Eyewitness report: Israel's murder on the high seas

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On 31 May Israeli commandos attacked a flotilla of ships carrying aid to Gaza, killing nine people and injuring dozens more. Kevin Ovenden from Viva Palestina recounts the horror of the attack and gives his views on building a movement that can lift the siege of Gaza.

"All changed, changed utterly." So wrote the great poet William Butler Yeats after the execution by Britain of Irish freedom fighters following the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Those words resonate today, following the massacre aboard the Mavi Marmara on bloody Monday - 31 May 2010. Now, a new phase of struggle is born in the movement to bring justice and freedom in Palestine. But it has come at a terrible price.

Nine volunteers aboard the aid ship were shot dead by Israeli special forces and dozens more wounded. The desperate attempts by the Israeli government and its supporters to blame the victims of terror for what is an act of state terrorism are sickening and depraved. But they show little sign of success.

None but the dwindling hardcore of Israel's apologists is taken in by a propaganda campaign which fast unravelled even as it began - revealing doctored footage, fake audio recordings, baseless claims of coming under fire from the passengers of a humanitarian aid vessel and a perverted disregard for human life. This was summed up by the Israeli information ministry advertising a barbarous video featuring prominent Israelis lampooning the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara.

What I and others saw during the assault cannot be airbrushed out. One Turkish brother a metre in front of me was shot through the leg; one, half a metre to the back right of me, through the abdomen. The shooting came from above while all three of us were on a deck where there were no Israeli commandos in proximity and therefore none who could feasibly claim to have been threatened by those they shot.

Brutal

A friend of mine, Nicci Enchmarch from Viva Palestina, was next to a photographer holding a stills camera. He was shot through the forehead, the bullet blowing away the back third of his skull. She cradled him as the last few seconds of his life slipped away.

The testimony could go on - from the immediate opening up with percussion grenades, rubberised bullets and then live fire as the commandos attacked, through to the systematic abuse of the wounded and prisoners. This was part of a wider pattern, as Franz Fanon reminded us during the Algerian struggle against French colonialism, "of police domination, of systematic racism, of dehumanisation rationally pursued".

In the face of such brutality from elite assassination forces, the victims, under all the great legal, moral and religious codes, have a right to defend themselves with their bare hands and with whatever is to hand. Indeed, that's what passengers aboard a ship bound for Palestine in 1947 did. It was carrying displaced persons from war-torn Europe and was boarded by British soldiers. The passengers resisted. Three were killed - one, his head stoved in by a British rifle butt. The British government claimed that the reason for the deaths lay with some extremists in board. World opinion did not buy it. Nor did the leaders of the Zionist movement. The ship was called the Exodus, and it was carrying Jewish refugees. This episode became a cornerstone in the foundational mythology of the state of Israel.

All the evidence of the Mavi Marmara atrocity, perpetrated by that state 63 years later, is now being gathered and recorded. It will inform an international and independent tribunal as well as legal actions in many jurisdictions against the Israeli authorities. The whitewash inquiry announced by Israel, and acquiesced to by the US, Britain and the UN Security Council, will serve only to intensify the outrage and determination of many millions of people who have been moved as never before by this massacre. As the British establishment has just found out after the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, which overturned Lord Widgery's written to order fiction of 38 years ago, whitewash that is applied too thickly and quickly begins to flake and peel as soon as it is slapped on.

The presence of Lord Trimble, a founder of the Friends of Israel Initiative, on the Israeli whitewash panel is all the dispassionate observer needs to know about how it will report.

Turning point

It is not only those who were aboard the flotilla or those who were already supporters of the Palestinian cause who do not need an inquiry to tell them what happened. Very large numbers of people have rightly made up their minds: nine shot dead, some at close range in the back of the head, on the one side, and a couple of roughed up Israeli commandos on the other.

This is a turning point in the movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people and it has the potential to become decisive. The meaning of the Mavi Marmara massacre is that the miasma of defeat that has settled on the Middle East and sedimented in the minds of many activists for far too long is finally lifting - and we can begin to see through the thinning fog a way forward.

It is perhaps an indictment that the daily humiliations and oppression of the Palestinians in besieged Gaza, the occupied West Bank and in the refugee camps have not generated the breadth of response that this atrocity against their supporters has. But analogous events in other struggles have played a similar role in focusing on the primary victims of colonial/racial oppression. When two Jewish civil rights volunteers from New York were murdered alongside a black activist in Mississippi in June 1964 the result was to deepen and radicalise the movement for black equality and liberation in the US.

