glass for windows, has not been provided as yet, contrary to their previous understanding. There are 14,500 houses in which windows were blown out and doors were blown off during the aforementioned events and the joint committee makes a strong appeal in this regard. As these are ordinary people's homes, I cannot discern any particular problem in providing this material. Apparently however, this has not yet been done. Moreover, the joint committee's report includes details on the reconstruction work that must be done on the houses that are under the control of UNRWA, the United Nations agency. This of course requires the reconstruction materials, including glass obviously, iron and cement to finish off those houses that are two-thirds finished.

Before getting down to all the detail, while they greatly welcome the aforementioned letter, members believe they now must call strongly on the United States of America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations to insist that the windows are fixed and that the houses, which already have been two-thirds reconstructed under the auspices of the United Nations, get the cement they need. As this can be controlled by the United Nations, there is no question of such material going anywhere else. I call on both the United States and the European Union in this regard. Whatever they have to say about anything else at present, it must be clear to them that the aforementioned houses are being built with money from the United States, Ireland and the European Union. In addition, I recall that Norway and Saudi Arabia had money involved and other members might remember some of the other participants. This constituted aid to have houses built for people and although a huge amount of work was done, the supply of cement simply stopped. It is critical that they be finished. That said, I note we can return to those issues afterwards.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice and long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If Mr. Dillon is directed by the committee or the Chair to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter — this does not apply to Mr. Dillon alone but is a recent clarification of a position — and he continues to so do, he is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his evidence. Otherwise, he is absolutely protected in respect of the evidence he gives. People who gave evidence before the joint committee in the past were not absolutely protected. They are now, with the aforementioned single caveat. Mr. Dillon is directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and he is asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, he should not criticise or make charges against any person(s) or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

That said, I again welcome Mr. Dillon and invite him to address the joint committee.

Mr. Shane Dillon

I will proceed from the point at which we were boarded by the Israeli forces or actually from when the flotilla met earlier on in the day and then proceeded at slow speed towards the Gaza Strip. We were called up by Israeli defence forces and advised that if we maintained our course and speed, we would be entering a combat zone and that if we did not alter our course, we would be responsible for any happenings to our vessels or persons on board. They advised that the captain on board was the person responsible and he or she alone would be responsible for anything that happened on board the vessel. The response we gave was that we were in international waters and were proceeding with a peace flotilla with humanitarian aid and observers to the port of Gaza. They advised that we should alter course and proceed to the port of Ashdod, where our aid would be allowed through under our observation. We ignored any further transmissions from the Israelis and advised them that we intended to continue on our passage to Gaza.

In the small hours of the morning, the flotilla was moving about and the largest vessel, theMavi Marmara, decided to drop back and do a search of the stern of all the other vessels. By that stage, we could see four military vessels on the horizon. Using telephoto lenses, the press reporters’ cameras could pick them up. From the Mavi Marmara and other vessels, we knew of radar echoes of the ships in the area. The Mavi Marmara called me. I was on the lead boat, the Challenger 1, which was under the US flag and had 17 people on board. The Mavi Marmara informed us that some small targets were approaching us from our stern and advised us to pull in closer to it. We closed on its port quarter.

The skipper of the boat I was on had gone to sleep, as had most of the reporters and activists on board. I could see the small Zodiacs approaching us, so I called the captain and the reporters and sounded the ship's whistle to advise everyone on board of the Israelis' high-speed approach. I also called the master on theMavi Marmara using our UHF radios and advised him of the approach of numerous Zodiac-type vessels. One approached and shadowed us on our port side while two others made their approach towards the cruise ship, the Mavi Marmara, and attacked her from the stern on both quarters. We were the closest vessel to her at the time. All of my crew and passengers were awake by then.

As the Israeli boats approached theMavi Marmara, the people on board it started throwing rubbish bags over the side to prevent the boats from getting close. The other boats in the flotilla turned on their firefighting hoses and equipment. Their water cannon were also going off, which is common practice as a form of defence if one is going through an area of piracy, for example, the Straits of Malacca. The Israelis made contact with the Mavi Marmara and, using what appeared to us to be stun grenades, attacked the stern of the boat. We could hear the zap of Tasers. The Israelis entered over the boat’s stern en masse.

At this point, we decided to pull away from theMavi Marmara. We watched the other boats as they approached us. As we were the fastest boat in the fleet and our satellites had been jammed, the skipper and I decided to try to make a break for clear water to try for a clear upload so that the rest of the world could see what was occurring on board our vessels. We were making approximately 22 kn away from the rest of the flotilla. The skipper was on the helm and I was keeping point for the Israeli boats. One shadowed us the whole of the way out on our port side, but we kept going. After a few minutes, I noticed an Israeli helicopter fly over the Mavi Marmara, but we kept on steaming. I could see soldiers dropping from the helicopter onto the Mavi Marmara while our reporters were taking photographs, which I hope will come out during the next few days.

We kept on steaming for 15 to 30 minutes — perhaps closer to half an hour — before we had engine alarms. We feared another Israeli vessel approaching us with a searchlight would ram us. We feared for the safety of the people on board the boat, so we advised everyone on board to stand back from the side of the vessel and to hold on. We slowed down and came to a near stop, only maintaining speed for steerage. We were boarded by Israeli forces from the port side and then the starboard side. A helicopter was also dropping illumination flares around us. They smashed the windows on the stern and sides of the boat and fired high-velocity paint balls at people. A young Belgian girl was hit directly in the nose and a journalist was hit by a stun gun. A few of us were pushed around. The Israelis also targeted Huwaida Arraf, chairwoman of the Free Gaza organisation. They had her on the ground, pulled her around the boat and kept her out of sight of the rest of the activists on board. They pulled camera equipment from people. Anyone holding a camera was attacked. The satellite equipment and laptops of Paul McGeough, the Australia-based journalist, were forcibly removed.

It took the Israelis a few minutes to make it up to the flybridge, where the skipper, two journalists and I were, because they had been prevented. The activists had put fenders and obstacles along the deck of the boat to make getting to the bridge awkward. We were all brought below into the saloon. The Israelis had brought a medic on board, but some of our activists refused to allow him to attend to them, so I was allowed to attend to anyone who was slightly injured. I was also brought down to advise the Israelis on how to operate our boat's bilge system, as we were taking water because of the force on the hull of the boats coming alongside. Our engines also needed to be re-oiled, so I needed to show them where our engine room was. The skipper and I were then taken up to the flybridge to steer the vessel back to port. They would not tell us where we were.

