Kevin Ovenden, who was aboard the Mavi Marmara, recounts the attempt to break the siege on Gaza and its part in the global solidarity movement with Palestine
It is ten years to the day since the massacre by Israeli commandos aboard the aid ship Mavi Marmara - in international waters and part of the flotilla breaking the siege on Gaza.
We remember: İbrahim Bilgen, Çetin Topçuoğlu, Furkan Doğan, Cengiz Akyüz , Ali Heyder Bengi, Cevdet Kılıçlar, Cengiz Songür, Fahri Yaldız, Necdet Yıldırım, Ugur Suleyman Soylemez - and all those injured and who took part.
I remember the two men shot close to me – through the abdomen and leg.
We have in our minds also the continuing murderous siege on the people of Gaza, the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people, the denial of statehood and the right to return, and now the threat of annexation of the West Bank.
Monday 31 May, 2010 was a turning point in the global movement of Palestinian solidarity. Despite the massacre, the movement has continued and widened.
It is for that reason that from the US to Britain, Germany to France governments attempt to defame the movement and declare illegal the peaceful, mass tactics of boycott and protest that helped defeat apartheid South Africa.
The attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was one of a series of critical moments in the history of both the Palestinian struggle and the movement of solidarity with it. At each stage there has been a ferocious backlash. But the gains in winning popular support have been cumulative despite the suffering – through the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982 and the First Intifada, a civil uprising, in 1988 to the advances registered through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions tactic today.
The Mavi Marmara came at the end of a decade of developments that had focused unprecedented numbers of people on the condition faced by the Palestinian people, and those in Gaza specifically.
There was the Second Intifada at the start of the century along with the global anti-war movement. In Britain, Greece, Turkey and some other countries the demand of Freedom for Palestine was a plank of those movements and they invigorated existing solidarity organisations.
The issues of Palestine and of opposing another war in the Middle East in 2003 were also fused by the major backers of the Israeli apartheid state. In order to win international support for the war on Afghanistan and then on Iraq, or at least silence from Arab governments, the US and British governments floated a phantom Roadmap to Peace in Palestine.
It was an implicit acknowledgement that the vaunted Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 were already dead thanks to Israel’s intransigence.
Then in 2006 the Islamic resistance movement Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, in large part due to the supine official Palestinian leadership’s failure to confront Israeli expansionism. The failure of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon at the same time brought a new wave of anti-war and pro-Palestinian activism. It was also the event that tipped Tony Blair into having to announce he was standing down the following year.
The Israeli government’s response was to impose the most vicious siege upon the Gaza Strip where Hamas set up a government that almost all states in the world recognised despite the legitimacy of the election.
Gaza became a symbol for international resistance, especially for those who rejected the Islamophobia driven by the war and terror and motivating the refusal to accept the outcome of the Palestinian electoral process.
It was against that backdrop that Israel launched the major war and invasion of Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008.
It was to kill 1417 Palestinians, most of them civilians – many, children. Despite Israel claiming it a war, and Western governments suggesting both sides were to blame (while refusing to restrain the Israeli forces), just 13 Israelis were killed. Three civilians, ten soldiers - and four of those by friendly fire.
As a relative put it to me: “I don’t know a lot about any of this. But as far as I can see one side is killing soldiers and the other children.”
That widespread understanding, which defied outright censorship by the BBC, propelled an extraordinary upsurge in Britain. Night after night thousands gathered to block the road outside the Israeli embassy. There were protests and vigils in towns and cities across Britain and a series of massive national demonstrations in the space of just three weeks.
It was at one 100,000-strong demonstration that we launched the Viva Palestina initiative, George Galloway MP announcing from the stage that a convoy was to head off from Britain in five weeks to break the siege on Gaza.
The response was incredible. We were inundated with people all over Britain volunteering effort, aid and to take part. We left Hyde Park on 14 February 2009 with 120 vehicles and over 350 people. The following month we entered war-ravaged Gaza, after battling with one Arab regime after another, above all the Mubarak regime in Egypt, on our way across North Africa.
Behind that success lay something profound in Britain. Each vehicle and participant had standing behind them scores, sometimes hundreds or thousands of people in towns and cities who rallied to the effort.
As with the anti-war movement there was a huge contribution from politicised Muslim communities. That came together with peace and solidarity activists, Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity groups, the parts of the left that take these things seriously, and ordinary people just very upset by the massacre in Gaza.
A roll-call of participants would include: Dewsbury, Bradford, Preston, Greater Manchester, Halifax, Barnsley… in other words places that form part of what has recently been termed the “Red Wall” of Labour seats that the Tories breached at the last election.
