The Port of Gaza was so beautiful yesterday morning. The quay, constructed from concrete columns broken up in segments, laid in piles in a huge “L” leading out into the Mediterranean, was abuzz. So was the shore. Large fishing boats boarded passengers and moved out to sea. Big, colorful bunches of balloons went up in the air. Palestinian flags were everywhere, mingling with the red crescent of the Turkish group Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), a major international humanitarian NGO. Boats floated out into the sparkling blue water.
A demonstration was held to welcome the Freedom Flotilla, a fleet of boats carrying international activists and humanitarian aid for Gaza, intending to defy Israel’s embargo on certain types of aid. About 700 activists rode on the flotilla, including a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and 17 European legislators. Yesterday morning, the flotilla congregated close to Cypriot territorial waters, preparing to begin its voyage to the Gaza Strip.
The mood was celebratory at the Port of Gaza. Hamas security forces looked on as members of other political parties shouted out their slogans, everyone hoping for the siege to end.
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What a horrible difference a day makes.
Today, news reports and clips and dispatches arrived that I had never in my life expected to see. Israeli commandoes had rappelled onto the deck of the Mavi Manara, the big red-and-white Turkish aid ship sailing to Gaza. Counts of dead and injured rose throughout the morning, in horrible dribbles of information. Initial reports pegged the casualty count at two or three dead, 30 injured. As I write, Israeli television, citing the Israeli military, reports up to 19 killed and 26 injured. No one knows. No one can verify. No information is allowed out of the ships.
The footage from the live feed on the Mavi Manara is the only audio-visual material currently available. It’s tragic: Men in orange life vests quietly suffering. Orange canvas stretchers marked with blazes of blood. “They’re all taken,” reads correspondence from the Free Gaza Movement (FGM). All six of the boats taken by the Israeli navy are on their way to Ashdod and the Israeli processing camp set up there; its white tents loom like a quiet obscenity. Fragments of news percolate through the electronic blockade Israel has erected around the ships, and through the military censor that Israel uses to attempt to contain information.
Here’s what seems to have happened: At around 10:50 p.m. last night, when the flotilla was 75 nautical miles offshore, several Israeli warships started to draw close to the ships of the Freedom Flotilla, asking them to identify themselves, and asking them where they were headed. The Navy said that they were not welcome in Israeli waters, and told the captains that by proceeding, they would put themselves, their passengers and their ships at risk. FGM chairwoman Huwaida Arraf rejected the call flatly. At around midnight, lights came into direct visual contact. Two warships were on either side of the flotilla, about a kilometer or more distant.
A little earlier that day, military sources confirmed that Israel was planning to use silent boats to creep close to the ships, and to board each one individually, using divers as well. The ships of the flotilla were advised to keep a close formation, keeping the smaller ships between the larger ones. They also took a course that would bring them even farther from the Israeli coastline, even though they were already far from international waters when Israeli gunboats started approaching.
At around 5 a.m. this morning, the live feed on the IHH ship showed helicopters floating above the desk of the Mavi Manara, and paratroopers rappelling onto the decks. Israeli army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibowitz claimed that the navy confiscated light weapons and handguns from the flotilla. “We basically encountered a lynch,” she said. “We had to control this violence.” All evidence suggests that Leibowitz is lying. The boats and passengers were rigorously checked for guns by international monitors before leaving the port. According to FGM, the commandoes opened fire from their machine guns practically as soon as they hit the deck.
“Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck,” the FGM report says. Some of those they shot were asleep.
“We will assume that the government is lying,” Gaza Freedom March coordinator Ziyaad Lunat told me. “The Israeli army claimed it didn’t use white phosphorus during Cast Lead, Amnesty International proved otherwise. We should start accepting their claims when they start resembling reality.”
Greta Berlin, one of the coordinators of the Free Gaza Movement, said that any violence that occurred on the activists’ end was in “self-defense.”
Before the massacre, the Israeli army insisted that its troops were highly trained – that they would not respond to provocations, including spits, cursing and tossed cigarettes; that they were elite commandoes. Footage has confirmed that Israel didn’t respond to provocations. It looks like it shot first.