There was no physical resistance by anyone on board my vessel to the Israeli force while it was on board. The only resistance was verbal. The Israelis were advised they were on board a boat that was part of a peace flotilla with peace activists and press photographers. They were physically aggressive towards numerous people on board. The skipper and I were probably the luckiest pair.

When we reached the port of Ashdod, they took me ashore first. I requested to get my personal papers and more clothes, as some of mine had been ripped by the way in which we had been pushed around the boat, but they refused to let me get any personal effects I did not have on me at the time. While held in the detention centre, they refused to turn off the lights and kept them on constantly. They let one person go to the toilet at a time, then a group and then held someone back for a few hours, saying "Later, later", if he or she had got up off the bunk too late to get to the door. They would give us no information on for how long we would be held. They refused us telephone calls. Once the ambassador arrived in the morning and spoke to me, the Israeli regime over us eased up. Overall, the attack by the Israeli soldiers on board the vessels was very physical.

How did Mr. Dillon come to be there? This was not something he normally did. Was he asked to go because of his skills?

Mr. Shane Dillon

I was asked because I was a seafarer of many years and had been a chief officer on cargo vessels around European waters. My brother, who is a musician, was asked whether he would do the trip. He was asked by Mr. Derek Graham whether he knew anyone with maritime skills, so I was asked to do it. My annual holidays were approaching, so I said I was available to assist with the navigation of the boats if required.

Mr. Dillon mentioned preparing water cannon, but he never got to use them.

Mr. Shane Dillon

We did not have water cannon on board our boat. They were on the other cargo vessels. The vessel I was on was a small pleasure craft of less than 24 m, not the same as merchant ships.

On a point of clarification, Mr. Dillon referred to water cannon. Was it water cannon or hoses?

Mr. Shane Dillon

Fire hoses, not water cannon.

So it was not water cannon. That is an important point.

Mr. Shane Dillon

These were fire hoses and it is normal procedure when in areas like the Malacca Straits or off Somalia for vessels to rig up their fire hoses from the fire mains and have them branching off on the port and starboard side. It helps prevent small rigid inflatable boats getting alongside.

I apologise for the interruption but the use of the word cannon could be unfortunate and was incorrect.

Mr. Dillon referred to water cannon but he meant the hoses.

Mr. Shane Dillon

Yes, it was the fire mains system.

Mr. Dillon referred to paintball. Were other weapons used?

Mr. Shane Dillon

They used Taser on our boat. They hit people with the butts of their rifles, pushed people around and stood on some of the activists. The stern door was a large, patio type door and was smashed on the deck at the aft end of the boat. They stood on some of the young activists there. They were fairly physical, throwing them around and telling them to sit down when they had thrown them into that position on the deck.

I call Deputy Timmins and remind members it has been agreed on a number of occasions to limit opening statements to three minutes.

I welcome Mr. Dillon and thank him for his presentation. I regret the Israeli ambassador did not attend due to unforeseen circumstances and that the Palestinian representative could not attend and share the same floor as the Israeli ambassador. The Palestinian representative made a submission, some of which may be dated or inaccurate, and it is important we clear up factual information for the record. These documents will be on the record.

The reasons behind these difficulties and killings is the illegal blockade on Gaza. I strongly condemn the killings, which should never have taken place because the go-ahead should not have been given by the Israeli authorities. We have continually called on the illegal blockade to be lifted. I hope the Israeli authorities lift the illegal blockade and permit theMV Rachel Corrie to land in Gaza and ensure the safeguarding of Irish people and others.

This is a defining moment. Part of me feels sorry for the Israeli troops who landed on the vessel because they were put in a difficult position. I remember the day two British corporals drove into a republican funeral in Belfast and the difficulty and fear these people were put in by the state authorities. Israel must consider how it casts an uncritical eye on military operations. An independent, international inquiry into the matter is important and all sides should co-operate.

We do not want to interrogate Mr. Dillon to find out all the details but we are interested in this because so little information has come out. Such is the power of modern technology, we are dubious of images presented to us that can be edited in a certain fashion. I realise Mr. Dillon has been through a traumatic time and I sympathise with him on that point. That colleagues were killed and wounded during the operation is traumatic but I want to establish facts. Regarding the setting up of the flotilla, Mr. Dillon's presentation began from when they hit the water. The group formed in Larnaca or Limassol, Cyprus——

Mr. Shane Dillon

I was on theChallenger 1 and we started from Agios Nikolaos in Crete. There were two boats——

Perhaps Mr. Dillon can respond at the end because otherwise it will use up my time.

Who was in charge of the group and how did it come together? How come Mr. Dillon was on theChallenger 1 rather than the MV Rachel Corrie, where other Irish people were? Can we have the background to how the group set sail and who was in charge?

When the assault took place on the Mavi Marmara, was Mr. Dillon in a position to see what happened? He referred to boats pulling alongside and personnel not being able to get on the ship. The Israeli forces were then dropped onboard from a helicopter. There are mixed reports of shots being fired. Were shots fired before personnel went onboard or after? Perhaps Mr. Dillon can enlighten us on the sequence of events leading up to people being killed. Were shots fired and live ammunition fired on other vessels? It appears not but perhaps Mr. Dillon can give us information on this.

Did the people on board anticipate they would be attacked and can Mr. Dillon give an insight into the mindset of those onboard the Mavi Marmara? Who was in charge of the flotilla? Who was the captain of the Challenger 1, to whom Mr. Dillon referred? When an incident like this happens it is difficult to get everything in sequence unless one has a photographic memory. How long did the operation last? Mr. Dillon referred to half an hour afterwards. I am mindful that Mr. Dillon has travelled and is tired and may find it difficult to put timing into perspective. I seek more detail on the operation and whether there were scuffles when the troops landed on the ship, as the Israelis claim, before shots were fired. The Israelis also referred to pistols being found on board. Were these taken from Israeli forces after they landed?

I thank Mr. Dillon for appearing before the committee and giving us his personal experience of what he witnessed. We were all shocked at what happened but unfortunately we were not surprised because of what we have seen in the past, particularly in recent years in Gaza. Mr. Dillon's contribution fits in with what we have heard from neutral observers over the past days. The level of force was totally disproportionate even if the troops wanted to board the ship.