Over a thousand people lined the streets to see off the Dewsbury vehicles. Thousands more had contributed.
In parallel, every North African town and city we travelled through, down to the smallest village, saw crowds of people usually ashamed at their governments’ silent complicity in the Palestinian tragedy and often braving police repression to greet the convoy.
It was from those countries that activists of various backgrounds came together to send big delegations on a third Viva Palestina convoy in the autumn. It passed through Turkey where a similar grassroots process had erupted. It found some public space in a repressive state thanks to the temporary shift by the Erdogan government at that time to forceful condemnation of Israel and strong pro-Palestinian rhetoric.
This all fed into the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010. Already individual boats had bravely broken the siege by sea or had been brutally stopped trying.
Now the experience of the land and sea efforts coalesced in the effort to send six boats, the largest being the Turkish Mavi Marmara.
The brutality of the Israeli response can be explained by many things – including raw fury at meeting organised defiance when they illegally boarded in an act of international piracy.
But the Netanyahu government had already decided to send elite commando killers. It looked to stamp out this rising curve of solidarity and form of action – convoys and flotillas – with brute force.
Politically, it also sought to divide the movement by holding up the Islamist scarecrow. Though a minority, there was a presence of those of us of the radical left: from Britain, Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine and other countries.
The largest group was those moved into action by their Islamic faith.
It was no accident that those singled out for what a UN human rights committee described as summary executions were largely from the civically engaged Muslim organisation IHH in Turkey, which had affinity with the main political Muslim groupings in the region. They include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which won the election after popular humiliation, including over Gaza, finally exploded in the toppling of Mubarak just 10 months after the Mavi Marmara attack.
Instead of achieving that, the Israeli atrocity brought a massive outpouring of anger internationally, forcing even some allied governments to condemn it. Those killed did not die in vain.
It took years before Erdogan was able to pull Turkey back officially from a high level of antagonism with the Israeli government, a traditional ally.
A combination of other big factors, above all the supplanting of the revolutionary eruption of the Arab Spring by counter-revolutionary religious sectarianism, did succeed in throwing back what had been a surge forwards internationally and in the region from 2001 to 2012. The biggest factor of all, of course, is the continued Great Power intervention that is ultimately the root cause of Palestinian dispossession.
I believe that is temporary, as both the uprisings in Algeria and Sudan last year and daily Palestinian resistance show.
There is much to say about what has happened in the region and on the Palestinian front in the last ten years.
But reflecting on events a decade ago three big issues perhaps closer to home strike me.
First, the great popular radicalisation against war and for Palestine – just as the current international eruption over the murder of George Floyd – shows that these are not esoteric issues for the left.
The years 2009 and 2020 showed they are every bit as much issues for working class people horrified by the state of the world in Middlesbrough as they are in Tower Hamlets. They are certainly not the property of a select group of activists. The strength of the convoys and flotilla lay in a mosaic of local community organisation.
More generally and as I said at protests following the massacre: “All movements need activists. But we cannot simply be a movement of activists. We have to become a movement of people, of social forces – of the mass democratic forces above all in the Middle East that can help break the chains of the Palestinian people.
Second, that Palestine remains a compass point and in the Middle East a continuing leavening that lifts the struggles for progress in each of those countries. And not just there.
Third, and blazing on both sides of the Atlantic, contrary to our rulers’ prejudices ordinary people, working people are not a herd. There will be and are eruptions of revolt and struggle. It is with the language of those in struggle not an artificial political language of the “professional”.
People look to ideas and action that can answer the pressing problem they see. If Gaza is bombed, under siege and lacks medicine, how do we organise to help break that siege, deliver medicine and draw more people over to our side?
If racist police kill with impunity, what sources of power do we have to bring that to an end and force the authorities to respond?
If we are pushed into dangerous workplaces and mass transport in the middle of a pandemic, how do we practically stop that and organise to put our interests above those of the billionaires?
We have much to discuss, rightly, on the left. But it is of value only if it helps us build a radical left that can practically address such things. To turn outwards. To listen. To organise as widely as possible. And to remember that “in the beginning was the deed”.
In what is just the beginning of this pandemic and global economic slump, let's today take a moment to recommit to building solidarity with the Palestinian people and with the movements against war and Great Power intervention with which it is intimately connected.
Bound up with it too are all genuine struggles for progress in the Middle East and Arab region.
For Palestine is still the issue.
Kevin Ovenden speaking about what happened on the Mavi Marmara at an ISO conference, 2010:
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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