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September 9, 2011

The South Africa Moment: Challenging the Siege of Gaza

Review by Jason Kunin

		on the Mavi Marmara

"Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict" Haymarket Books

It’s been a little over a year since Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a ship of mostly Turkish and some international peace activists attempting to break the naval siege of Gaza, killing nine people on board. With the UN report on the raid expected soon – it has been delayed four times since February – it’s important to remind ourselves why this incident matters and why this year’s freedom flotilla was blocked in Greece and hundreds deported from Israel who attempted to participate in Palestinian solidarity actions.

To that end, one would do well to pick up Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict, edited by Mustafa Bayoumi.

The book is a compilation of articles and personal testimonies of survivors of the raid put together to offer desperately needed perspectives and analysis that media coverage of the attack rarely offer.

An Act of Israeli Piracy

The opening section consists of personal accounts by activists aboard the Mavi Maramara, among them notables such as the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, the American academic Paul Larudee, and the Israeli MK Haneen Zoabi, who faced accusations of treason upon her return to Israel. This layering of narratives recounting essentially the same incidents reinforces certain key facts about that midnight raid that are confirmed over and over:
  • that the Mavi Marmara was in international, not Israeli waters, thereby making the raid an illegal act of piracy;
  • that the ship had set course away from Gaza after a warning by the Israeli navy;
  • that the boat had been inspected for weapons and cleared by customs agents in Turkey, a NATO member, before leaving port for Gaza;
  • that Israeli commandos opened fire using live ammunition without warning and continued to do so long after members of the crew, waving white flags and pleading in Hebrew, tried to surrender; that commandos refused to allow doctors on board to treat the injured, thereby leading to more deaths; that commandos engaged in gratuitous acts of cruelty upon detainees;
  • and that Israeli authorities gave themselves a head start of up to 48 hours to shape public opinion about the raid by jamming the activists’ communication devices, jailing and isolating journalists on board, and permanently “confiscating” (i.e. stealing) all cameras, cell phones, laptops, and recording devices of the passengers that might be used to contradict the official Israeli version of events.
In an excellent piece of investigative journalism later in the book, Max Blumenthal exposes that Israeli officials had even stooped to doctoring audio and video footage.

Yes, the passengers on board fought back, as many of the writers readily admit, using sticks, brooms, chains, kitchen knives – whatever they could grab – to defend themselves against the takeover of their ship and to disarm the murderers of their comrades. Perhaps this was not a wise move, but it was an entirely legitimate and legal act of self-defence, despite Israeli officials’ absurd attempt to portray it as a "lynching."

The rest of the book consists of essays that contextualize the raid by looking at events leading up to and following it. In light of the upcoming UN report, some of the more useful essays are those that examine Israel’s actions under the light of international law.

As Raji Sourani notes, "there are no partial violations of international law." One of the best essays in this vein is by international law expert Ben Saul, who demolishes Israel’s main legal argument that the raid was lawful on the basis that the main source of international law governing naval conflicts, the San Remo Manual on Armed Conflicts at Sea, permits attacks on the merchant vessels of neutral countries when they are "believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade." As Saul points out, this argument by Israel ignores the fact that the San Remo Manual "also contains rules governing the lawfulness of the blockade itself, and that there can be no authority under international law to enforce a blockade which is unlawful."

There are other legal arguments worth noting here. Noam Chomsky points out that "the NATO treaty obligates its members to come to the aid of a fellow NATO country, in this case Turkey, attacked on the high seas" – something that decidedly did not happen in this instance. Ali Abunimah argues that the siege of Gaza violates the Fourth Geneva Convention by engaging in collective punishment. Juan Cole takes this further and summarizes the way in which Israel’s siege and periodic bombing of Gaza exemplify the Nazi policy of Sippenhaftung, in which retaliation is visited upon those who are merely related to those deemed guilty, including children. Nadia Hijab makes an evenmore dramatic legal claim – one others, such as Omar Barghouti, have made too – that the siege of Gaza actually conforms to the UN definition of genocide, an argument buttressed by statements from Israel’s own officials, such as former Deputy Defence minister Matan Vilnai, who threatened to subject the Palestinians to "a bigger shoah" (holocaust).