This is something we must be concerned about. We are calling for an independent, international investigation because this raises serious human rights issues, including the right to life of those who lost their lives. It is important this is investigated properly, particularly when the military is involved. When these investigations are carried out, I am concerned that Israel does not always listen. That is one of the reasons I am disappointed the ambassador turned down the invitation to appear before the committee because it would be good for us and Israel if he were here. Israel's policy is harming Israel and having serious consequences for other people. We visited Gaza last year and we saw the humanitarian crisis.

I am also concerned about Israel trying to defend the indefensible. It was very disappointing to see an Israeli spokesperson stating that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The Chairman has already referred to it, but people cannot go about their business, move freely or go to work; they do not have sufficient food, water or medicine; and their homes, schools and factories were bulldozed in the most recent major attack on Gaza. If that is not a humanitarian crisis I do not know what is.

It is important that the issue is addressed because what happened in recent days is a symptom of a much more serious underlying cause. There is no point in treating a symptom. One must treat the underlying cause and it is time that everybody addressed that issue. This has been going on far too long. We have often spoken about the politics of the most recent atrocity and I would not like to think that what happened in recent days will delay finding a settlement.

Like everybody else, I am conscious of the difficulties that Israel has. I am conscious of the rockets that were fired on Israel from Gaza, but they do not justify the disproportionate response we have seen from Israel. I would like to see Israel show a little goodwill and allow theMV Rachel Corrie land and deliver the goods, all of which I believe are important, including the cement as it is very important to repair houses, schools and factories.

We have to push for an independent inquiry. The remaining boats should be allowed enter Gaza and deliver their loads of humanitarian goods. People must see it as imperative that we find a permanent solution that will respect the rights of the people of Israel and the Palestinians.

I join with others in welcoming to the meeting Mr. Dillon to share his experience with us and I thank him for being willing to answer questions. I pay tribute to him for his humanitarian interest and the efforts he has made. I do not intend to use my time to go over old material. Yesterday, the Dáil agreed a motion which included calling for an independent international inquiry and for theMV Rachel Corrie to be allowed to proceed. It also mentioned future diplomatic responses should conditions not be complied with.

The background to this, and what interests Mr. Dillon who mentioned his brother, is the blockade. No matter what way one puts it, the blockade is creating a humanitarian crisis. Those of us who have been in Gaza have seen this with our own eyes, whether one counts the population at 1.4 million or 1.5 million, with 46% of them children. We were there in 2009. At the end of 2009, 16 organisations produced a report which found that despite pledges being made for the reconstruction of Gaza, no organisation has stated there is 25% of what is needed for clean water or electricity to allow cooking. The notion that a trickle of goods is being allowed in is refuted by the facts. It was refuted by the evidence before the eyes of many members of this committee who were in Gaza.

The blockade is a form of collective punishment, which is I am sure what motivated Mr. Dillon and his brother. In an important development, the Taoiseach stated last week that he regards the blockade as illegal. Therefore, Mr. Dillon found himself part of illegal actions in support of an illegal principle. I regret Ambassador Evrony is not here. The only justification for that principle is the suggestion is that Israel's necessity is such that it is able to take pre-emptive actions as a substitute for the norms of international law. That is something to which the international community must now respond.

TheMV Rachel Corrie is proceeding with its journey with Mr. Denis Halliday and Ms Mairéad Corrigan Maguire on board. They have spoken to a number of people, and Mr. Halliday spoke to those at my house, on the situation. They have stated that those participating on that boat are committed to peace. They also stated that everything on the boat was inspected and that they do not seek confrontation. Therefore, the issue is whether the Irish Government and people allow them to be apprehended in international waters and removed to some place they have not sought to go. Kidnapped is the wrong word to describe this but effectively they would be removed against their will.

To fill this out and establish how this is justified I must ask Mr. Dillon about his trip on theChallenger 1. What was that craft carrying and had the cargo been inspected? To his knowledge, did any of those on the ship with him carry arms? Did any of them have a background in illegal activity? This is very important because even if one declares one’s cargo and makes a declaration on one’s intention and behaviour in advance, the Israeli authorities suggest they have the right to remove a vessel and its crew in international waters to satisfy their norms of necessity, which they place above the generally accepted principles of international law, on which the Dáil is agreed.

What Mr. Dillon saw was very interesting. He cannot pre-empt what an international independent investigation would show. We must also remember that the Israeli authorities have issued a statement from Mark Regev and others to state it will conduct its own internal inquiry, as it usually does. I hope an international inquiry takes place. Is Mr. Dillon in a position to tell us anything about the state of preparation with regard to arms as the confrontation was about to take place? It has been suggested that guns were present on the vessel on which people died. It is also suggested that machetes and knives were present. Mr. Dillon may not wish to comment on this, it is up to him.

Will Mr. Dillon tell us about losing satellite communication? Will he also give us a rough idea of the number of dinghies as they approached the flotilla and his estimate on numbers? The main assault during which people lost their lives took place in the dark in the middle of the night. Did Mr. Dillon anticipate this? What was his response to it?

When all of this is over and Mr. Dillon has answered questions we will be left with the immediate issue that we will not be able to raise any questions in the Dáil next week should anything happen to theMV Rachel Corrie because of how the business has been ordered.

Last December the European Council issued the following statement:

the continued policy of closure is unacceptable and politically counterproductive. It has devastated the private sector economy and damaged the natural environment, notably water and other natural resources. The EU again reiterates its calls for an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza.

This committee is dealing with the immediate issue of theRachel Corrie, whether the blockade has ended, whether the EU is turning last December’s statement into something meaningful and if, out of the worst of circumstances, there is an opportunity for meaningful talks that would include all the main actors.

I am not a spokesperson for Hamas but I have said, and it is the Labour Party's position, that it was a mistake for the European Union to exclude that party at a time when an internal debate was ongoing between political and military means. Ultimately, however, I would like to think that the blockade is now being seriously questioned.

Those who have lost their lives or have been injured deserve our sympathy. This type of action in international waters is not acceptable for a State which participates in shared norms of international law.

Before Mr. Dillon replies, I wish to inform him that a delegation from the committee will travel to Washington to meet officials from the US State Department, Members of the House of Representatives and Senate and representatives of the Jewish community in the United States. We will convey to them as honestly and accurately as we are able what we know about the situation.

I thank Mr. Dillon for his forthright account of what has happened. My colleagues have clearly outlined the disgust we feel as a committee, as Members of the Oireachtas and as Irish citizens at the way Israel has once again shown flagrant disregard for international law.

While it is somewhat unfortunate that the Israeli ambassador is not here today, we have had numerous opportunities to question him about various matters but we did not get a realistic response. I am not sure whether it would be useful to have him appear before us again given that he did not see fit to meet us today despite agreeing to do so.

