Background – the siege
Since June 2007, Gaza has been under siege and subjected to a land, air and sea blockade. The 1.5 million inhabitants of this, the most crowded place in the world, have been the target of collective punishment by the Israeli Zionist state, with the full backing of imperialism, in particular US imperialism, for the sole reason that they back the Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas. After every attempt to starve the people of Gaza into submission, to force them to withhold their support from Hamas had failed, Israel waged, again with the complicity and connivance of imperialism, a brutal war against Gaza in December 2008 – January 2009, which wreaked destruction on a massive scale and left more than 1,417 Palestinians dead and five thousand wounded, many of them maimed for life. Despite the carnage, the death and destruction, the Palestinian people stood their ground and frustrated Israel’s attempt to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza. In the face of the heroic Palestinian resistance, and the condemnation of progressive humanity of this Nazi-style predatory war, Israel was forced to withdraw.
Since the failure of its war aims, Israeli Zionism has become even more vindictive and further tightened the blockade around Gaza. Nothing is allowed to leave Gaza and very little is allowed into it, with the result that the economy of this enclave has ground to a halt. Israel has been refusing to let in medicines, stationary supplies, sports equipment, food and fuel in the quantities needed, let alone construction materials needed to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed during Israel’s barbarous war on Gaza last year.
Consequent upon this medieval blockade, 80 per cent of Gaza’s population is dependent upon humanitarian food aid; 90 per cent of its factories have closed down or operate on less that 10 per cent of their capacity, resulting in 40 per cent unemployment; its once thriving fishing industry has dramatically declined as the Zionist naval forces limit the activity of Palestinian fishing boats to a mere three nautical miles from the coast, with the result that Gaza is obliged to import frozen fish from Israel on the odd occasion the latter allows such import or through the tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt; its agricultural production is in a state of stagnation as the farmers are prevented from exporting their produce and denied access to 30 per cent of farm land. 90 percent of Gaza’s water is polluted, while 40 per cent of Gaza’s residents are not connected to a sewage system.
Such cruelty and brutal treatment meted out by Zionism to the Palestinian people in Gaza, while ignored by the imperialist governments, for whose domination of the Middle East, with its vast mineral riches, Israel serves as a useful tool, has at the same roused the conscience of large sections of humanity, including those living in the centres of imperialism. With the imperialist governments deaf to the cries and suffering of the Palestinian people, and a shameless disregard for public opinion of their own population, those not brutalised and turned cynical by imperialist propaganda have increasingly begun to take direct action and confront the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the complicity of their own governments in its maintenance.
The Freedom Flotilla
It was in this context that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, with six ships, three of them flying the Turkish flag, set sail with 700 activists from thirty countries (including 40 from Britain), carrying with them 10,000 tonnes of vital aid to Gaza from 40 counties. On board this flotilla were parliamentarians and journalists, a writer (the Swedish crime writer, Henning Mankell), a former US ambassador to Iraq (Edward Peck), a former US colonel and diplomat who retired in protest at the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Ann Wright) – men, women and children, young and the elderly. While the youngest passenger on board one of the ships was a one-year old baby, the eldest was a Palestinian leader in his 80s, who had witnessed the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe), when Zionist thugs, some of whom were later to become Israeli political and military leaders, massacred thousands of Palestinians and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, from which they have not been allowed to return to their homes despite a number of UN resolutions calling for the right of return of these victims of Zionist colonisation and occupation.
Thus the volunteers on the flotilla not only represented the vast mass of humanity, they were also upholding international law, which Israel and its imperialist backers daily flout with impunity in Palestine, as well as Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. They represented the conscience of the whole world and constituted a part of a fast-growing movement determined to break the siege of Gaza, determined not to let the Palestinians be starved into submission, determined to expose the cruelty, inhumanity, lawlessness and utter savagery of Israeli Zionism, as well as the cynical hypocrisy, double standards and complicity of its imperialist backers, who are equally partners in the crimes of Zionism.