For the Palestine solidarity movement this massacre is the Sharpeville and Soweto, two of the great milestones in the struggle against apartheid. It is the Sharpeville and Soweto of the solidarity movement, but not, of course, of the Palestinians themselves. They have endured more, and greater, massacres for 62 years - from Deir Yassin, through Black September, and Sabra and Shatila, to the Gaza invasion of 18 months ago.

It is the accumulation of those crimes and the increasingly egregious refusal of Israel to abide by the norms the "international community" says it upholds that has laid the basis for turning the reaction to the Mavi Marmara into a decisive advance in the struggle.

We could sense that, those of us in block five, wing four, of the Be'er Shiva prison in the Negev desert. We were held incommunicado. We felt mournful and angry - yet also surprisingly confident and determined. We knew that Israel's capital has been wasting away for several years. Long gone is the image of a social democratic state - a Sweden on the Eastern Mediterranean, which is what even many on the left imagined in the 1960s and 1970s. That square circle of "socialist Zionism" has given way to a militarised overt racism that has become more rabid with each year and each election in Israel.

More recently, Israel lost politically and militarily in its war on Lebanon in 2006. The attack on Gaza brought unprecedented condemnation and numbers onto the streets in cities around the world. The forging of passports for use in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai earlier this year left many people in Britain, Australia, Ireland and Germany - who had not previously been sympathetic to the Palestinians - wondering what was in it for them from our governments sponsoring this piratical state.

Liability

In the US at a time of economic austerity wider numbers of people are asking why the White House and Congress vote through billions of dollars of subvention to Israel annually, paying for the very bullets Israel's commandos fired five times into Furkan Do─čan, a 19 year old US citizen aboard the Mavi Marmara.

US general David Petraeus recently told a congressional committee that he thought Israel had become a strategic liability for the US. Or course, there remain powerful overlapping interests between US imperialist strategy in the Middle East and Israel's. But the interests are not identical. And the geopolitical map is changing. Tel Aviv would do well to remember the dictum of Britain's arch-imperialist prime minister Lord Palmerston: Britain, or any great power, "has no eternal friends and no eternal enemies, just eternal interests".

Turkey's renewed role in the near and Middle East is one of the clearest indications of the dilemmas facing Israel and the US, with Britain in tow. Historically a key US ally - it was the stationing of US missiles there that provoked the Cuba missile crisis at the height of the Cold War - Turkey's government is now reflecting pressures for realignment. Seven years ago the Turkish parliament refused to allow the country's military bases to be used in the invasion of Iraq, a decision that had a profound impact on the course of the war by preventing a US invasion from the north and thus creating a wider space for the insurgency to develop.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clashed with Israel's Ehud Olmert over the Gaza massacre at the glitzy Davos World Economic Forum shindig last year. Sections of Turkish capital want the state to provide a more independent role bridging economic relations between the Middle East and Europe, while others and the military-security apparatus remain locked in an old alliance with Israel and the US.

These conflicting pressures on the Turkish government refute the idea that it planned to stage the massacre on the flotilla as a provocation to Israel. Instead it was a civil society initiative in solidarity with the people of Gaza, coming mainly from the Islamic-inspired welfare and humanitarian organisation IHH, which created mass popular calls on the government to act, which it did.

So there is now a concerted attempt by Israel and the US to unwind this process by propagandising against the IHH and seeking to isolate the elements of Turkish society and politics which stand most strongly with the Palestinian cause.

Solidarity

Resisting that must be part of the solidarity movement's response if we are to catch this changing tide. As the anti-war movement in Britain has done over the defence of Muslim communities under attack following 9/11, we need to stand in solidarity with the Turkish movement and reject all attempts to claim that Islamic civil and political organisations such as the IHH and the parliamentary Islamist parties in Turkey are in any sense cyphers for Al Qaida.

That also means that many of the historic Palestine solidarity organisations in the West must become permeable to new forces, especially infused by the angry young Muslims who took to the streets over Gaza and again over the Mavi Marmara massacre. The success of the three Viva Palestina humanitarian convoys to Gaza in the last 18 months testifies to the success of that approach.

At the same time, of course, the forces that can be won to active engagement in the solidarity movement are now very wide indeed. A recent survey analysed in the New York Review of Books found an increasing disconnect between young, liberal Jewish people and Zionist organisations such as Aipac, which seek to speak in the name of all Jews. Younger people were much more likely to be critical of Israel and to hold it to universal standards of behaviour rather than churning out apologias.

