For the first time since the Turkel Commission began holding public hearings in its investigation of the flotilla affair, the panel on Monday heard testimony from two passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara when it tried to break through the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.

The witnesses, Muhammad Zeidan and Sheikh Hamad Abu Dabi, head of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, insisted that the Mavi Marmara was on a humanitarian mission to the Gaza Strip and wanted to show the Palestinians living there that the world cared about them.

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MK Hanin Zoabi, who was also on board the Turkish ferry boat, attended the hearing but was not invited by the commission to testify.

Both Zeidan and Abu Dabi denied having witnessed any violence or talk of violence on the part of the radical Islamic Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), the organizer of the Mavi Marmara voyage, or its leader, Bulent Yildirim.

Both Zeidan and Abu Dabi denied having heard or even heard about a speech that Yildirim gave before the IDF operation to seize the boat, in which he warned of violence and resistance and said the Israeli soldiers would be thrown into the sea.

“I don’t know anything about it,” said Abu Dabi, when asked about the speech by commission member Miguel Deutch.

Abu Dabi also denied seeing passengers on the top deck throwing iron rods and other projectiles at Israeli soldiers trying to approach and board the vessel from small boats. They were driven off by the passengers’ violent resistance.

“Personally, I didn’t see anything,” he said when asked about the incident.

According to both witnesses, hundreds of Muslim passengers were completing their early morning prayer at 4:30 a.m. when they were ordered to return to their living quarters.

Even before finishing their prayers, they heard explosions from stun grenades that Israeli soldiers had dropped in order to scatter the passengers on the top deck.

Zeidan and Abu Dabi were able to see the Israeli boats encircling the Mavi Marmara from the windows in the large hall on the second deck where they slept, together with some 250 other passengers. They could not see the actual seizure of the boat.

Between about 4:30 and 5:30 a.m., the passengers remained in the hold, on the orders of the ship’s captain. During that time, Zeidan said 20 wounded passengers entered the hall where they were staying. Also during that time, a wounded Israeli soldier was brought in by two of the Turkish passengers.

Zeidan said the soldier was taken into a separate room where he was protected or guarded by some of the passengers.

“What do you mean ‘protected’,” asked Deutch. “You have probably heard that the soldier was beaten by some of the participants.”

“I didn’t see,” said Zeidan.

“But you must have heard,” Deutch continued. “You were so close.”

“I couldn’t say,” replied Zeidan.

“There was so much commotion, yelling and screaming.”

By about 5:30 a.m., the Mavi Marmara had been secured by the Israeli soldiers. Zeidan and Abu Dabi said some of the soldiers came down to their deck and stood outside the hall in front of a glass door, pointing their rifles at the passengers inside but not entering.

They did not offer aid to the wounded passengers, charged Zeidan, who added that after a while, Zoabi prepared a sign in Hebrew demanding medical assistance for the casualties. She approached the glass door on the other side of which the soldiers were standing, and asked them to intervene. According to Zeidan, the soldiers ordered her to sit down again.

Deutch asked him whether he was aware that there was live film footage showing that Zoabi had pointedly refused help from Israeli soldiers when it was offered.

“I am only telling you what I saw,” he replied.

Abu Dabi did not confirm Zeidan’s story that there were 20 wounded passengers in the room. He said he saw four dead bodies and one seriously wounded passenger.

Asked to explain the discrepancy between what he and Zeidan saw, Abu Dabi replied that he was sitting with his back to the door and that perhaps his vision was obstructed.

Both men denied that they were aware of the identity of the organizers of the trip. Zeidan said he had been invited to join the Mavi Marmara by a human rights group in Gaza and thought that the Free Gaza Movement was behind the voyage. Abu Dabi said he was invited to participate by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and made all his arrangements through it.

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Ken Watkin tried to pin down Zeidan on this point but Zeidan refused to cooperate.

“Who were the organizers?” he asked Zeidan.

“Every action required organization,” Zeidan replied.

“Of course someone gave instructions, like where to sleep, when to board the ship. I don’t know who the organizers were.”

“So, unknown people told you what to do,” continued Watkin. “The IHH flag was flying on the ship. Were its members on board?” “I don’t know,” answered Zeidan. “I only know there were participants from 40 countries.”

One of the commission members, former Foreign Ministry director-general Reuven Merhav, accused Abu Dabi of breaking the law by trying to enter Gaza, which is off-limits for Israelis, while claiming at the same time that he was a law-abiding citizen.

“If Turkey declared a closure in some part of the country because it was at war with Iraq, would you try to go there?” he asked. “No, you simply took advantage of a democratic country.”

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