It is worth emphasising that the Freedom Flotilla had the support of the Director of Operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), who correctly stated that Gaza deserved as much urgent international assistance as did Haiti. Prior to the sailing of the flotilla, he stated: “We believe that Israel will not intercept these vessels because the sea is open, and human rights organisations have been successful in similar previous operations proving that breaking the siege of Gaza is possible.”
Although his prediction failed to materialise, such support for the breaking of the siege from an influential figure within the UN only served to underline the isolation of the Israeli state from the world community.
Murderous Israeli attack
Shortly after 4.30 on the morning of Monday 31 May, Israeli naval commandos descended from a helicopter on to the deck of Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel at the centre of the assault on the Gaza flotilla. An hour later, nine persons on board lay dead, with several dozens wounded. All the nine dead were Turkish nationals and included a journalist, a mayoral candidate, and a 54-year-old Taekwondo champion. Turks formed the largest national contingent on the flotilla, with half the 700 volunteers coming from Turkey.
In a sign of desperation to counter mounting international condemnation, the Israeli government and army sought to flood the airwaves with their lying version of the event, using the heavily edited footage of the scenes from the assault. By silencing the several hundreds of activists on board the flotilla, Israel attempted to ensure that only its narrative gained early dominance. The thrust of the Israeli spin machine was that innocent and peace-loving Israeli commandos had come under attack and were set upon by protesters armed with knives and sticks. In other words, the commandos had acted in “self-defence”.
The truth, however, is that the murderous thugs from the Israeli armed forces had started firing live ammunition, resulting in some deaths and injuries, before they had even landed on the deck. At a packed meeting in London’s Conway Hall on Wednesday evening (2 June), British volunteers on board the Gaza Freedom Flotilla gave their eye-witness harrowing accounts of what really took place during and after the piratical Israeli attack on unarmed civilians attempting to deliver much needed aid to the victims of Israeli occupation and brutality. The following are some of the important facts which clearly emerged from the speakers’ moving accounts, testifying to the brutality of the Israeli commandos, the heroism of the volunteers and their refusal to be intimidated, Britain’s complicity in the maltreatment of the volunteers, and the utter failure of the Israeli state’s attempt to deter future attempts aimed at breaking the siege of Gaza:
· That there were no weapons on board the boats. This was well known to the Israelis, as it had been repeatedly stated by the organisers and the Turkish port authorities before the boats sailed. Volunteers saw Israeli soldiers staging the ‘finding’ of a pistol that was clearly Israeli army issue in a passenger’s bag for the benefit of a cameraman who was with them.
· That the soldiers were firing live rounds at the ship before they boarded. The first deaths occurred, and wounded people were being treated, before any boots had hit the deck. Moreover, many volunteers had wounds in their feet, as a result of being struck by bullets fired from above.
· That the attack wasn’t expected at that time. The ships had changed course to avoid a night-time confrontation, moving farther away from Israeli waters, and volunteers were sleeping or praying when the assault started. Many came up to try to defend the ship in their pyjamas.
· That the raiding commandos treated every passenger on board the ship as an ‘enemy combatant’, making no distinction of age, gender, occupation etc. Women and elderly people were beaten; a baby was forced to witness brutal torture of one volunteer; journalists were treated as if they were criminals or terrorists.
· That Israel did everything it could to stop evidence of its crimes getting out. Some of those killed were executed with shots to the head while trying to film or take photos of the attack. The raiders did their best to jam all broadcasting signals before the boats were boarded, and only didn’t succeed because one channel had been kept secret. During the attack, one of the helicopters tried to ram the satellite dish. Photo and video equipment, sim and memory cards etc were all stolen.
· That the commandos were shooting to kill, and that they wanted to inflict serious casualties on the flotilla. Live fire continued after the white flag had been waved, and also after announcements of surrender in Hebrew and English had been made over the ship’s tannoy. Several people who died could have been saved by timely treatment that was denied to them. Instead of evacuating the wounded, the commandos refused them vital help. Others who survived may well find they are affected for life by bad treatment – refused even stretchers when ordered to move, so that volunteers had to carry them on blankets.