A number of contributors detail the cruelty and absurdity of the Gaza blockade that, as Hijab points out, has resulted in Gazans, a coastal people, having to import fish through tunnels. Israeli journalist Amira points out that Israel’s isolation of Gaza did not begin in 2006, with the Palestinian election of Hamas, but in 1991, as part of a long-term strategy of fragmenting, and thus weakening, the Palestinian population. Sara Roy paints a chilling picture of the current state of Gaza, in which Israel’s bombing of sewage and water treatment facilities, in combination with high levels of toxins resulting from routine bombing, have resulted in the contamination of Gaza’s soil, fish, and water supply and contributed to frightening levels of congenital malformations, infant mortality, and stunted growth among children. Roy writes, "Nowhere else in the world have such a large number of people been exposed to such high levels of nitrates for such a long period of time."

Israel’s Downward Spiral

In his introduction to the anthology, Bayoumi argues that the attack on the Mavi Marmara had an impact along "three significant and related lines." Firstly, he notes, it exposed what he calls "the internationalization of the struggle for equal rights in Israel/Palestine" as an injustice of concern not simply to Jews and Arabs. Secondly, the attack deepened growing public disgust with Israel, not only in the United States, but within diaspora Jewish communities as well. Norman Finklestein details the "increasing estrangement of younger Jews from Israeli bellicosity," and one of those "younger Jews," Daniel Luban, contributes an essay providing an insightful look at the inherent contradictions within, and increasing unsustainability of, "liberal" Zionism. Lastly, Bayoumi notes that the attack exposed the widening gulf between Palestinian leaders and their people, who are more and more bypassing their leaders and fighting back at the level of civil society by relying upon tactics such as non-violent protest and calls for boycott.

Where Bayoumi’s book, I think, inflates the significance of the Mavi Mamara attack is in the subtitle of the book, which suggests that it "changed the course of the Israel/Palestine conflict." In his introduction, Bayoumi cites with approval contributors Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss and predicts “the attack on the Mavi Mamara will probably be understood as this generation’s ‘anti-1967’ moment for Israel.” Instead, I believe the raid needs to be seen as one of an accumulating series of recent Israeli atrocities – the murder of Rachel Corrie, the 2006 bombing of Lebanon, the 2009 bombing of Gaza – that is part of what Ali Abunimah identifies as "a cumulative process” in which "each successive outrage has diminished the reserve of goodwill and forbearance Israel enjoyed."

Yousef Munayyer, summarizing Israel’s “history of impunity” going back to its 1953 massacre in Qibya – an operation led by a young Ariel Sharon – predicts that Israel will similarly get away with this latest massacre too, a prediction that has so far been correct, and will probably remain the case, regardless of what is in the eventual UN report. At the official level, Israel remains both immune from consequences for its actions and firmly in control of the mainstream media agenda. Note how little media coverage there has been (outside of Al Jazeera) of Israel’s latest bombing of Gaza.

Yet at the popular level, something has changed. It began before the flotilla, and it’s gaining momentum, most notably through the emergence of international solidarity movements, like International Solidarity and the Free Gaza Movement, as well as through the international campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Adam Shapiro and Omar Barghouti address all of these phenomena in the book’s final essays. They assert that, for Palestinians, the "South Africa Moment" has arrived.

The attack on the Mavi Marmara may not have “changed the course of the Israel/Palestinian conflict,” but it has certainly given Israel a push in the downward direction it was already headed, and which through its actions it has been steering itself. As Adam Shapiro writes in the book’s final essay, we have arrived at a moment when we are seeing "a radical shift in momentum, in which Israel’s power is on the decline while that of the anti-occupation/anti-apartheid camp is growing."

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer.