Long live the martyrs of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla!

In its desperation to maintain the strangulating blockade on Gaza, Israel’s violent response to a peaceful humanitarian aid mission has instead brought the end of its criminal siege within sight.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Early on the morning of Monday 31 May, in international waters some 90 miles from Gaza’s coastline, and in direct contravention of international law and the Geneva conventions, Israeli commandos forcibly boarded a peaceful convoy of aid ships that was headed to Gaza city.

At the time of going to press, exact numbers are still not known, but various reports say that at least nine, and possibly as many as 20 volunteers aboard the main ship, the Mavi Marmara, were murdered by Israeli forces, who used live fire against the aid workers on board.

Dozens more were wounded and all passengers were then abducted to a specially-prepared jail in Be’er Sheva, southern Israel, while the boats were left in the harbour at Ashdod.

Although the Israeli PR machine went into overdrive after the massacre, claiming that its soldiers had returned fire after being met with ‘unexpected’ and ‘armed’ resistance, the few eye witnesses so far released from Israeli prisons say that the commandos were firing as they hit the deck, having been lowered from helicopters. Footage of Jamal Elshayyal, an Al Jazeera news producer, broadcast just before all transmissions were cut, shows him confirming that two people had died already and that live fire was still being heard above, despite the fact that the boat’s crew had raised a white flag.

As Sinn Fein TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh pointed out: “At all stages of the preparations to join the flotilla, the organisers reiterated non-violent and peaceful resistance to any boarding by the Israeli army. The Israelis had nothing to fear from this flotilla.” Comrade Ó Snodaigh had hoped to be on board the flotilla, but was prevented at the last moment from boarding by Cypriot intervention.

Threatening cargo

More than 20 charities from all around the world had raised funds to pay for the nine ships that originally made up the flotilla. The boats themselves originated in Turkey, Greece, Sweden, Ireland and Algeria.

The 800 volunteers trying to deliver some 10-15,000 tonnes of vital aid to Gaza were from at least 40 countries and included parliamentarians, journalists, artists, women, children and the elderly. Forty-two members of the flotilla were British. According to the Turkish customs officials who checked the passengers and cargo before it left, there were no arms on board the boat.

Instead, the flotilla’s cargo of essential supplies denied to Palestinians under the illegal blockade included 2,100 tonnes of cement, 600 tonnes of iron bars and 150 tonnes of iron, all needed for reconstruction of houses and infrastructure that were destroyed by the brutal Israeli massacre of December/January 2008/9, which left more than 1,417 Palestinians dead and 5,000 wounded, many of whom were maimed for life.

Also on board the flotilla were 18 large and 80 small electricity generators, 50 large and 40 small prefab houses, 16 complete children’s playground kits, sports equipment including footballs and basketballs, $1m worth of medical equipment including a complete dental kit, construction and hardware supplies.

The ships were also carrying stationery supplies including crayons, pens and 20 tonnes of paper for schools, as well as textiles and food, including chocolate for Gaza’s children, currently banned by Israel.

The main cargo of the Mavi Marmara, a passenger ferry chartered by the Turkish humanitarian organisation Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), was the solidarity activists from all over the world who had joined the flotilla in order to try to bring attention to the siege on Gaza. They hoped that their presence on board the boats would encourage media from their respective countries to follow the mission – and deter Israel from blocking the flotilla’s progress.

The youngest passenger on the Mavi Marmara was a one-year-old baby, the son of the ship’s engineer; among the eldest was a respected Palestinian leader in his 80s, who vividly remembers the 1948 Nakba (‘catastrophe’), when Israel massacred thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians and drove hundreds of thousands into exile. Sixty-two years later, despite a plethora of UN resolutions condemning Israel and demanding the right of return for those driven off their land, they and their descendants still live in refugee camps, many of them in the crowded ghettos of the Gaza Strip.

Also on board were the exiled Hilarion Capucci, 88, , formerly Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem, who spent four years in Israeli jails (1974-78) on a charge of helping the Palestinian resistance before being deported to Rome, and Anne Wright, an ex-US military colonel and ex-diplomat who resigned over the Iraq war, and who got involved in campaigning for Gaza following last year’s brutal massacre. (Details of passengers and cargo taken from convoytogaza.blogspot.com)

The ship also carried two months’ worth of food rations in anticipation of delays at sea. Clearly, the organisers knew that Israel would object to their siege-busting efforts. Equally clearly, they expected to be able to overcome these objections peacefully, anticipating perhaps that with the world’s press watching, Israel would balk at a direct military attack.