· That Israel’s brutal, dehumanising treatment of Palestinians extends to those who support the Palestinian struggle against occupation. After the ships had been taken, many volunteers were beaten. At least one was used as a human shield. All were tortured, humiliated, denied access to food, water, medicines, washing facilities, toilets or clean clothes. Even after two days in prison, wounded prisoners were still wearing the same blood-stained clothes they left the ships in. Those with wounded legs and feet were forced to hop without crutches or wheelchairs to the waiting planes; their comrades were beaten for trying to help them to walk. A Turkish volunteer who had watched her husband die was forced to leave his body and thrown in jail with no consideration for her grief; she was later forced to identify him from a picture of his two-day-old bloated corpse.
· That those on the smaller boats were also treated with overwhelming violence, although no live ammunition was used against them. People trying to defend their boats with only linked arms were attacked with tasers, stun guns, electric shock probes, sound bombs, tear gas and more. They too were bound, beaten and humiliated after their boats were captured.
· That Britain is as complicit in the treatment of these prisoners as it is in all Israel’s other crimes. The British consul quickly became notorious for being the most sycophantic towards the Israelis and the least interested in the welfare of British prisoners. Many British volunteers never even saw him. Those who didn’t all had names or an appearance that might indicate that they were Muslim.
· That the Turkish government stepped in where the British failed to do. It was the Turkish volunteers and government who took responsibility for making sure that the British volunteers were safely evacuated, providing transport and refusing to leave them behind. In Turkey, British volunteers were treated as heroes, and given clothes, money, counselling, medical attention, accommodation and flights home.
· That if Israel hoped to deter these and future volunteers from trying to break the blockade on Gaza, their plan has seriously backfired. All those who spoke reiterated their determination to return as soon as possible. Viva Palestina’s George Galloway announced that the biggest convoy yet would be leaving overland on 16 September, at the same time as a flotilla of 62 ships (one for every year of the occupation) will be building up in the Mediterranean. These two convoys will be aiming to arrive simultaneously in Gaza in early October. PSC’s Sarah Colborne sent a message to the meeting asking everyone there to mobilise in memory not only of the flotilla dead, but of all those who have died over the years for a free Palestine. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign announced its intention to support the forthcoming flotilla and convoy, and to work with Viva Palestina, Free Gaza, Stop the War and Muslim organisations to build a really broad, mass solidarity movement for Palestine in Britain.
· That Israel is not going to be allowed to forget about the crimes it committed against the flotilla, any more than it is going to be allowed to continue with the siege and occupation unhindered. The IHH (the Turkish aid organisation that chartered the Mavi Marmara) have begun a massive evidence-gathering operation, with a view to taking out criminal proceedings in the Turkish and other courts. Meanwhile, the Emir of Qatar has offered to pay the legal expenses of every volunteer willing to take up a case against Israel, anywhere in the world. In the court of public opinion, these cases will be bound to inflict more heavy blows on Israel’s shrinking support-base. Moreover, pressure for an international inquiry (as opposed to an Israeli whitewash) is also going to keep on growing. George Galloway called on all activists to keep up this pressure and declared that “we will set up our own if we have to”.
· That as well as joining convoys and flotillas, there is a huge job of work to be done in building awareness and solidarity with the Palestinian people in our communities. As Alex Harrison of the Free Gaza Movement pointed out, what is happening in Gaza is not a natural disaster; the problem is not one of ‘aid’ but of human rights, freedoms and dignity, of self-determination as opposed to colonial oppression.
· That this massacre may well prove to be the watershed moment in the fight against Israeli apartheid, as the Sharpeville massacre was for South African apartheid. George Galloway pointed out the need to urgently seize the opportunity presented by the sudden rise in public awareness to force our complicit governments into taking action against Israel.