Only a few months ago, other Irish citizens were put in danger by Mossad's illegal use of Irish passports. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has met the Israeli ambassador on that issue but was stonewalled. We face similar problems in regard to the attack on Gaza 18 months ago. The majority of members of this committee are committed to a two-state solution but this will not be possible as long as one state is being strangled and lacks the ability to grow.

The Israeli authorities delayed access by Irish and, I assume, other EU consular services to Mr. Dillon while he was in detention. How long was this delay, was he questioned by the IDF or the Israel authorities during his illegal detention and, if so, what was the purpose of the questions?

The Israelis are trying to spin the story that their commandoes acted in self-defence having been attacked with iron bars and knives. I ask Mr. Dillon to elaborate further on that claim and to confirm none of the humanitarian group on the boat held weapons. How long did the Israeli operation take from the time the commandoes came on board until everyone was detained?

I understand theRachel Corrie is at present close to Crete and is proceeding towards Gaza. The Oireachtas has passed a clear motion that the vessel be allowed to continue unhindered to Gaza. Can Mr. Dillon provide an update on her position?

I extend my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives. These people went on an aid mission and will never return to their families. They were gunned down while doing a good deed trying to assist others in their hour of need. The situation cannot get more serious than that. The Taoiseach and the Dáil were clear that serious consequence would ensue. We must consider trade issues, such as the Euro-Med Association Agreements and the import of products produced in illegal Israeli settlements.

Mr. Shane Dillon

Deputy Timmins asked about the background to our convoy. The two boats from Ireland which were part of the Free Gaza Movement, theChallenger I and Challenger II, were to sail from Crete and meet up in Cyprus, but we were refused access to that country. The activists on board the two boats were trained in hotels in Crete on what to expect and how to react when the Israelis came on board. I did not participate in the training because I was preparing the boat for sea and was not involved with the activists until we departed port.

We were the closest boat to theMavi Marmara when she was attacked and we could see the Israeli soldiers as they accessed her by her stern. As we pulled away from the main flotilla, we did not see all the action that took place although we noticed rubbish being thrown overboard. I cannot say what was on the other vessels because I was not on board them.

I was advised by activists on what to expect when the Israelis boarded based on the previous experience of freedom boats. My skipper, Denis Healy, is a British citizen who lived in Cyprus and made several previous trips to Gaza. However, on the last trip he made his boat was rammed. He updated me in Crete on what to expect and we prepared the boat for sea by making sure our engines were up to scratch.

We cannot confirm what was on the other vessels but theMavi Marmara had airport-type security. We transferred three German MPs aboard from the Challenger I and, before they were allowed to gain access, the security officers on Mavi Marmara searched their bags using airport-type scanners and sent the MPs through the scanners. It is typical on a cruise ship to have such equipment on board at access points. The only arms displayed by the Israeli forces were galley knives, seamen’s knives and a sledge-hammer. They showed these as evidence of weapons used against them but they are typical of what would be on board a ship of this size. When there are more than 400 persons on board they have to be fed and one needs galley knives to do that. The sledge-hammer is typically used in the preparation of anchors. There was nothing untoward on board these boats. We took fuel from one of the Greek boats and its Turkish crew told us there was nothing on board of that nature. After we had left them they transferred some activists on board from the Mavi Marmara but until then there were only seafarers on board the boat. They simply wanted to take the cargo to the port.

When the Israelis attacked us it was just before the morning twilight. There was a full moon and little cloud cover so visibility was very good and we could see quite a long distance. We could see eight or nine ribs and larger corvettes approaching the flotilla. At least four Israelis boarded theMavi Marmara and we decided we would break away. It was 15 minutes before we could break from the fleet completely so we were steaming for half an hour until we were away from the fleet. From that distance we could not see what was happening on board the other vessels.

I was also asked about the passage back. We were the fastest boat in the fleet and got back in just over four hours under the Israelis. They would not tell us where they were taking us but advised us to follow the vessel ahead. We had a GPS and they had lifted the jamming on it so we were able to see that we were heading for Ashdod. I was taken ashore as soon as we got into Ashdod at approximately noon.

Once I was incarcerated by the Israelis I had no way of telling the time though I know that the ambassador visited me in the cells at 8.20 a.m. The Bulgarian ambassador had been in contact with one of the other people in the cell and he came down later in the day. There was also a Czech citizen in the cell. He was very worried and nervous so I advised our ambassador, Mr. Breifne O'Reilly, that he wanted to see his own ambassador. By the time the Irish ambassador had come in, most of the people in my cell had seen or spoken to their consul.

Another question was on the security on boardChallenger I. We were asked to check each other’s cases. Most of the people on board had small cases and no weapons. There was one small galley knife which never came out of the galley throughout the whole incident. No weapons were taken out by anybody on the boat and no physical force was used against the Israelis by anybody on board. Our reaction was entirely verbal. I cannot speak for what happened on the other boat as I was not there.

I am grateful to Mr. Dillon for coming in and I commend him on his courage and decency. We are very proud of him and we appreciate his clear, accurate and factual description of what happened. He has obviously thought about what happened and he has given us no trimmings. Instead, he spoke about the weather conditions and the visibility and he gave an account of precisely what he saw, limiting his evidence to what he was able to give proper evidence about. It is important to take on board the fact that he described the items that were found and gave a clear explanation of their functional presence. It is no surprise to learn that galley knives are a routine part of the equipment of a ship and that the same is true of a sledge-hammer. The Israeli authorities have very powerful and sophisticated spin machines and PR operations and they have been wheeled out everywhere, even in a small country such as Ireland. We need to get at the facts as clearly as Mr. Dillon has.

I have been on a number of radio programmes to talk about the political background and the foreign affairs implications of this event. I regret that there seems to be some confusion between the terms "Jewish" and "Israeli". It has not come to the fore at this meeting but it arose in a radio programme that has just finished. It was unintentional but it is dangerous and we need to be aware of the dangers of unleashing anti-Semitism. In London, Hasidic Jews demonstrated at the cenotaph against the blockade, holding up placards calling on what they call the "Zionist" state to cease a criminal occupation and siege. That must be borne in mind, as must the work of Mr. Ezra Nawi and Professor Jeff Halper, an Israeli citizen and very distinguished academic who has analysed the impact of the settlements. We must also note that, on a previous flotilla, there was an 83-year old holocaust survivor who is critical of Israeli policies in the area, which should protect anybody who takes an interest in this matter from the charges of anti-semitism. Unfortunately, the Holocaust is frequently used to provide an alibi for acts of thuggery and I deplore that.

