Kenneth Nichols O’Keefe (born July 21, 1969) is a former United States Marine and Gulf War veteran, turned peace activist, who has organized a human shield action in Iraq and was a passenger on the MV Mavi Marmara during the Israeli commando raid on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” humanitarian mission.
O’Keefe served in the U.S. Marine Corp. from 1988-1991, and was stationed with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Infantry Division in Kuwait during the Gulf War. As a young soldier, O’Keefe was targeted for retaliation by his platoon sergeant after going outside the chain of command to report abuses of authority. While deployed, O’Keefe became concerned for his physical safety after the offended sergeant began penalizing O’Keefe’s platoon members in an effort to induce extra-judicial punishment. According to O’Keefe, “I realised that honour and integrity were virtues which are often punished rather than rewarded and the Marines supplied me with my first serious taste of injustice.”
Upon discharge from the Marines, O’Keefe developed an interest in anthropology, racial studies, and human rights, discovering such authors as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Malcolm X, which challenged him to examine some of the cherished beliefs he was taught about the United States. O’keefe states that he was “profoundly impacted” by books such as Necessary Illusions (Chomsky); A peoples History of the United States (Zinn); The Auto-Biography of Malcolm X; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Brown); and Black Like Me (Griffin). O’Keefe identified as a Hawaiian national and served as a legislator with the Hawaiian Independence Movement. During his participation with the independence movement, O’Keefe authored two initiatives: the first sought to commit the Hawaiian movement to a policy of non-violence and the second sought to outlaw WMD in Hawaii.
In 1996, O’Keefe became involved in marine conservation. O’keefe began a maritime campaign to protect Hawaii’s indigenous marine population, which involved conducting ghost net recoveries and rescues of endangered Green Sea Turtles wrapped in monofilament fishing line. O’Keefe became a pioneer in sea turtle rescues in Hawaii and led a campaign to create a marine sanctuary (Pupukea MLCD) on the North Shore of Oahu. In 1998, O’keefe joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an anti-whaling campaign based in Hawaii, which he later served as the regional director for.
After moving to London, O’Keefe turned his attention towards humanitarian activism. In December 2002, O’Keefe helped organize the TJP (Truth Justice Peace) Human Shield Action which consisted of western activists migrating from London to Iraq to protect vital civilian infrastructure from the U.S. Coalition’s bombing raids by deploying themselves as human shields. O’Keefe actively recruited individuals to serve as human shields in the hopes that placing western civilians at non-military locations would create a political deterrent which would prevent Coalition forces from bombing Iraq’s civilian infrastructure as part of their Shock and Awe strategy. Although Critics of the human shield initiative argue that the actions of the peace activists only served to protect a violent dictator, O’Keefe contends he was motivated by the knowledge that the U.S. led coalition would not limit their bombing to military targets, which would lead to the unnecessary suffering of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians. At the height of the TJP movement, approximately 300 human shields were deployed throughout Baghdad.
In 2010, O’Keefe participated in the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla.” He was among the 590 humanitarian activists aboard the Turkish vessel MV Mavi Marmara which was violently boarded by the special forces unit of the Israeli Navy, Shayetet 13, during the Gaza flotilla raid. At the time, the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH), was carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials, with the intent of breaking the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government contends that its Gaza blockade is a precaution against arms reaching Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas via sea and accuses the activists of seeking to create a media event to further provoke hostilities.
On May 31, 2010, nine activists aboard the MV Mavi Marmara were killed, and dozens more severely injured, after heavily armed Israeli naval commandos propelled onto the vessel via helicopter to take command of the ship and force it into the Israeli port of Ashdod for inspection. Accounts of the event are disputed. According to the official version released by the Army of Defense for Israel, the Israeli Naval commandos faced resistance from about 40 passengers aboard the Turkish ship MV Mavi Marmara, who had armed themselves with bars and knives. Activists aboard the MV Mavi Marmara, including O’Keefe, allege that the naval commandos provoked the violence, and were intent on punishing the activists for willfully violating the Israeli embargo.
During the violent struggle, nine activists were killed and numerous were others were wounded. A tenth activist who survived the initial incident, eventually died from his injuries after a three year coma. Ten Israeli commandos also reported injuries. None were killed. The five other ships in the flotilla employed passive resistance, which was suppressed without major incident. Although none of the ships were found to be carrying any illegal cargo, approximately 600 activists were detained for their refusal to sign deportation orders. Israel eventually released the activists under intense international pressure. However, Israeli authorities confiscated all media recordings taken by the 580 survivors of the MV Mavi Marmara which documented the ordeal.
The Israeli flotilla raid drew widespread international condemnation, which eventually ignited a United Nations probe into the incident. In September 2010, a fact finding team assembled to investigate the incident by the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) determined that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza violated international law. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) contends the blockade also violated the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against placing a military embargo on food and medical supplies.
In September 2011, the a four member panel led by Palmer published a UNHRC report upholding the legality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The panel reviewed official reports submitted by the Turkish and Israeli Governments, which included “statements from 93 individuals that were appended to the Turkish report, and excerpts of statements by IDF personnel engaged in the incident that were included in the Israeli report.” While the Palmer Report questioned “the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH,” it also concluded that the Israeli naval response was “excessive and unreasonable“, and that the treatment of detained crew members violated international human rights law. Although the Report asserted that the activists had placed themselves in harm’s way by challenging the Israeli naval blockade, the Israeli response was found to be “disproportionate” to the threat, and that Israeli naval commandos had engaged in “an unacceptable level of brutality” with evidence of “willful killing.”
An independent five member panel of human rights experts assembled by the U.N.H.R.C. to review the Palmer Report’s findings, confirmed that the Israeli response was unreasonable, but disagreed with the legality of the Israeli naval blockade concluding that Israel’s blockade of Gaza amounted to collective punishment in “flagrant contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
O’Keefe was among the surviving crew members of the MV Mavi Marmara who were arrested and detained by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). O’Keefe was accused by Israeli authorities of being an “anti-Israel extremist” who was seeking to enter the Gaza Strip in order to “form and train a commando unit” for Hamas. Despite the IDF’s contention that O’Keefe was involved in a terrorist plot, he was released from custody and deported along with his fellow activists after a brief detainment. O’Keefe has never been charged, by any governing body, with wrongful misconduct in relation to the incident. During his forced deportation, O’keefe was allegedly choked and beaten with a truncheon by Israeli Police at the Tel Aviv airport for refusing to sign a deportation order. O’keefe later released a video documenting the injuries he allegedly sustained while in custody.