Hamas strengthened, Israel weakened
Whereas Israel had intended, through use of overwhelming brute force, to deter future attempts at breaking the blockade of Gaza and to weaken Hamas’s grip over the strip, in practice it has ended up by strengthening Hamas and weakening its own position immeasurably. Its attempt at weakening and isolating Hamas has ended up in weakening and isolating Israel itself. Israel’s already very low prestige has plunged further still and its attack has served to focus international attention on the blockade by which 1.5 million Palestinians have been imprisoned in the crowded strip of land that is Gaza.
In the aftermath of the Israeli assault on the flotilla, even the US, Israel’s single most important military, political, diplomatic and financial backer, was forced to express “deep regret” at the events of 31 May. Even this anodyne non-committal statement issued by the White House is a departure from the norm of full backing for Zionism’s crimes. The EU called for an inquiry, as did France and Mexico. Spain, Sweden and Greece called in their Israeli ambassadors to protest against the action, while Greece cancelled a planned joint military exercise.
Israel’s relations with Turkey have hit a new low. “Israel’s relations with Turkey”, wrote Philip Stephens in the Financial Times of 4 June, “represented a strategic bridge to the Muslim world. This bridge has been blown up by the deaths and injuries inflicted on Turkish citizens” (‘The Palestinians cannot be hammered into submission’).
Following the Israeli assault on the flotilla, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel, cancelled joint military exercises and declared that ties with Israel will not be normalised until the siege of Gaza is ended. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called for international action against Israel, saying that any country that chose to overlook the attack on the aid convoy would be complicit in “state terror”.
In an emotional address on 2 June to members of the Turkish parliament from his AK Party, he said: “Tyrants, bandits, pirates – even they have their own rules and ethics”, adding that Israel’s leaders had “trampled the rules not only of war … but of humanity” (cited in ‘Erdogan pushes for action’, Financial Times, 3 June)
At Turkey’s insistence the UN Security Council discussed the Israeli attack on the Flotilla and passed a resolution which called for an inquiry. The EU called for an immediate inquiry and an end to the siege of Gaza: “The EU condemns the use of violence … and demands an immediate, full and impartial inquiry”, said Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU head of foreign affairs. The US gave backing for an Israeli probe rather than an international investigation sought by Turkey. Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, while backing an Israeli inquiry, nonetheless added that the US was “open to different ways of assuring a credible investigation”.
William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, was compelled to advocate an inquiry that was “prompt, independent, credible and transparent” with “at minimum an international presence”.
During the Security Council debate, which took place on 31 May (the same day as the Israeli attack), Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, launched a fierce attack on Israel, saying that the latter had “lost legitimacy” as a member of the international community.
The outrage caused by Israel’s savage and piratical attack on the humanitarian convoy in international waters has compelled the very powers who have hitherto given their total support to the siege of Gaza to call for its ending. Even Hillary Clinton had to say that the siege had become unsustainable and must be lifted. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, told parliament that “Friends of Israel … should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas’s grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it is in their own interests to lift it and allow … vital supplies to go through”
Meeting in Cairo on 2 June, foreign ministers of Arab countries, many of whom have been complicit in the Israeli blockade of Gaza, condemned the blockade and resolved to lobby the UN for a resolution demanding the lifting of the siege. On 13 June, Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, called for an end to the blockade. Mahmoud Abbas from the Palestinian Authority felt constrained to accuse Israel of committing a massacre; such was the swell of outrage felt by the Palestinian people that Abbas could no longer remain silent, although his puppet administration has played its own part in the dirty work of isolating Gaza.