A high stakes game

Of course, the real trouble for Israel was that it was damned either way. Despite nearly four years of suffocating blockade and daily murder, the Palestinians have not overthrown their elected Hamas leadership in Gaza; a leadership that stands for resistance rather than submission to zionist brutality. Instead, bearing incredible privations with dignity and fortitude, they have held their society together on a shoe-string, shamed Israel and its backers in the court of world public opinion and galvanised the sympathy and solidarity of the world’s people.

As more and more former friends of Israel have fallen away, the chorus calling for an end to the siege has been daily growing, especially since the horrific bombardment of Gaza a year and a half ago.

Allowing the boats to pass would have meant essentially admitting that the siege on Gaza had definitely failed and that the sea was indeed, as humanitarian activists have long pointed out, not Israel’s to control. A regular sea channel into Gaza allowing supplies to come in and out and trade links to be rekindled would drive a final nail into the coffin of Israel’s strangulation policy.

Welcoming the solidarity initiative, Hamas leader Ismail Radwan declared that “The occupation’s threat to prevent the Freedom Flotilla from arriving in the besieged Gaza Strip is zionist piracy and a violation of international law … The occupation is concerned about these ships … because they grant legitimacy to engagement with the Palestinian government and confirm that the attempts to isolate Hamas have failed.” (Cited in ‘Hamas accuses Israel of zionist piracy’, presstv.ir, 27 May 2010)

And as Jamal Elshayyal pointed out in a blog entry for Al Jazeera, “if this fleet of humanitarians does reach its destination, it could very well set a precedent for others to challenge Israel’s illegal occupation, and the next thing you know Israel’s navy could be confronted by an armada of charities and humanitarian organisations.

Furthermore, were the Freedom Flotilla to dock in Gaza, Arab governments would be severely embarrassed. After all, if a few hundred people can break the siege and help rebuild Gaza, why can’t some of the wealthiest nations and largest armies?” (‘Israel’s navy will have its work cut out’, 22 May 2010)

This was echoed in Israeli daily paper Yediot Aharonot, which pointed out that “If this flotilla gets through, the way will be open and the closure of the crossings will be meaningless.” (Cited in ‘As aid flotilla approaches Gaza’s shores, Israel takes extraordinary steps to prevent it reaching its destination’, jnews.org.uk, 28 May 2010)

Quite so. But not allowing the boats to pass meant finding some way to stop them that would be acceptable to Israel’s paymasters in Washington. However, perhaps after the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ massacre was allowed to go so completely unpunished, despite arousing the horror of the world’s people and being condemned as a war crime by pro-zionist UN investigator Richard Goldstone, Israel’s leaders have become so used to assuming that the US and Britain will back them whatever, that they have lost their grip on the fact that ultimately, even those governments have to be able to sell their support to a sizeable section of their domestic populations.

The nineteenth century British prime minister Lord Palmerston famously pointed out that ‘Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests,’ and this dictum sums up imperialist policy in a nutshell. The zionists have for so long been protected and sheltered behind their masters’ voluminous skirts, they have stopped imagining that they might ever be left to fend for themselves.

But if Israel’s actions are so blatant as to make whitewashing impossible, not only Israel but also the US and British ruling classes stand exposed as war criminals before their angry populations – and if that starts to happen, the imperialists may well decide that support for Israel is no longer the most effective way to secure access to and control of the resources and markets of the Middle East.

The fact that this assault was premeditated became clear as other details emerged. Two of the boats in the flotilla, Challenger I and Challenger II, were simultaneously struck with identical steering problems when they tried to leave their anchorage near Cyprus on the evening of Friday 28 May – obviously the result of a sabotage mission (probably by divers), which Israel has now all-but admitted to.

At the same time, the government of Cyprus regrettably bowed to Israeli pressure and refused at the last moment to allow high-profile European MPs and passengers, including Hedi Epstein, a jewish holocaust survivor, to leave the island from its shores to join the flotilla. (Previous sea missions to break the siege have all left from Cyprus.)