It is significant that the boat now in focus, as it proceeds towards the coast of Palestine and Gaza, is called theRachel Corrie. Rachel Corrie was another unarmed peace activist who was deliberately killed by a bulldozer being driven over her — a shocking act. We can have an impact on this situation by the strength of our action in the hope that it will inhibit a further tragedy. There could be a further tragedy because of the sinister things that have been said — and echoed today, to my great surprise — about the nature of the blockade. As Deputy Higgins pointed out, the blockade is illegal and I welcome the fact that Deputy Timmins has accepted that.

That has always been the case.

I know, but I welcome the comment. I am very pleased that there is a unified front on that and I do not intend to be awkward or critical. The act is illegal under international law but I heard an Israeli spokesman on the radio saying it was justified under Article 4 of the United Nations Charter, which is rubbish. Mr. Noel Dorr, a very distinguished Irish diplomat of very calm and clear mind, read the entire article on the radio yesterday but there is nothing in it to justify the action. With regard to the use of force on the high seas, an authority on international law was Professor Ian Brownlie of the University of Oxford. He has been quoted as being definitively against acts such as this, which are not sustainable in international law.

We have had the Goldstone report on the position in Gaza. Everybody deplores the firing of rockets but there is the question of proportionality. There is the undoubted fact that rocket attacks ceased during the Egyptian-negotiated truce, with activities resuming after the deliberate and provocative incursion by Israeli forces and the killing of certain Palestinian citizens. I say this is incontrovertible because I placed on the record of this committee some time ago the acknowledgement of this by the official Israeli spokesman so nobody should try to challenge that.

In what circumstances were the Tasers used or does our guest have any experience of that? Will he give us details of the surroundings in that respect? What was the response to the use of language? There was a blanket use of the word "terrorist" by an Israeli spokesman. The group of ships in which out guest was involved was described by the Israeli Foreign Minister as an "armada of violence and hatred". Does our guest regard that as an accurate description or does he have another? He might comment on the use of the word "deported" and the legal circumstances surrounding the deportation.

I am not a lawyer but I have a certain degree of common sense. It seems extraordinary that a state can commit an act of piracy on the high seas in international waters, violently seize the citizens of other countries, import them against their will into its territory and then purport to deport them. The reason for this is perfectly clear; it is in order to refuse such people re-entry. The Israelis are very sensitive to anybody seeing what is going on in Gaza as the conditions there are pretty horrific. This is a collective punishment and that is another crime in international law.

We need to be strong in this response because we have neglected to act. We should at least be strong in language and we have had past opportunities. I have proposed motions on the subject and there is a powerful financial arrangement between Israel and the European Union in the Euro-Med agreement. Attached to this are certain human rights protocols which require the suspension of the agreement in circumstances where human rights were violated. Human rights have been massively violated, which the Goldstone report makes clear. There isprima facie evidence of serious war crimes. The European Union has strangely averted its eyes and refuses to even monitor what is going on officially. This is in the interests of constructive engagement and so on.

Ireland had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to blackball Israel's proposed membership of the OECD but chose not to do so. One of my colleagues in the Seanad asked if this would happen this week and if Ireland would be happy now not to use that effective weapon. Ireland had the capacity to act. With regard to the war that preceded this blockade, the fact that 85% of Israeli agricultural exports go the European Union meant we could have switched the war off in 15 minutes.

I understand the cargo on the boat where the attack happened and nine Turkish citizens were murdered contained medicine, cement, school books and wheelchairs. To what extent could these be regarded as weaponry? On the issue of cement, I call on action from one of the largest Irish companies quoted on the stock exchange, CRH, which supplies cement to the Israeli authorities for building the illegal wall largely on Palestinian territory. It is astonishing that cement could be interdicted on the high seas in a piratical manner while an Irish company supplies the cement that builds the wall.

Cuirim fáilte le Mr. Dillon agus gabhaim comhgairdeas leis as an seasamh cróga a ghlac sé. As a witness to the events I will not ask him to comment on my position and that of my party with regard to Israeli actions but I want to glean a number of other details on what occurred and what should happen in future. My position is that the bastards should have been expelled straight away for an attack on Irish citizens at sea. I have endorsed the campaign for boycott divestment and sanctions and I have also called at various committees and in the Dáil for years for the humanitarian clause within the Euro-Med agreement to be implemented. I also endorse what Senator Norris said with regard to CRH. I would go further in calling for the Government not to proceed with any contract for 500,000 rounds for the Defence Forces which is currently being discussed.

I will concentrate on the few questions I have. The description of our guest focused on the arrests on theMavi Marmara but what about the other boats in the flotilla? Did he see the actions against any other boats and did he gain information afterwards from those with whom he shared cells? What about the people on the Challenger i? What occurred on other ships?

Was there any cargo onChallenger I or was it just transporting passengers? What was the cargo, if there was some, on the limited space on the boat? Is our guest aware of the limited definition of humanitarian aid which Israel has and did any of the cargo come within that definition? Who was on the Challenger I and will he give a description of the variety of people who were passengers?

What is our guest's view with regard to the law on the Israelis intercepting and arresting these people in international waters? Was it legal and could there be any justification for the actions at sea? I presume our guest, as a seafarer, would be aware of the variety of international laws guaranteeing free passage in international waters. Satellite telephones and equipment on the boat were interfered with by the Israelis to prevent messages of distress or other communications being sent beyond the flotilla. Is he aware of the laws in this regard? How long did the incident last? Were the activists in control of communications after the Israelis seized the boat?

I also have a question about the future. What has happened to the boat? Has it been released and, if so, where is it? What is the process required if it has not been released? Is Mr. Dillon aware of other boats of the Free Gaza Movement which have been detained in the past by Israeli forces? Were all personal belongings and equipment returned? Was his personal equipment returned to him when he was leaving, including clothes, phones and so on?

I thank Mr. Dillon for coming before the committee and allowing us to see the other side of the story. Putting on my devil's advocate hat, I will mention that the document states that the large Turkish ferry, theMavi Marmara, which had more than 600 Turkish and international passengers on board, ignored a request to stop. Mr. Dillon is not in a position to say much on this because he was on the Challenger I, which was behind it. How can we get objective information as to who is correct? There is a spin on the story at the moment. How can we find out the accurate story? Did the boat ignore a request to stop?