The initiatives by land and sea to break the blockade on Gaza and end the siege are critical for two reasons. First, Gaza is at the cutting edge both of the solidarity movement and of the attempts by Israel and its backers to defeat the Palestinian resistance through destroying who Palestinians invested most hope in during the free elections held four years ago - Hamas. The apartheid wall, the occupation of the West Bank and the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem are monstrous injustices. But the key to raising and resolving them is to end the Gaza blockade, thus also helping to create conditions in which the Palestinian movement can overcome disabling divisions and exert far greater political pressure.

Second, the convoys and flotillas provide high profile and direct challenges to both Israel and those other states, including in the Middle East, which enforce the siege. Behind those who have travelled on them stand many thousands who have raised money and support from tens of thousands more. There are now international efforts under way to ensure that the land and sea missions are even more coordinated, bigger and represent more countries. Viva Palestina has initiated an international land convoy, to be in conjunction with a large sea mission, leaving in September of this year just after Ramadan. The aim is not to loosen the bars around Gaza - which Israel and Egypt under the pressure of the flotilla fallout are doing - but to end the siege entirely, allowing the commercial and economic relations between Gaza and the rest of the world, which it needs to develop freely.

Already the indications are that these missions will enjoy very wide support from civil society organisations, communities and trade unions internationally. This is especially so in the Middle East, where almost without exception the mass of people have both been moved by Palestine and also face their own form of siege - social and economic - imposed largely from within rather than without.

This is the great strategic step our movement is in a position to take. All movements require activists. But this cannot be a movement only of activists. It must become a more general movement of people for whom Palestine has become the international symbol of the fight against injustice. It must become a movement of social forces, of mass democratic forces.

The struggle against apartheid provides valuable lessons. It combined direct action against racist South Africa and its interests with mass mobilisations - demonstrations, cultural events and so on - and a range of activities aimed at isolating the regime through sanctions, boycotts and divestment. Each one reinforced the other and was accompanied by clear refutations of apartheid propaganda.

Boycott

Such initiatives are needed now, simultaneously and at different levels. One element is a coordinated and targeted consumer boycott. Few of us who went to university in the mid-1980s knew the full connections between British capital and apartheid South Africa. Everyone, however, was told as they enrolled not to buy Outspan fruit or to bank at Barclays. Most of us did not and some of us went further in picketing supermarkets or occupying Barclays every Friday afternoon. A similar focused call which could be popularised as the cutting edge of a wider boycott would be helpful today.

Salma Yaqoob last year managed to get cross-party support on Birmingham City Council - the largest local authority in Europe - to move towards a boycott of Israel. Following the recent local government elections there will be other councillors who can move, or be moved, in the same direction.

The cancellation of gigs in Israel by a number of bands following the flotilla attack led to cultural figures and commentators in Israel voicing fears that the radicalising policies of Binyamin Netanyahu were leading to the country becoming a pariah state. Breaking cultural links with Israel and holding large, diverse cultural events for Palestine can have an enormous impact.

Trade unions in Britain and in many other countries now have extensive policies aimed at boycotting at least some contacts with and products from Israel. The TUC Congress in September may well see successful moves to harden that position. In 1985 a 21 year old shop worker in Dunnes store in Dublin, Mary Manning, read just such a union policy circular and told a customer that she could not check out her grapefruit because it was on the apartheid boycott list. She was sacked, but the strike by her and 10 workmates for a year that resulted became an international cause celebre for wider solidarity. If the general consumer boycott, mass initiatives and trade union policies are popularised they are likely to intersect with more Mary Mannings today.

Already dockers in Durban, in South Africa, and Sweden have refused to unload Israeli ships. At the time of writing, dockers and their supporters in Oakland, California, are set to do the same.

All these strands make up a movement which should have as its strategic direction altering policy in the West and contributing to the processes in the Middle East which have enormous potential power to end the suffering of the Palestinians. This will require serious strategic and tactical coordination as well as drawing in fresh forces.

Ending the siege of Gaza is an obtainable victory, an important step forward in the wider and longer struggle for a free Palestine.

There was a time when apartheid seemed invulnerable. The apartheid abomination could murder 69 people in Sharpeville. It could gun down Hector Peterson and hundreds of school students in Soweto. It could torture and execute Steve Biko, and assassinate Chris Hani. But Nelson Mandela did walk free. Apartheid did fall.

The siege on Gaza will be lifted. Israeli apartheid shall fall.


Eyewitness to state murder