Israeli sabotage and threats delayed the flotilla and caused it to change course several times, but ultimately failed to stop it from trying to carry out its mission. Several ships, including the Rachel Corrie, fell behind, however, so that it was actually only a six-boat convoy that the Israelis ambushed under cover of darkness. The boats were still many miles outside Israel’s ‘exclusion zone’ when the attack took place.

Meanwhile, with customary arrogance, born of 60 years of supremacist racism, and of being not only permitted, but actually assisted in wiping brown faces off the map by its backers in the US and Britain, Israel obviously thought that if only unknown muslim Turks were aboard the main ship, no-one in the West would mind much what happened to them, or question the Israeli version of events.

In their usual high-handed and trigger-happy fashion, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the zionists may well have hoped that clamping down hard on the flotilla would send a message to the increasingly activist solidarity movement: This is what will happen to you if you try to break the blockade! And no doubt troops schooled in the noble art of anti-civilian combat, who are famous for viewing Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular as less than dogs, saw no problem in firing first and asking questions later – just as we know they were specifically instructed to do during the Gaza massacre last year. Especially when most of those facing them would have looked very similar to the Palestinians they murder with sickening regularity in Gaza and the West Bank.

Anger of the world

Writing as the first boats set sail from Turkey towards Cyprus, Jamal Elshayyal pointed out that “As the much anticipated departure of the Freedom Flotilla nears, Israel has been busy issuing statements and press releases as to how it intends to deal with the humanitarian aid convoy of ships bound for Gaza.

Israel’s military says it has completed the construction of a mass detention centre in Ashdod where it plans to hold the 800 or so activists, humanitarians and journalists on board the nine ships. 

Tel Aviv has declared the waters off the shores of Gaza a military zone, deeming any unauthorised entry trespassing.

But the problem is, Gaza’s waters are just that – waters belonging to Gaza. Israel’s navy has no right under any law to enter those waters let alone declare the area a military zone …

Thus if the Israeli military does indeed act upon its threats of boarding the flotilla and forcibly redirecting it as well as detaining the passengers; its actions, in the eyes of the conscious many, would amount to nothing less than piracy and abduction.

The likely ransom demands for the release of 800 activists, parliamentarians, aid workers and journalists:

1. Remain silent in the face of aggression.

2. Turn a blind eye to the suffering of many.

3. Report not on the injustices of Israel.

4. Forget that Gaza even exists.” (‘Piracy is still piracy, even if it’s carried out by a state’, 27 May 2010)

Jamal’s predictions have been proved all too true. But for Israel, the gamble has not paid off. Instead of intimidating the opposition with a show of strength, and silencing their voices, outrage has spread beyond the limits of the usual political activist fraternity to affect mainstream consciousness all over the world.

On Monday 31 May, a wave of angry protests swept the world as people woke up to the news of Israeli piracy and war crimes. Protestors demanded that their governments insist on the release of prisoners and the lifting of the siege, as well as calling on them to break off diplomatic and trade relations with Israel and to work to bring the war criminals to justice.

At a snap demonstration outside Downing Street, just one of many called around the country, some 2,000 people turned out. One protestor there told a video journalist from website Counterfire: “If the international community lets Israel get away with this war crime, it is saying that Israel can commit genocide against the Palestinians. Israel is putting two fingers up at humanitarian law, international law, and it is saying to Europe, America, the rest of the world, ‘We believe we can do what we like.’

“There should be immediate cutting off of all aid, all money, all relations, so that … apartheid Israel finally gets the message that what it’s doing is unacceptable.”

Michael Kalmanowitz of the International Jewish Anti-zionist Network told the same reporter: “We are completely outraged … it’s a terrible thing that they have done … We know that the Israelis behave illegally; we know they behave immorally; we know that they cause massacres … We want to make it clear that Israel does not speak for jewish people; it speaks for itself. They’re zionists and they’re murderers.”

London-born rapper and activist Lowkey spoke for many of the protestors when he declared that “All of us, everybody here, has people on those ships that we care about, and we want to know if they’re ok, so we need the names of the dead now!”

He went on to declare that “What was committed in the early hours of this morning was not just a crime against the Palestinian people; it was not just a crime against the Turkish people … it was a crime against humanity. We as British citizens were not there this morning physically, but we were there through our taxes. Our taxes were in the bullets that were fired into our friends and our brothers and our sisters. And we are sick of it. Our taxes were there; our Balfour Declaration was there – we are sick of it!!

“And something I would like to direct to that sell-out Nick Clegg. Before he became the deputy prime minister, this man was calling for an arms embargo on Israel. Where is your arms embargo now?

“We refuse to have our money used to kill human beings. It’s simple: when they drop white phosphorus bombs on Gaza, they drop white phosphorus bombs on us. When human beings are being born with deformities in Gaza, [those are] our children that are being born with deformities. We must express our solidarity with those people, because they are us and we are them.

“On this subject, there is only one line of division; only one! It’s not a line of division between muslims and jews; it’s not a line of division between Arabs and jews; it is a line of division between those who stand for the equality of all and those who stand for the supremacy of some!

Craig Murray, former ambassador of the UK to Uzbekistan, underlined the outrage of those present: “We have seen the European Union call for an inquiry. I can tell you this. Twenty of our colleagues are dead. That is a fact. At the end of the inquiry, twenty of our colleagues will still be dead. What use is your bloody inquiry? We don’t need it!

“What Israel did in boarding a foreign ship in international waters is an act of illegal war, plain and simple … In international waters, the law which applies is the law of the flag state of the ship on which the incident takes place. So those Israeli soldiers must be taken to Turkey and tried for murder in Turkey.

“And we must not forget that the cause of this incident is zionism, because under zionism, there can be no peace. There cannot be peace with a philosophy which claims a divine right to occupy somebody else’s territory and the divine justification for murder.

“Zionism is bullshit! We do not accept zionism. We do not accept Israel’s behaviour. We do not accept the continual existence of an Israeli embassy in London! And we are now going to march on the Israeli embassy.” (Speeches available to view at stopwar.org.uk)

Israel isolated

Meanwhile, leaders from the UN, the EU, China, Russia, France, Germany and more all condemned Israel’s massacre in more or less outspoken language, and all called for the lifting of the siege.

On 28 May, before the flotilla left Cyprus, EU foreign affairs High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission Catherine Ashton reiterated “the EU’s call for an immediate sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza.” After the attack, she refrained from condemning Israel outright, saying that the EU “strongly condemns any acts of violence and deplores any excessive use of force”, and called for “a full immediate inquiry by the Israeli authorities”.

Israel’s relationship with Turkey, historically Israel’s best friend in the region, has been “irreparably damaged”, in the words of prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, who said “We are not going to remain silent in the face of this inhumane state terrorism.”

Prime Minister Erdogan also said that “nothing would ever be the same” in relations between the two countries, promising further that “We will never turn our back on the Palestinians”. Erdogan called on the UN to take action, saying “The time has come for the international community to say ‘enough’. The United Nations must not stop at its resolution condemning Israel, but stand behind its resolution.”

Further, Turkey recalled its envoy to Israel, cancelled joint military exercises, and successfully called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to condemn the jewish state’s actions. Although the resulting resolution was toned down under pressure from the US, it is a measure of Turkey’s determination that the marathon 10-hour session that led to the issuing of the resolution was reported as being essentially an angry stand-off between the US and Turkish negotiators.

In a public session of the UN before the security council’s deliberations on its resolution, Turkey’s UN representative called Israel’s attack on the flotilla “tantamount to banditry and piracy” and described the massacre as “murder conducted by a state” that could have “no excuses, no justification whatsoever”, going on to say that “a nation state that follows this path has lost its legitimacy” in the international arena.

He slammed the shameful lies of Israel’s spin machine regarding the members of the flotilla, and went on to describe the activists on board as “the conscience of the international community” and “a model of the United Nations”. Calling for Israel to be punished, he went on to say that the international system as represented by the UN needed to be “set right, otherwise the trust of the people in the system, in their leaders, in us, will be demolished”.