“Very few times in history has a flotilla delivering humanitarian goods been welcomed by military war ships,” Lubna Masarwa of the FGM commented.
Al Jazeera confirms that the ships were in international water when the Israeli navy attacked them, using one-third of their fleet and hundreds of soldiers. What that means is that Israel attacked vessels flying under the flag of foreign nations in international waters. Piracy is defined as the use of violence on the high sea, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that “the high seas should be reserved for peaceful purposes.”
Before the attack, Israeli spokespeople and statesmen had sedulously tried to paint the flotilla in the colors reserved for scoundrels and terrorists. “Israel … invited the flotilla organizers to use the land crossings … however, they’re less interested in bringing in aid than promoting their radical agenda and playing into the hands of Hamas provocations…. [The organizers have] wrapped themselves in a humanitarian cloak, but engage in political propaganda,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, said that “the flotilla is an attempt at violent propaganda against Israel, and Israel will not allow a violation of its sovereignty at sea, in the air or on land.” The flotilla carried hundreds of wheelchairs for crippled Gazans and a dental clinic for Al-Shifa Hospital.
The pattern of mind is one that views resistance as terror, self-defense as murder and pacifism as violence. Such a mindset cannot admit to the possibility of a legitimate or just challenge. So nonviolent sailing ships transmute to violent propagandists, “an Armada of hate and violence,” as Ayalon described the Freedom Flotilla. International Solidarity Movement activists become human shields for bomb-planters, and the Palestinian resistance gets locked up in prison – there are about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; they make up 50 percent of the prison population. There are hundreds more in administrative detention. Israeli Arab lawmakers who contest Israeli apartheid are bludgeoned with politically motivated indictments and forced into exile, as Azmi Bishara was. Palestinian lawmakers and civil society leaders are locked in penitentiaries and tortured there, as Ameer Makhloul, the chairman of the Popular Committee for the Defense of Political Freedoms and the director of Ittijah, an umbrella group of hundreds of civil society organizations, has reportedly been. The tacit presumption is that Palestinian resistance is inherently illegitimate. The corollary is that Palestinians and their supporters have no right to resist Israeli actions. So when they defend themselves from corsairs intent on commandeering their ships, “They are directly responsible for the violence and the deaths that [occur],” as Israeli army spokesman Mark Regev comments. They should just take it.
The world sees things a bit differently, as even Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the trade minister, has acknowledged, commenting, “It’s going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it.” The Arab Monitoring Committee in what Palestinians call ’48 – Israel within the pre-1967 borders – has called for a general strike, to start tomorrow.
European ministers of state are livid, and have summoned Israeli ambassadors to find out the status of their nationals aboard the Freedom Flotilla. “What has happened is completely unacceptable and if it has happened on international waters it would make it even more serious and there must be a strong European reaction,” said Swedish Foreign Ministry Cabinet Secretary Frank Belfrage.
Turkish people have converged on the Israeli embassy in Istanbul, furious. There are demonstrations going on in Lebanon and Jordan, the latter of which is 50 percent Palestinian. Here in Gaza, the reaction has been strong. Many didn’t expect the boats to get in but were happy that the world’s people were paying attention to their suffering, and doing their best to do something about it. The people I have talked to in Gaza have expressed a spectrum of emotions: dumbfounded, devastated and furious.
Palestinian hospitality traditionally extends toward almost any guest. Solidarity activists are particularly cherished guests – or they would have been. Over the last four or five hours men and women who survived the Cast Lead massacre have universally called the attack “unbelievable,” not believing that Israel would do something so “stupid.” I have seen grown men in tears over what happened to these boats. Civil society here, often factious, is united on the outrageousness of what has happened to the mutadamineen, those in solidarity. In a territory in which Rachel Corrie is commemorated as a martyr, as a hero, where she is a household name, a massacre in which perhaps 10 or 20 Rachel Corries have been slain is a major event, a tragedy. The flotilla represented hope, a physical token of respect for Gaza and the humanity of its people. Gazans will not take an Israeli assault on that hope lightly. Tonight, Gaza will not sleep.