Why would the Israelis want to stop aid from going to Gaza? I am quite surprised to see that they would not allow electrical appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines and other equipment such as needles, thread and light bulbs — all normal household equipment — to get through. What is the blockage there? I am having difficulty coming to terms with why the Israelis are so fearful that they will not open up Gaza and let the people there get on with their lives. There must eventually be a two-state solution. Whatever way we go about it, this must be the way forward. Can the EU and the UN give a clear picture, as soon as possible, of what really happened? My worry is that there will be spin, spin and more spin.

Mr. Dillon may not be able to answer the questions today because of the ongoing process of obtaining information, but I appreciate his listening to them. My other questions are the same as those that have been asked by others, so I will not delay any further.

I welcome Mr. Dillon to the committee and am glad he is back, safe and sound, in Ireland.

Amnesty International, in its annual report on Israel and the occupied territories which was published in Dublin last week, stated: "Impunity remained the norm for Israeli soldiers, police and other security forces". We now know what that means in terms of the impact on civilians, including the activists who were on board. It is my contention that the Israeli forces did act, in this case, with impunity, and Amnesty International is accurate in its assessment.

The Israeli press has been interesting in recent days. Gideon Levy, a writer withHaaretz, wrote a piece headlined “Gaza flotilla drives Israel into a sea of stupidity”. Many other articles were very critical of what happened. It is important that the committee, which I am glad to attend as a visitor today, and our Parliament make common cause with voices within Israel that see the blockade as illegal — calling it as it is — and that champion human rights. This is something we should develop further. Many members have been to Gaza and I have no doubt much work of which I am unaware is going on in this area, but it must be highlighted again.

The notion of collective punishment is something I raised with the Minister for Foreign Affairs when he was in the Seanad last night. I noted that a group of NGOs, including Trócaire, has called for a convention of the signatories of the fourth Geneva Convention. This is something Ireland should try to initiate, given that collective punishment is occurring in Gaza. Deputy Michael D. Higgins spoke powerfully about this in the Dáil the other day. I hope our Minister for Foreign Affairs can play a part in initiating such a convention.

The activists have been described as being part of a flotilla of hate; clearly, from what Mr. Dillon says, this is not the case. I must give testimony to the nature of the crew on board theRachel Corrie. As members probably know, it left from my home town of Dundalk; in fact, the boat has been there since last November, when it was abandoned by its original owner, a Lithuanian merchant company that left its crew unpaid. The Free Gaza movement bought the boat and the International Transport Workers’ Federation paid off the crew, and so the story went on. I had the privilege of getting to know Derek Graham and his wife, and I know him to be a man who understands the dynamics of aggression but is himself committed to the strength of peaceful protest. I am convinced of that. When one listens to him, he seems to understand what Gandhi understood, which is that one’s strength is one’s vulnerability. As they continued towards the blockade, the crew was inspired by that pacifist tradition.

I inspected the cargo on the quayside in Dundalk before it went on board. The cement was Quinn cement, which drew a wry smile from me because this was when the Quinn crisis was at its apex, but we hoped the cement was going off to build schools and repair civil infrastructure in Gaza. That is still our hope, and I call again this evening for theRachel Corrie to be allowed through, because its cargo is for the good of the citizens and people of Gaza, the crew’s intention is humanitarian, and its watchword is a pacifist principle.

I do not really have any questions to add. I am sorry I missed most of Mr. Dillon's testimony earlier, as we had to leave for a vote in the House; however, I will read it in the transcripts later. I thank him again for being here.

Does anyone else wish to make a contribution? We are going to finish up at this stage.

Like everyone else, I welcome Mr. Dillon. He has been through an enormous trauma and we appreciate his being here today.

As I have said on many other occasions, the land blockade of Gaza by Israel is entirely wrong. Within a short time of the conflict that concluded in January 2009, everything possible should have been done to facilitate the reconstruction of Gaza and the return of normal commercial life. This policy has prevented not only the return of normal commercial life but the reconstruction of medical facilities and schools which were destroyed, as Deputy Timmins and I saw when we visited Gaza in March or April 2009, after that conflict.

The events that took place this week, which should never have taken place, were a consequence of an ill-conceived policy which was correctly described by one of the other speakers at EU level as politically counter-productive. It is humanly counter-productive, because if we are ever to restore normality to the region, we cannot ignore the reality of the 1.5 million people in Gaza.

The manner in which the Israeli Government dealt with this issue was ill-conceived. Like everyone else, I extend my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. No loss of life should have arisen from this event. It is important, as others have pointed out, that we take cognisance of the position of theRachel Corrie. I hope the humanitarian aid on that boat is safely delivered to Gaza and made available to the people in Gaza.

I would like to see the crossings into Gaza opened. I can understand that from the Israeli perspective there are security issues in ensuring that armaments do not go into Gaza which result in more rockets going into Israel. I do not see how that cannot be arranged properly in the context of sophisticated arrangements that can be put in place. UNRWA has a role to play in that connection.

From everything I know, the truth is that some reconstruction is taking place in Gaza. Members of this committee do not seem to be aware of that. However, it is Hamas-controlled reconstruction. The international community, as well as the people of Gaza, have an interest in ensuring that if Gaza is reconstructed it is done in a manner whereby ordinary people are allowed to get on with their lives and the reconstruction of commercial life that takes place is not dependent on the whim of Hamas.

None of us should pretend that the issues involved here are simple. The Free Gaza movement has a wealth of committed people who joined in supporting this flotilla from the best of motives. There are also some people involved, as I have no doubt there were some involved in the flotilla, whose motives are not essentially about getting humanitarian aid to Israel but about a continued political campaign to de-legitimise the Israeli state in the eyes of many. The manner in which the Israeli Government dealt with matters this week contributes to that campaign in the eyes of those who launched it.

In the context of goods going into Gaza by ship from sea, the blockade is more complex than some members of this committee are prepared to admit. I say this in the context of saying I believe theRachel Corrie should be allowed to deliver its cargo. One of the dilemmas is the role Iran plays. This is the elephant in the room and one to which this committee rarely refers, for reasons I do not understand. I agree with Deputy O’Hanlon. When we talk about the need to bring about a viable peace process and resolve the underlying causes of this conflict, the fact is that the Iranians are resolutely opposed to the peace process. Long before this incident Hamas constantly urged Fatah and the Palestinian Authority not to engage in discussions with Israel and it continued to be committed to the total destruction of the Israeli state. Whereas Fatah, as we know from meetings with President Abbas and others, has a vision of a secular, independent Palestinian state, Hamas has a vision of a fundamentalist state maintaining a war footing with the state of Israel, dedicated to its destruction. That is what makes all of this much more complex than we may, on occasion, wish to believe. That is what makes the Israelis so concerned and anxious about the type of cargo that might get into Gaza.

