First published by the Middle East Monitor on 29 May, 2020
It is ten years since a live broadcast from the Mediterranean on Aljazeera TV came to an abrupt end. On 31 May 2010 I was watching human rights activists on the MV Mavi Marmara laden with humanitarian supplies for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip describing their fears as the Israeli navy circled the ship ordering its Captain to change course. Moments later, the transmission was ended. I feared the worst. With no news at all coming through I slept, unaware of the fate of the Mavi Marmara and the five other ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
I woke to the shocking news that the Israeli navy had not only hijacked the flotilla but also killed nine human rights activists in the process. A tenth person died from his wounds later. There were no Israeli commandos killed by the civilians on board the ships, although a small number were injured after they boarded the flotilla’s flagship.
As Palestinians, we are only too aware of Israeli brutality, but for nine humanitarians trying to deliver aid to needy people in Gaza to be killed for their endeavours was shocking. By all accounts, the Israeli navy attacked the flotilla in international waters — piracy, surely — demonstrating that Israel felt that it could act with impunity; it still does. It simply has to scream “self-defence” and “security” and the so-called international community that claims to uphold democratic values and human rights will do and say nothing, except to reaffirm the occupation state’s right to self-defence. The reality is that no state whose army is occupying neighbouring or other territory has a legal right to claim self-defence.
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On board the Mavi Marmara was my friend and colleague Sarah Colborne, the then Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Britain. She was one of the last passengers on the ship to appeal to the world on Aljazeera’s live broadcast. Her message to the Israeli navy was clear: “Stop threatening us.” It fell on deaf ears. Sarah later described the flotilla as a response to the UN call for ships to be sent with humanitarian aid to break the Israeli-led blockade on Gaza.
Israel imposed a cruel, immoral siege on the tiny enclave in 2007 after Hamas took control of Gaza months after forming the government following its Palestinian Legislative Council win in 2006 and the appointment of Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister. The Israelis had pulled their army and settlers out of the Gaza Strip unilaterally in 2005 but had maintained their occupation at arm’s-length by controlling Gaza’s border crossings, territorial waters and airspace. The only access to the world for the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Strip was through the Rafah Crossing into Egypt, controlled by Cairo.
The first attempt to break the siege by sea took place in 2008. On 23 August, 44 ordinary folk from 17 different countries sailed from Cyprus to Gaza on two small wooden boats, the Free Gaza and the Liberty. After a rough 30-hour voyage from Cyprus, in which they were tracked by the Israeli navy, the boats made it to Gaza and were greeted by tens of thousands of Palestinians in the small port.
Palestinian Musheir El-Farra was on board; a human rights activist born and raised in Khan Younis he was living in Sheffield at the time. “For the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I went to Gaza without being humiliated, without having to ask Israel for permission. We did it. We finally did it. And now others must join us and do it as well.” Little did he know that a couple of years later, human rights activists trying to do exactly that would be killed for trying to replicate the peaceful endeavours of those on board the Free Gaza and the Liberty.
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Sarah Colborne told Guardian readers what happened on board the Mavi Marmara on that fateful night in 2010. “It felt a bit surreal. I couldn’t quite believe they were doing what they were doing. There was live ammunition flying around and I could hear the sounds of the bullets flying and the whirr of the helicopter blades as people were dropped down onto the roof. What I saw was guns being used by the Israelis on unarmed civilians.”
The six ships were forced to change course and head for Ashdod. After returning to Britain, Colborne explained: “We were kidnapped, we were deprived of our liberty and our belongings. People were illegally held against their will, taken to Israel from international waters. In terms of treatment, in terms of our basic rights they were completely and totally violated.” She expressed her hope that “the deaths, the horrific deaths, of the people will not be in vain.”
My former colleague said something then that, ten years down the line, we say again: “We can’t sit by and watch Israel violate international law every day. We want the British government to take action, ensure there are no future attacks on humanitarian aid convoys.”
However, not only have successive British governments not taken any action to sanction Israel for its crimes or insist that the siege on Gaza is lifted, but the rest of the world has also allowed Israel to get away, literally, with the murder of ten unarmed activists who were killed simply for trying to reach the Gaza Strip and deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.
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Turkey started the process of prosecuting and seeking life sentences for the alleged involvement of former Israel Defence Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former navy chief Eliezer Marom, former military intelligence head Amos Yadlin and former air force intelligence chief Avishai Levy, who were all put on trial in absentia in 2012. However, the charges were eventually dropped following diplomatic reconciliation between Turkey and Israel in 2016. Ashkenazi is now Israel’s Foreign Minister in the newly-formed government.
Israel continues to avoid being held to account thanks to the diplomatic, political and economic cover provided by its allies. And the killing of unarmed protesters and activists has continued.
In March 2018, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip established the weekly Great March of Return protests alongside the fence that separates more than 80 per cent of them from their original homes in what is now called Israel, demanding their legitimate right to return to their land. In response, Israeli snipers opened fire, as they have done ever since. To date, more than 200 Palestinian civilians have been killed by the Israeli soldiers, including journalists and medics; tens of thousands more have been wounded, many with life-changing injuries, Yet again, the west has stood with the aggressor, backing Israel against the victims of its brutal military occupation.
The cumulative impunity and lack of accountability that Israel enjoys did not start with the Mavi Marmara piracy, hijacking and killings, and has not ended with the Great March of Return shootings. The Palestinian people and their supporters continue to accumulate anniversaries to mark, very few of which they can mark with any degree of happiness. Whether it is the 1948 Nakba itself and the massacres that the Zionists and nascent Israeli state carried out then, including Deir Yassin; the 30 September 2000 killing of 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Durrah; or the killing of 21-year-old volunteer medic Razan Al-Najjar on 1 June 2018, it is inexplicable in a world which proclaims “universal human rights” that Israel has and continues to enjoy complete immunity from sanctions and prosecution.
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We must not allow the memory of the ten who lost their lives on the Mavi Marmara to fade, for they are symbolic of everyone else who has lost their life in the cause of Palestinian freedom. We should also thank and remember the many others who took part in the Freedom Flotilla and survived to keep their colleagues’ memories alive as they continue to support the Palestinian struggle.
Israel’s criminal actions in 2010, and those in the decades before and since must never be forgotten. We have a duty to keep them in the public domain so that those shameless individuals and governments which claim that Israel upholds western values of democracy and human rights see it for the rogue, pariah state that it truly is.
Let us, therefore, remember Ibrahim Bilgen, Çetin Topçuoğlu, Furkan Doğan, Cengiz Akyüz, Ali Heyder Bengi, Cevdet Kılıçlar, Cengiz Songür, Fahri Yaldız, Necdet Yıldırım and Ugur Suleyman Soylemez. They paid the ultimate price trying to help a besieged people. We must neither forget them and their sacrifice, nor forgive those involved in bringing their lives to a premature and brutal end.