On 2 June, Egypt, without whose active and shameful collusion Israel cannot effectively maintain the siege of Gaza, felt compelled to open its border crossing with Gaza, allowing the flow of humanitarian aid to enter and hundreds of Palestinians to leave. How long Egypt will keep the border crossing open, we do not know. Equally, we do not know whether the despicable Mubarak regime will continue to build an underground steel barrier (rightly known as the wall of shame) along the Gaza border, aimed at preventing the use of tunnels for transporting goods and thus circumventing the blockade. But the very fact that the Egyptian regime felt under pressure to open the border is deeply significant. The international movement for solidarity with the Palestinians people must keep up the pressure to make sure that the border stays open, just as it must keep up the pressure to force Israel to lift the siege.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which traditionally avoids public condemnation, on 13 June came out publicly and strongly against the siege, which it characterised as collective punishment and, as such, a breach of the Geneva Convention. The ICRC explained that it had decided to go pubic as its quiet behind the scenes efforts over the past three years to eases the embargo had failed to bear fruit.
A day later, international aid agency Oxfam demanded the opening of Gaza’s borders, saying that Gaza needed trade, not humanitarian aid.
Frustrating Israeli and US attempts to block an international investigation into the Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva passed, by 32 votes to 3, a resolution condemning “in the strongest terms the outrageous attack by the Israeli forces against the humanitarian flotilla of ships” and resolving to establish an international investigation into the killing of nine volunteers. The US, Italy and the Netherlands voted against the motion, while nine countries, including France, UK, Belgium, Japan and South Korea abstained. Let it be said in passing that it was the HRC that set up the Goldstone Commission, which found Israel guilty of war crimes during last year’s Israeli war against Gaza.
The Financial Times, one of the most authoritative organs of British finance capital, in its leading article on 7 June, characterising the ongoing colonisation of Palestine by Israel and its resort to collective punishment as a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Articles 49 and 33), called for the lifting of the Gaza blockade.
Let the Financial Times speak: “More generally, Israel’s ongoing colonisation of occupied Palestinian land and frequent resort to collective punishment are in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Articles 49 and 33) to which it is a signatory. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has blustered that behind the aid flotilla lay the hand of al-Qaeda, but its own lawless behaviour serves as a recruiting sergeant for jihadism.”
Israel on course to destruction
Its outrageous actions are not only serving to delegitimise Israel and endanger its continued existence, they are also endangering the interests of its chief backer – the US. Powerful and influential figures in the US have begun to give expression to this concern and call for a reassessment of the US-Israeli relationship. In the middle of March this year, General David Petraeus told the US Congress that the perception of US favouritism towards Israel foments anti-Americanism in the region and thus puts US troops and civilians in harm’s way. US senior commanders are now saying publicly what they have long acknowledged privately, namely, that Israeli policies and actions, and the unreserved support for the same by the US, are undermining US influence and threatening US interests, which would be better served by the US making clear to Israel that it can no more presume automatic US support (see ‘Obama should set out a Middle East plan’ by Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 19 March 2010).
At the beginning of June, Anthony Cordesman, the influential security analyst for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote a memo, in which he stated that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was fast turning into a “strategic liability” for the US. “It is time Israel realised that it has obligations to the US, as well as the US to Israel, and that it becomes far more careful about the extent to which it tests the limits of US patience and exploits the support of American Jews,” he wrote ( quoted in ‘How Washington has blunted Obama’s Middle East plan’, Financial Times, 12 June 2010).
Israel has called the Freedom Flotilla a “provocation intended to delegitimise Israel”. All one can say is that the barbarous Israeli attack on the flotilla has given a much-needed helping hand to the process of delegitimisation of Israel that has been going on for some time now. Israel has well and truly become a pariah state and a byword for brutality, war and terror. With each war it has waged against the Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian people, with each massacre it has perpetrated against the Palestinian and other Arab peoples, it has emerged much diminished, isolated and delegitimised, notwithstanding some military successes, which in the end have come to mean nothing.
“The era of the ‘beautiful’ Israel”, wrote Norman Finkelstein, “has passed, it seems irrevocably, and the disfigured Israel that in recent years has replaced it in public consciousness is a growing embarrassment. It is not so much that Israel’s behaviour is worse than it was before, but rather that the record of that behaviour has, finally caught up with it.” (‘This time we went too far’ – Truth and Consequences in the Gaza War)
The twin swords of the Holocaust and the “new anti-Semitism” have become outworn and no longer able to deflect criticism of Israel. A 2003 poll of the EU designated Israel as the biggest threat to world peace, while a 2008 survey of global opinion named Israel as the biggest obstacle to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a BBC World Service poll on the eve of the Gaza war, 19 of the 21 countries surveyed held a negative view of Israel.