That gives no excuse for the events of this week and I would not even pretend to try to excuse them. They are inexcusable and indefensible but we should not pretend this is not more complex than it is. I wish the Free Gaza movement would not only involve itself in continuing to campaign to ensure that reconstruction takes place in Gaza and that normal commercial life can continue there but campaign that the fundamentalist hold of Hamas on Gaza be loosened to some extent.

The irony is that Deputy Timmins and I, and Deputy Kenny as leader of Fine Gael, could visit Gaza but if President Abbas visited Gaza he would be assassinated. President Abbas has had no opportunity to visit Gaza since the conflict that has been the subject matter of so much discussion in this room. When we met with him my recollection is we were told that since Hamas took over Gaza in the region of 700 members of Fatah have been killed by Hamas. Therefore, when we talk about human rights in Gaza it is important that the Israelis absolutely respect the human rights of the population of Gaza but it is also important that Hamas is compelled to respect the human rights of the population of Gaza. The difficulty in tackling the underlying cause and a peace process truly advancing is the division within the Palestinian community, the fact that Fatah and Hamas are not talking to each other and the fact that the objectives of Hamas are so deadly different to the stated objectives of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.

In the context of where we now stand with all this, it is untenable for the State of Israel — and has been for some time, as I have said in public and in private on occasions — that the blockade of Gaza continues. In the context of dealing with this issue I am a lone voice, somebody who is depicted as having a myopic view of the conflict. I do not. What I want to see is a viable peace process and two states living side by side with each other. At the moment there is an entirely different political regime administering in the West Bank to that in Gaza and there is internecine warfare between Fatah and Hamas. Those in Israel who wish to see a peace process progressing are placed in a position where they know that if any arrangements are entered into with Fatah there is no guarantee that anybody in Hamas will agree with them. As will be privately told by some members of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, if they advance the peace process in a constructive way in which there is a possibility of agreement being reached, they are at risk of being assassinated by members of Hamas.

Therefore, we in this committee should not pretend, when we look at this region, that the tragedy of the conflict there is easily resolved but should ensure, in so far as we can, that when we talk about human rights we do it from all perspectives. I find particularly depressing, having visited Gaza on a number of occasions, that when we were there in 2009 the conditions were substantially worse than they were in 1996, the first occasion I visited the area.

I wish Mr. Dillon well. I hope there will not be an incident involving theRachel Corrie and that the intervention of our Government in discussions that are taking place with the Israeli side, which I assume involve the Israeli ambassador, will work. It may emerge — I do not know if this is true because I have no information — that the ambassador by not being present may be of more help in resolving this issue in the context of work he is engaged in than by being here today simply making a presentation to the committee. He should be given an opportunity, if he so wishes, to address this committee on a later occasion, as he seems to have suggested.

There are two or three questions I would like to ask Mr. Dillon, arising from other questions that were asked. In regard to his own ship, what happened to the cargo? We have been told by the Israelis that any of the humanitarian aid that was on board each ship that landed in Ashdod would be allowed to go to Gaza, subject to whatever inspections were to be undertaken. I am interested in this. Does Mr. Dillon know what happened to it? Has anybody supervised what happened to it? Have any promises been made with regard to it? We have not heard what the nature of the cargo is.

In the context of the delivery of aid, this was a flotilla about both delivering aid and making a political protest. It was not simply about delivering aid but, as some of those involved said, about breaking the embargo. If one was merely delivering aid one would not have 600 people on a Turkish ship, if that is the number. That was the media report of the number. If one was delivering aid one would have the aid and a discrete number of people who were capable of delivering it. What is particularly nauseating in the context of some of the public comment that has been made about this issue is a letter inThe Irish Times today from the Iranian ambassador, criticising the Israelis. What occurred should not have occurred. There should have been no loss of life. However, for the Iranian ambassador or his deputy to write to The Irish Times complaining about loss of life when that regime shot its own people in Tehran a few months ago, is responsible for maintaining the conflict and has opposed every element of any peace process attempted is especially nauseating.

I do not know and have no reason to know whether it is true but I wish to ask a question because the matter has been brought to my attention. It has been suggested to me that the parents of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit expressed their support and stated they would support the flotilla, a lifting of the blockade in Gaza by the flotilla or allowing the flotilla to get its goods to Gaza on condition that the Free Gaza movement talk to Hamas with a view to their son having access to the Red Cross and other human rights organisations. He has been held now for over three years with no access to anyone and his fate is uncertain. I have been informed that the Free Gaza movement had no interest in engaging in that way and rejected their proposal. I genuinely do not know whether this is true. It is something that has been suggested to me and I seek an observation from the delegation on the matter and on whether the Free Gaza movement should also make clear that it is not appropriate that someone of this nature should be held for three years without access to the Red Cross to report on his condition.

I welcome Mr. Dillon to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs to discuss his experiences of when the flotilla heading to Gaza was boarded by the IDF. Like others, I am disappointed the Israeli ambassador did not come in today. I talked to him via the magic of radio on Monday and I asked him to come before the committee. He stated that he would come before any group that was fair and balanced. As Deputy Shatter has pointed out, the issue of theRachel Corrie as it heads towards Gaza is more pressing than reports he might give to us down the line. I hope he comes before the Oireachtas and explains what happened to the flotilla and why so many people were killed and injured.

I have two questions for Mr. Dillon. Earlier, he referred to Somali pirates. As a man of the sea, does he consider what happened an act of piracy? Does he consider that he was kidnapped? I join Mr. Dillon in his praise of the Irish ambassador because I am aware that the Irish ambassador out there not only helped him and other Irish citizens, but helped other citizens who were in distress and did not have access to their consular services.

I refer to the remarks of Deputy Shatter. We are all aware that this is a very complex situation. We are all aware that Iran is basically at war with Israel by proxy through Hamas and is using the Gaza Strip as a launch pad for its own war against Israel. Fatah has been before the committee and I am on record as stating that the reason it has lost support among its own people is that most of its people are seen to be corrupt and to use the money for their own benefit and purposes. This is why they have lost elections and are losing support in the West Bank along with other issues. The Deputy is correct to suggest that if they move towards peace they lose ground behind them among their own community.