The UN had called for the Gaza blockade to be lifted before the flotilla sailed and its spokesman Martin Nesirky had urged “restraint” in light of Israel’s stated plans to prevent the flotilla from passing. Following the massacre, the Security Council reiterated the demand to end the blockade and called for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent” investigation into the attack.

Even David Cameron, the new British Conservative prime minister, felt constrained to describe the assault as “unacceptable”, while foreign secretary William Hague said that “there is a clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations”. Clearly, even the best friends of Israel are finding it hard to come up with justifications for their protégé’s actions, and are feeling the pressure from below to put some distance between themselves and the zionist regime.

Much attention was paid in Britain to the stance of Nick Clegg, who as an opposition politician had called on Gordon Brown to take action to end the siege of Gaza. In an opinion piece for the Guardian last year, Mr Clegg stated that “paralysis in the peace process cannot be an excuse for the inhumane treatment of one and a half million people, the majority of them under 18 years old. No peaceful coexistence of any kind is possible as long as this act of collective confinement continues …

There is a clear moral imperative for Israel and Egypt to end the blockade, as well as it being in their enlightened self-interest to change course. But if they do not do so of their own volition, it is up to the international community to persuade them otherwise.

The EU has huge economic influence over Israel, and it believes the blockade must be lifted. At the same time as exercising leverage over Hamas, it should make clear that the web of preferential agreements which now exists between the EU and Israel – from Israeli access to EU research and development funds to recently improved access for Israeli agricultural products – will be brought into question if there is no rapid progress.

Equally, the US, as by far the largest bilateral donor to Egypt, should press President Mubarak to allow in the humanitarian and reconstruction materials that are so desperately needed.

What will be the state of Gaza’s drinking water by next December? Of the health of its children? Of the economy? The attitude of its people towards Egypt and Israel? The risk of waiting another year is too great. Gordon Brown and the international community must urgently declare that enough is enough. The blockade must end.” (‘Lift the Gaza blockade’ by Nick Clegg, 22 December 2009)

Initially, no word came from the new deputy prime minister, but, having been bombarded with email reminders of his former stance, Mr Clegg finally came out on 1 June and made a statement condemning the attack and the siege, saying: “Israel now needs to cooperate fully with the investigation called for by the UN Security Council late last night. And if we needed any confirmation about the unjustified and untenable blockade of Gaza, we’ve been reminded overnight of the need to lift this blockade.”

He added that “What is going on in Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe,” and, although he made the usual assertions that Israel had “every right to defend itself and its citizen from attack”, he moved swiftly back to focus on the need to lift the blockade “as soon as possible”.

Seeing the writing on the wall, commentators and officials within Israel itself are falling over themselves to blame each other for the ‘fiasco’. Of course, not many of them question Israel’s right to act unilaterally and outside of international law, but the PR fallout has well and truly set the thieves at each others’ throats, with just about everyone now claiming that they would have handled the operation differently.

Indeed, Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, told the Guardian that “Definitely we made mistakes and in retrospect anything would have been better – including letting the boats reach Gaza.” (‘UN calls for inquiry into Israel flotilla attack’ by Harriet Sherwood and Matthew Weaver, 1 June 2010)

Meanwhile, all eyes turned to the paymasters in Washington, but all that came from the Obama administration was a muted statement expressing “concern” and “regret”, and an attempt to play for more time by claiming it was “currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy”.

But if he hopes to be able to keep a low profile and avoid responsibility for this storm, Obama is likely to be disappointed. Even if not everyone yet understands that it is the USA that pulls the Israeli puppet’s strings, the majority of people have certainly now learned that a ‘special relationship’ with the US is what enables Israel to act with impunity, so that popular pressure on the US government, from within and without, to take real action against Israel following this latest outrage is only going to grow.

As Geoffrey Bindman and other prominent British jews pointed out in a letter to the Guardian, “It is the failure of Britain, the EU and the US to condemn Operation Cast Lead and Israel’s other violations of international law that leads Israel to believe it can act with impunity.” Another letter author complained of a lack of real response from Britain and America to the flotilla massacre, summing up the situation perfectly: “The failure of western governments to take action makes us complicit in the sufferings of the people of Palestine.” (‘Letters: Focus turns to Israel’s blockade of Gaza’, 2 June 2010)

It is significant that the Freedom Flotilla had been supported by the Director of Operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) John Ging, who said that Gaza deserved the same urgent international assistance that Haiti did.