In a 2003 New York Review of Books essay, Tony Judt, a Jewish historian, sated that “Israel is bad for the Jews” and cast doubt on both the viability and desirability of a Jewish state.
John J Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School co-authored an influential paper ridiculing the idealised image of Israel’s history, saying that Israel had become a “strategic liability” for the US. Jimmy Carter, former US president, wrote a book with the title Palestine: peace not apartheid, which was received with rage by the Zionists and their supporters, but despite, perhaps because of, that became a best seller.
After the Gaza war, a group of 16-strong prominent judicial figures called for “an international investigation of gross violations of the laws of war” by Israel.
“My grandmother was ill in bed”, Gerald Kaufman told the House of Commons during a debate on the Gaza war, “when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza”. Continuing, he indicted the Israeli government for having “ruthlessly and lyingly exploited the continuing guilt among the gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust as a justification for their murder of Palestinians”.
Following the Gaza carnage and the latest murder of nine innocent volunteers aboard the Freedom Flotilla, top Israeli politicians and soldiers have become too frightened to travel to European capitals for fear of arrest and prosecution for war crimes, or facing angry demonstrators at every stage of their stay.
Following the Israeli attack on the flotilla, even the “global music scene has been gripped by an exciting new craze: boycotting Israel”, wrote Tobias Buck in the Financial Times of 12 June (‘Israelis fear effects of culture clash’). In the space of a few days, the Pixies, Gorillaz and Klaxons – three bands representing styles ranging from the 1980s US indie rock to British dance punk – all cancelled concerts in Israel, leaving fans seething, while rightwing commentators complained of “cultural terrorism”. The cancelled pop concerts reinforce the anxiety felt by Israelis of all political persuasions that their country is becoming an international outcast. Already suffering diplomatic and political isolation, they have much reason to apprehend that cultural ties with the world at large may soon come to an end. The prospect of such a boycott has a further unsettling effect on the Israelis, especially the young.
While condemning Israel for its murderous savagery, we send our sincerest and heartfelt condolences to the families of the brave martyrs who laid down their lives for the cause of Palestinian freedom, and our sympathise and best wishes for early recovery to those who have been wounded.
The only way to honour the nine martyrs is to continue our solidarity work for the struggle of the Palestinian people for their liberation. In view of the complicity of our governments in the crimes of Zionism, ordinary people must lead. We must intensify our efforts in support of the Free Gaza Campaign and work hard to make the September Flotilla a resounding success. In the words of Caoimhe Butterley, an activist with the Free Gaza movement on board the Rachel Corrie, through supporting the freedom flotillas, we are “…supporting the daily resistance, endurance and steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their refusal to be broken. We’ve got to up the ante. We’ve got to understand that the urgency of the situation in Gaza demands our action, demands mobilisations, and we have to be willing to take some of the risks and sacrifices that our Palestinian brothers, sisters and comrades are forced to endure on a daily basis.
“It is an honour to be part of this struggle. It is an honour to join a people who continue to resist in conditions that would break most people. So please mobilise … and show your solidarity with the Palestinian people in struggle. It’s time to act.”
We end this article with the following concluding lines taken from a recent statement issued by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist):
“Let the sacrifice of our comrades not be in vain. They pledged to keep coming back until the sea was open and the siege on Gaza finally broken. Let us take up their pledge. Let there be no peace for any Israeli official – or for their funders and backers in Washington and London – while the siege remains in place on Gaza.
“We send a red salute to all those activists who are playing their role in this struggle against imperialist domination of the Middle East. In the immortal words of Joe Hill: ‘Don’t mourn – organise!’
“Long live the martyrs of the Gaza
“Hound the warmongers!
“Long live Palestine!”