Since Mr. Dillon was not in Cyprus, he will not be aware of the toing and froing of the Free Gaza movement, but it was contacted by Gilad Shalit's family solicitor. As one can imagine, the Free Gaza movement had many issues with which to deal in four or five different ports at the same time. Co-ordination and trying to get people out was very difficult. Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Chris Andrews and I saw this much for ourselves. There were some 25 parliamentarians in Cyprus and other ports. The issue came up and the attempt to co-ordinate a response from the Free Gaza movement was proving very difficult in the two or three days beforehand. Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Andrews and I took it upon ourselves, as parliamentarians, to contact the solicitor directly. We phoned him and wrote to him on the Thursday. We outlined that without pre-condition or without asking for the family to support the flotilla in any way shape or form, which, I appreciate would cause serious problems for the Shalit family in Israel, it could be arranged that parcels and letters from the family could be given to us and we would pass them on to the Red Cross in Gaza or to our fellow Irishman, John Ging, in the United Nations. It was understood they would try — I emphasise that word — to get them to Gilad Shalit. Obviously, events overtook that situation. We did not manage to get off the island on to the flotilla but we will continue to engage with the family because, in reality, he is prisoner of war and is entitled to receive help from the Red Cross. As we stated in our e-mail, we hope he will be released and returned to his family because that is where he should be. That was the issue. Since Mr. Dillon was not in Cyprus, he would not be aware of the toing and froing in that regard. I seek an answer to the questions on piracy and kidnapping.

I thank Senator Daly. That completes the contributions from members. I realise this is putting a good deal to Mr. Dillon but I call on him to address any of the key questions that can be answered.

Mr. Shane Dillon

Senator Norris asked about the use of Tasers. This was somewhat random. It was not especially focussed and, from where I was on board the boat, it appeared people were hit at random. It was just fired up at will. If Taser was being used in a specific direction it would not have hit people on their arms, it would have hit them somewhere on their body. They were not even looking when they used the Taser. Paint balls were fired off and the boat was covered in paint balls. When I was in the detention centre in Ashdod, another Irish citizen, Isam Ben Ali, came in. All the crew and passengers on board his boat were covered in paintballs. I cannot say what happened on board the other boats.

I was asked to describe the flotilla. To me, it was a peace flotilla. We were carrying humanitarian aid. The vessel on which I sailed did not have any cargo. It had people, passengers and the activitists of the Free Gaza movement and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. We had Ann Wright on board, a former colonel of the US Navy. Previously, she resigned in protest at the Afghan war. I was on board as was the skipper. There were only 17 persons on board at the time. It was definitely an act of piracy. We were attacked in international waters. It is my belief that the Israelis are not signatories to the International Maritime Organisation and, therefore, do not recognise the law. They create their own law. They extended their territorial waters the night before. We were also outside the area they decided was within their territorial waters when the attack took place.

We were brought in but we had no stamps on our passports when we were deported. My intention was to proceed from Crete to Gaza and to return to Crete. The Israelis came on board, commandeered the vessel, took us to Ashdod and from there to Ben-Gurion. I had no intention to go to Israel on this trip. I have many friends in Israel and I may have wished to visit them in future. I have no stamp on my passport to indicate that I have been there. They never touched my passport. It was always kept on my person. The only time they took it was to write the details for my flight.

Deputy Shatter referred to the complexity of the vessels coming in from the sea. Each of the cargo vessels was on the International Ship and Port Facility's security code. They were all at code level 1, which is the lowest level and is normal around the Irish and European coast. They had all been loaded in commercial ports under normal security procedures and had sailed within a few days. When they were asked by the Israeli Defence Forces what their code was that was what they were given. The vessel I was on is not a cargo vessel, rather, it is a passenger vessel and was not required to carry through the same rigours as the cargo vessels. We had passengers and activists on board. Some of the activists had toys and footballs with them. These, under the Israeli terms, would not be allowed in as humanitarian aid.

We were asked about breaking the blockade, which was our intention. We knew if we entered in one boat, because the Free Gaza movement have gone before with one boat and been refused entry and turned away, that we would be turned away. The intention was to go in by sea to bring in aid and for it to be visible to the world that the Port of Gaza was open. Sea ports are essential for any nation. Some 90% of our goods are transported by sea and the opening of a sea port is essential to the operation of any nation. The reason we were there was to assist in opening up the port.

Senator Ormonde asked about the attack on theMavi Marmara and that it was reported that it was requested to stop and return to port. We could hear all the communications on VHF radio at the time. We were on channel 16 and the Israeli Defence Forces requested the Mavi Marmara to change to channel 14 and the other vessels to change channels. We refused to change from channel 16 on the Challenger I but we had enough VHF radios aboard to be able to listen in to the conversations. These were also recorded and uploaded by Kate Geraghty and Paul McGeough. The VHF conversation between the Israeli Defence Forces and the vessel I was on, Challenger I, was uploaded prior to it attacking us. It was just a general call about how many persons were on board, what our destination was and if we would stop and return to Ashdod. We advised it that we were in international waters and were proceeding to Gaza. We had on board a Norwegian professor of international law who advised us as we were proceeding to Gaza that as it is an autonomous area Israel does not have a right to declare territorial waters off its port. For this reason, we intended to proceed to the Port of Gaza.

Deputy Chris Andrews has to go to the House to speak and has asked for one minute.

I will be very brief. I welcome Mr. Dillon. What he did was a credit to him. The public is very cynical about politics and politicians. One sees people's idealism, like that of Mr. Dillon, and there is a strong core of that through the community. I agree with Deputy Rory O'Hanlon when he said this is a symptom. The attack on the flotilla and Operation Cast Lead are symptoms of the blockade and that has to be highlighted. The blockade has to be treated and dealt with.

I thank Mr. Dillon very sincerely for appearing before the committee today. It has been an exceptional opportunity for us to listen to him. He is obviously very accurate and exact in what he says. It is very much appreciated. He has been very careful, truthful and accurate about what he said. We thank him for that. We have a number of things to do. As several people said, including Deputy Shatter in particular, it is a very complex situation. We are very much involved in that and we will continue our involvement.

I propose that this committee sends a vote of thanks to Breifne O'Reilly, our ambassador in Israel, for all the work he has done in recent days. Many of us have met him. He is a very good individual. I am sure he has worked and continues to work extremely hard. We should thank him for that.

Agreed. I express our sincere sympathy with those who lost friends or relatives in this very tragic event. I ask the members to stand for a minute's silence.

Members rose.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.25 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 30 June 2010.