Before the flotilla sailed, he said, “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 optimism proved misplaced, such open encouragement by an influential figure within the UN itself makes it clear just how isolated Israel had become even before this latest atrocity drove another wedge between it and many of its current and former friends.

George Galloway, reacting to the news on the morning of the assault, described it as “one of the most dastardly attacks on humanitarian aid workers in recent times” going on to state that “amidst the wreckage of the Freedom Flotilla is what remains of Israel’s reputation as a member of the international community”.

While the initial anger may die down, Israel’s image may never recover, and support for those who continue to run the blockade is likely to keep on growing. As Comrade Galloway said in a further statement issued on 31 May, “This is a watershed that will change the perception of the world, as Sharpeville and Soweto did to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

“It unmasks Israel, which no-one can now consider a member of the ‘international community’, but is rather a rogue state, a pariah state.” (See vivapalestina.org)

Words and words – the role of the media

At a time when media and spin are arguably as powerful as armies, the outcomes of battles for hearts and minds often shape the world we live in.

This is truest when it comes to the Palestinian struggle for liberation. As a journalist I’m aware of the simple nuances that can, and are, often used which ultimately affect the lives of millions of people. For example, a ‘war’ can be described as a ‘conflict’, or civilians ‘killed’ in an air strike could also be referred to as civilians who ‘died’ in an attack etc.

Whoever said words were just words was lying.

From Mark Regev, to Press TV, as spin doctors and media outlets decide how to react and report on the Freedom Flotilla in the coming days, it’s important that one scrutinises their words (or lack of) in every way possible.

For starters, one must ask why such a big story is not being covered by many of the large

international news networks. Surely one of the biggest demonstrations of collective international civil resistance, involving 50 nationalities, more than 30 parliamentarians, and costing millions of dollars is newsworthy.

This flotilla directly affects the lives of 1.5 million Gazans who have been living under siege for over three years; in fact it also affects the lives of many Israelis too, as they struggle to cling onto a two-faced fallacy of democratic colonisation. It baffles me how some news outlets think the European launch of Apple’s i-Pad is more of a story.

When it comes to Arab media, the case is similar. In Egypt for example, there is little mention that were it not for Cairo’s collaboration with Israel, the siege on Gaza would never have succeeded, and this flotilla would probably not be necessary …

And Egypt is not alone, even those in the Arab world who have commended the passengers on board the flotilla in their attempt at breaking Israel’s inhumane and illegal siege on Gaza, have failed to question why their governments have not done more.

Why have a few hundred individuals taken it upon themselves to relieve a besieged people, whilst their ‘brother’ nations with all their wealth and military might do nothing?

In the coming days, as journalists and politicians alike ponder on what words to use (or not to use) let us not forget that beyond all this, 1.5 million people remain besieged.

Un-spin the spin and you will find that a territory ravaged by 23 days of Israeli bombardment remains crippled.

Read between the lines and you will see that this Flotilla is nothing more than a flame of hope, for people who possess little more than just that. Hope. Just a word.” (‘What is in a word? Quite a lot actually’, 28 May 2010)

So wrote Jamal Elshayyal on Al Jazeera’s Middle East blog just before the ship weighed anchor and set out for Gaza. And while he and the other passengers were being attacked, interrogated and held incommunicado, the world’s media were indeed deciding how to spin the story of what had happened.

As the flotilla set sail, Israel’s number one spin-doctor Mark Regev was busy telling anyone who would listen that “fifteen thousand tonnes of aid are allowed into Gaza every day” (failing to mention that that is less than a quarter of what the UN says the people of Gaza need, or how many essential food and construction supplies are not allowed past the Israeli inspectors. For example, the Gulf state of Qatar recently offered to allow Israel to reopen its trade mission in the Qatari capital, Doha, which would have been a much-prized and much-needed diplomatic coup for the zionist state, provided that Qatar be allowed to send building materials for reconstruction in Gaza. The Israeli government refused. See ‘Qatar and its Emir. He’ll do it his way’, Economist, 29 May 2010.)

