"Once they got aboard our ship, they just stumbled around and argued with each other," former US Navy signalman of USS Liberty aboard Gaza freedom flotilla ship tells RAW STORY; IDF responds: forces showed "professionalism" and "commanders exhibited correct decision making"
Joe Meadors knew firsthand the dangers of sailing anywhere near Gaza.
But the US Navy veteran also believed that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) would stop short of using the same level of violence as it had toward his shipmates on the USS Liberty 43 years ago.
"I didn't think [the IDF] would go to those extremes," Meadors told RAW STORY in an exclusive interview. "But I knew that [death] was a possibility."
So he set sail with his fellow pro-Palestinian international activists aboard the Gaza freedom flotilla, which was intercepted May 31 by Israeli commandos, resulting in the deaths of nine activists. Two months later, Meadors says he still believes the fourth largest military in the world acted incompetently -- on both occasions.
But tell that to the IDF.
The USS Liberty was an electronic communication vessel for the US Navy, and Meadors served as its signalman. On June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, Israeli sea and air forces attacked the ship in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula.
As signalman, Meadors' job was to keep the US flag in clear sight for other vessels to be able to identify. Before the attack, he saw Israeli reconnaissance aircraft circle the Liberty over a dozen times. During the attack, he watched from the top deck as Israeli aircraft fired machine guns, dropped napalm, and knocked out the ship's life rafts and communications systems.
"From the Liberty perspective, we were virtually unarmed, and they couldn't take us out of action. They had four aircraft and torpedo boats, and they still didn't defeat us. They still didn't sink us, even though they had five torpedoes that they fired," Meadors told RAW STORY in an exclusive interview.
The United States and Israeli governments both conducted inquiries into the Liberty incident and concluded that the attack occurred primarily because of mistaken identity. The IDF said it thought the Liberty was an Egyptian vessel. As compensation, the Israeli government paid millions of dollars to the families of the killed and wounded American sailors as well as for the physical damage to the Liberty.
The Liberty incident remains the only maritime attack in which American forces were killed that was never investigated by the US Congress.
Meadors, now a retired accountant living in Corpus Christi, Texas, eagerly accepted the invitation of the Free Palestine Movement, which along with the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) organized the flotilla.
"I thought it was about time that I stepped up and try to help them out," the US Navy veteran told RAW STORY. "As a Liberty survivor, we're more in tune with what's going on in the Middle East. We cut through the chaff of what people say in our research."
The May 2010 flotilla was one of a number of sea and land attempts that pro-Palestinian activists have made to break the Israeli blockade of goods to the Gaza Strip. The blockade was begun in response to Hamas, a US-designated terrorist group, winning the 2007 Palestinian election and tightened when the Israelis fought the Palestinians in Gaza in December 2008.
The difference between Meadors' flotilla and the prior aid-for-Gaza missions that the Israeli navy let pass freely is the flotilla's connection to the Turkish government. Former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich told the Washington Post that the MV Mavi Marmara vessel was "a front for a radical Islamist organization, probably with links to the ruling party in Turkey."
Another difference is that this flotilla had more ships and activists than past attempts. Last year, for example, Israeli forces stopped and detained 19 international activists aboard The Spirit of Humanity to prevent them from entering Gaza waters. One of those activists was former U.S. congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who last fall encouraged Meadors to join this latest effort.
Meadors was aboard the Greek-flagged Sfendoni as the Israeli military force invaded the flotilla on May 31, 2010. He explained, "In my experience -- it might seem odd coming from somebody who was there -- [the Israeli commandos] were very polite. They said, 'Please sit down, and please shut up,' It sounds okay, but when somebody has pulled an M-16 at you, and they say that, it takes on a different aspect."
"From the perspective of the flotilla, [the Israeli commandos] really seemed like they didn't know what they were doing," he added. "Once they got aboard our ship, they just stumbled around and argued with each other -- didn't really know specifically what was going on."
The IDF Spokesperson took exception to Meadors' view, pointing to the conclusion of Israeli Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland's recent internal IDF investigation of the May 31 incident.
"The team determined that the Navy Commando soldiers operated properly, with professionalism, bravery and resourcefulness and that the commanders exhibited correct decision making," said the IDF spokesperson. "The report further determines that the use of live fire was justified and that the entire operation is estimable."
Upon adoption of the report, IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi added: "Not me, nor did the examination team identify a failure or negligence, but nonetheless, an examination as thorough as this brings up mistakes which must be corrected for future incidents."
Meadors' expectation about the level of violence turned out to be correct, though there was still violence perpetrated aboard all the flotilla's ships, a point he made freely. The members of the Gaza flotilla and the IDF disagreed on the other's use of weapons, each other's intent, and the first shot. The activists said they had no guns and no intention of committing violence. The IDF said that activists took pistols off its soldiers for use aboard the Marmara and that it has video proof of the flotilla organizers' intent to use violence prior to launch.
Each said the other fired the first round.
When the dust settled in the USS Liberty incident, Israeli forces had killed 34 US crewmen and wounded 173. There were no Israeli casualties. In comparison, after the Israeli raid on the 600-person flotilla group, nine civilians, almost all of whom were Turkish nationals, were dead, while dozens were wounded. Of the raiding party, seven Israeli soldiers were injured: two from gunshots, one from a fall, and others from beatings. But no Israelis died.
Of the 14 Americans in the flotilla, 13 returned home alive. The 19-year-old American citizen of Turkish descent that perished -- Furkan Dogan -- received five gunshot wounds, according to an autopsy. In contrast, Meadors received a whack from a yellow paintball pellet and the opportunity to tell his side of the flotilla's story.
Meadors said he would prefer that the international community investigate the incidents aboard the flotilla, particularly the Turkish-flagged Marmara. The Israeli government has rejected such a probe.
"The story I'm getting from the U.S. government is they are not going to conduct an investigation because the 'peace process' is at such a sensitive moment now," Meadors said. "My question to that is, 'What was so special about May 31st that the flotilla was attacked? That act didn't threaten the 'peace process' at all?'"
Meadors told RAW STORY that he harbors no grudges toward the Israeli forces. His Liberty shipmates might have called him crazy for agreeing to join the flotilla given the psychological trauma they all faced. However, Meadors said he had two things going for him: his self-realization and his medication for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the Veterans Administration.
"Come to find out that we weren't attacked by the people who attacked us back in 1967, so I really couldn't be angry at them because it was their fathers, their grandfathers who were doing it, not them," said Meadors. "I didn't have any anger or anything like that. The people who attacked us this time -- I knew all along that they were capable of the same things that happened to the Liberty, but they didn't carry it that far, thankfully."
The Israeli military was unable to prevent activists from smuggling video footage of the raid off the flotilla. Some of this footage can be seen online at Culture of Resistance.