Why the Deadly Attack on the Freedom Flotilla Was the Breakthrough That Made the World See Israel's Cruelty in Gaza


The following is an excerpt from the just-released book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, edited by Moustafa Bayoumi (O/R Books, 2010).

The Freedom Flotilla was not able to deliver its 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip, but it accomplished something more important -- it finally broke the blockade on the world's understanding of the Gaza crisis. The Israeli attack on the flotilla must be seen alongside the Israeli attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 as marking the period in which the world's understanding of the Israeli occupation irrevocably shifted. In this opening, the brutality of the Israeli occupation came into full view and the issue of Palestinian persecution was placed on op-ed pages and even legal briefs. In the end, these events may mark when the age of Israeli impunity came to an end.

In a generational sense, Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla attack can be understood as the anti-1967 war. It was the 1967 war that helped solidify Israel's image in the eyes of the world, and in particular of American Jewry, as the scrappy underdog beating the odds. That image has now changed forever, and the ongoing siege of Gaza has caused many to consider what Zionism has built in the Middle East. The Goldstone report stands as the defining indictment of this era.

The report, which found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, specifically includes the persecution of Gaza, highlighting cases where Israel intentionally attacked civilian infrastructure, including water wells, chicken farms, and the last operating flour mill in the Strip. Not surprisingly, the report and Goldstone himself became the targets of unrelenting criticism and vitriol because it pulled back the curtain on Israeli actions.

For those who harbored doubts about the Goldstone report's findings, those doubts were dispelled by the flotilla attack. The killings on the Mavi Marmara vindicated Goldstone's reading of Israeli methods. And note that the Israeli defense of its actions is exactly the same as its defense of its actions in Gaza: We had a right to cross international lines, we got severe provocation, supposed civilians were actually combatants, no country would permit this situation to endure, we defended ourselves, just look at the video. In Gaza the Israelis killed 1,200-1,400 with minimal loss of life on the Israeli side; and the numbers were imbalanced on the Mavi Marmara as well.

And now the efforts to smear the activists on the boats as jihadists, which the Washington Post and other American outlets have taken up with energy, recall the efforts to portray the Gazans as a crazed, extremist population.

The vindication for Goldstone is that anyone with eyes in her head knows that there was something terribly wrong with the flotilla action--as anyone with eyes knew that there was something wrong about the Gaza onslaught. But at that time the West was still in denial, and the Israeli-American dismissal of the Goldstone report can now be seen as a defensive effort to cover up atrocities. Who can question Goldstone's conclusions now: that Israel targeted civilian infrastructure disproportionately, and without distinction between civilians and resisters? Israel has once again shown us the playbook.

This awareness was seen in a shift in the discourse surrounding the flotilla attack, especially online as Internet journalists, led by Ali Abunimah, repeatedly exposed Israeli hasbara. The awareness even penetrated the establishment media; at the New York Times website, Robert Mackey's Lede blog cataloged the work of those discrediting Israeli spin. He highlighted Max Blumenthal's reporting on doctored IDF audio of the attack and Noam Sheizaf 's work on Turkish photos of the Mavi Marmara attack that contradicted IDF claims. Other significant reporting includes Lia Tarachansky and Blumenthal's work disproving the IDF's claim that the flotilla was linked to Al Qaeda, Jared Malsin's work confirming the doctored audio, and Abunimah's reconstruction of the path of the Mavi Marmara to show that it was actually fleeing at the time of the Israeli attack.

Despite the Israeli Foreign Ministry's best efforts, these Internet journalists were able to shape the story and fill crucial voids in the narrative of the attack that persisted in large part because Israel refused to share the entirety of the video and still footage it confiscated from flotilla passengers. In the past, Israel's control of the story of the conflict, especially in the West, has been an enormous source of power. Now we see that power breaking down at an incredibly swift rate. The one "success" in their hasbara effort has been a racist "we are the world" knock-off video that really only confirmed how absolutely tone-deaf many Israelis were to feelings around the world.

In another age, novelist Leon Uris helped supply a narrative of the Israel/Palestine conflict that survived for generations, but today the story is being told firsthand over the Internet. Portions of the attack on the Mavi Marmara were broadcast nearly live over a live-stream video channel online. In addition, several filmmakers onboard were able to smuggle footage off the boat, most notably Iara Lee from the Cultures of Resistance project, whose footage helped contradict the official Israeli version of events. So far, Israel has not found an effective response to this democratization of the media. And who knows, before long, people may talk about how the Gazans ended up in Gaza in the first place, the Nakba of 1948. Who's going to believe "a land without people, for a people without a land" when there are ten You- Tube videos to prove you wrong?

We say that the age of Israeli impunity may be coming to an end because of the surge in international grassroots eff ort to hold Israel accountable. The global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) was catalyzed by the Israeli assault on Gaza, and the fl otilla attack only added fuel to the fi re. In the week following the attack a fl urry of boycott activities spread the globe from dockworkers in Sweden refusing to unload Israeli ships, to Britain's largest Union, UNITE, deciding to promote an Israeli boycott, to the popular band the Pixies refusing to play Tel Aviv. In addition, Ecuador, Turkey, and South Africa recalled their ambassadors from Israel, and over fifteen other countries summoned the resident Israeli ambassadors to express their outrage. This anger seems to have coalesced at the United Nations, where Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is pressing forward with plans for an international investigation into the flotilla attack despite an Israeli attempt to derail the effort with a domestic inquiry.

Some are already referring to this new U.N. investigation as "Goldstone II." Palestinian commentator Ali Abunimah pointed out on the Al Jazeera English website that if the attack on Gaza moved the world's people, it seemed the flotilla attack moved its governments. He pointed to the international composition of the flotilla and wrote, "It was the day the whole world became Gaza. And like the people of Gaza, the world is unlikely to take it lying down." And so the Gaza flotilla raid may one day prove to be a hinge of modern history.

Reprinted with permission from O/R Books, All Rights Reserved -- 2010.

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