Once the attack became big news, Regev and his IDF cronies released video footage, purporting to show how the commandos had been faced with stiff resistance that supposedly forced them into opening fire to defend themselves. This was followed by a smear campaign that tried to paint the volunteers on board the ships as “muslim extremists” with “links to al-Qaeda”, a claim whose Goebbelsian dimensions were tempered only by its risibility. During all this time, the people who could have told a different story, those on board the ships, were kept incommunicado – an attempt at controlling the story so blatant that most reporters felt forced to point it out.

What was instructive was not the blatant lies that the Israelis were telling (nothing new there, after all), but how these lies were handled by the media here in Britain.

While almost all other news outlets (Channel 4, the Guardian, Sky) made use of alternative footage released by Press TV and Al Jazeera, at least on their websites, which cast serious doubt on the truth of Israel’s claims, it was left to the BBC to give massive prominence to the Israeli claims – and practically no voice whatsoever to those who opposed them. They were among the few who didn’t feel the need to point out to readers and viewers that those who could corroborate or contradict Israel’s version of events were all being held prisoner!

For example, nowhere was UNWRA’s John Ging asked to comment on Regev’s claims that the siege-busting mission was “provocative” and “unnecessary”, since “plenty” of aid was arriving in Gaza every day via Israeli-controlled checkpoints. In March 2010, Ging said: “I have no cement or steel or iron. We can’t get in one bag of cement, one pane of glass 10 months later to actually begin the reconstruction.” He has repeatedly called on civil society to step in and do what the EU, UN etc have failed to do and break the blockade.

Prisoners’ accounts

As prisoners from the flotilla started to be released on 1 and 2 June, Israel’s version of events was flatly rejected by all those arriving home.

According to Annette Groth, a German politician who was on the Mavi Marmara, the Israelis “had guns, taser weapons, some type of teargas and other weaponry, compared to two-and-a-half wooden sticks we had between us. To talk of self-defence is ridiculous.” (Quoted in ‘Gaza flotilla deaths: pressure builds on Israel for full inquiry’ by Harriet Sherwood, Guardian, 2 June 2010)

The Guardian reported that “what united every survivor who spoke out today about yesterday’s pre-dawn assault by Israeli commandos on the pro-Palestinian aid flotilla to Gaza, was a sense of deep shock at the speed, aggression and lethal force of the Israeli response to what they reiterated was nothing more than a humanitarian aid effort”.

Swedish author Henning Mankell, creator of the famed Wallander detective series, stated that “I can promise there was not a single weapon aboard the ships” before calling for an international boycott campaign against Israel.

Turkish activist Nilufer Cetin described hiding with her baby son in the bathroom of her cabin as stun grenades, live ammunition and teargas exploded above them, saying that the ship’s deck “turned into a lake of blood”.

Iara Lee, a Brazilian filmmaker who was also on the Mavi Marmara, said that the Israeli troops had invaded the ship after cutting all communications. She said the attack “was a surprise, because it happened in the middle of the night, in the darkness, in international waters, because we knew there would be a confrontation but not in international waters. Their first tactic was to cut all of our satellite communications and then they attacked. All I witnessed first hand was the shooting. They came on board and started shooting at people.”

She said the commandos then sent the women to a lower level of the ship. “They said we were terrorists – it was absurd. They came into the part where the women were, lots and lots of them, dressed in black and with gigantic weapons as if they were in a war. They confiscated all of our telephones and all of our luggage and took everything out of the bags and put it on the floor.”

In another interview, she told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that “We expected them to shoot people in the legs, to shoot in the air, just to scare people, but they were direct. Some of them shot in the passengers’ heads. Many people were murdered – it was unimaginable.”

According to the Guardian, “The violence was not confined to the Mavi Marmara. Speaking at Athens airport, Mihalis Grigoropoulos, crew on one of the other five vessels, said the Israelis came down from helicopters and threw ropes from inflatable boats, climbing aboard using teargas and live ammunition.

“‘We did not resist at all, we couldn’t even if we had wanted to,’ he said. ‘What could we have done against the commandos who climbed aboard? The only thing some people tried was to delay them from getting to the bridge, forming a human shield. They were fired on with plastic bullets and stunned with electric devices.’

Greek activist Dimitris Gielalis, aboard a third vessel, the Sfendoni, gave a similar account. ‘Suddenly from everywhere we saw inflatables coming at us, and within seconds fully equipped commandos came up on the boat. They came up and used plastic bullets, we had beatings, we had electric shocks, any method we can think of, they used,’ he said.

The tough treatment did not end after they were taken into custody in Israel, others said.

“‘During their interrogation, many of them were badly beaten in front of us,’ said Aris Papadokostopoulos.

‘There was great mistreatment after our arrest,’ added Grigoropoulos.” (‘Gaza flotilla raid: “We heard gunfire – then our ship turned into lake of blood”’ by Robert Booth, Kate Connolly, Tom Philips and Helena Smith, 2 June 2010)

The media have reported that all prisoners are being released, but the flotilla organisers say this is not true. Apart from unknown numbers of multinational hostages still incarcerated, four Israeli Palestinians are being held while Israel decides what ‘crimes’ to charge them with. They are Sheikh Raed Salah and Sheikh Hamad Abu Daabes of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Muhammed Zeidan, chairman of the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, and Lubna Masarwa of the Free Gaza movement and Al Quds university.

End of the siege in sight

Once more, the zionists have lifted a rock only to drop it on their own feet. In attempting to defend their indefensible siege on Gaza, they have instead brought international opposition to the siege to its highest pitch yet – and made it the issue of the moment in the world’s press.

Responding to growing anger in the Arab world at its continuing complicity, as well as, for once, to the rage of its own people rather than the diktat of its Washington paymasters, Egypt has opened its border crossing to Gaza “for an unlimited time” to allow the movement of aid and people (although not building supplies).

Moreover, just as being blocked and attacked by Egypt made participants in land convoys to Gaza even more determined to keep coming, the zionists’ attempt to intimidate the flotilla activists has badly backfired.

So if official bodies are slow to act, not only the Turkish IHH, British Viva Palestina and the Free Gaza movement, but now organisations from all over the world are declaring themselves ready to join the fray, promising to send more ships very soon – and the Turkish government has promised that the next flotilla will have a naval escort.

The fact is that the volunteers and peace activists of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla were [u]unarmed.[/u] Their power lay not in weapons but in their determination to act where governments have so far refused. Standing in solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters against Israel’s brutal, illegal occupation of Palestine and against the collective punishment of 1.7 million people (more than half of whom are children) living under siege, they raised money in their communities to bring life-saving supplies to the besieged people of Gaza.

The volunteers on the flotilla represented the vast mass of humanity. They were upholding international law, which Israel, the US and Britain flout with impunity in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan (to name but three). And they were part of a growing international movement to show Israel that the world will not stand by and allow the siege to succeed and the Palestinians to be starved into submission.

Caoimhe Butterly, an activist with the Free Gaza movement, stated in a video call for action: “It’s essential that it’s understood that this flotilla is legitimate, that we are attempting to uphold international law, that we have the conscience of the world on our side and that what we are doing is … the sort of actions that our governments should be and are not.

“In the direct silence and complicity of our governments, the people lead and the leaders follow …

“Through supporting this flotilla, you 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.”

The CPGB-ML sends its heartfelt condolences to the families of those brave volunteers who have died and our sympathies to those who have been wounded and their families. We share the anxiety of all those who had friends and family on board the ships whose current state and whereabouts is still unknown.

We join all freedom and justice-loving peoples of the world in demanding the immediate release of all the unarmed volunteers taken prisoner by the Israeli pirates. Those responsible for this crime must be brought to justice and full reparations paid to the families of the slain.

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 any volunteer remains prisoner or while the siege remains in place on Gaza; while Palestine is not free.

And let us take heart from the fact that by this latest act of barbarism, Israel has knocked yet another nail into its own coffin and taken another giant stride down the road of self-destruction.

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 Freedom Flotilla!

Hound the warmongers!

Long live Palestine!

Postscript: As we go to press, the Rachel Corrie, an Irish-flagged ship funded by activists in Ireland, Britain and Malaysia which had fallen a little way behind the flotilla, is still on its way to Gaza and has now been joined by the two Challengers. Israel has declared its intention to stop the ships. The Irish government has strongly demanded that Israel allow them to proceed safely to their intended destination.