Book review: ‘Midnight on the Mavi Marmara’

With the UN set to report on last year’s aid flotilla, writers question Israel’s motives for killing nine activists.

Flotilla attacks IDF creative commons
Since the killings on the Mavi Marmara, other activists have tried to enter Israel to break the blockade of Gaza [AFP]

In the 14 months since Israeli commandos killed nine activists in a raid on a humaniarian aid ship that tried to break the sea blockade of Gaza, the Freedom Flotilla of 2010 has never been far from public scrutiny. 

The fallout from the attack triggered protests across the Middle East and Europe, along with a shattering of diplomatic ties between former allies Israel and Turkey.

More recently, there has been controversy and outcry over the United Nations’ decision to later this month release the results of its investigation of the affair. No matter what the UN report discloses, the flotilla appears destined to be another powerful polemic in the ongoing saga of Israel-Palestine relations.

Within this evolving context comes a collection of essays that views the affair through the prism of activists, journalists, academics and politicians in an ambitious effort to present a new understanding of the ill-fated voyage.

Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Haymarket Books, 2010), consists of 48 essays compiled by Arab American author and professor Mustafa Bayoumi. The book’s diverse accounts, which were published only three months after the attack, include witness testimonies, rebuttals of Israel’s justifications for the violence, and in-depth analysis of the flotilla’s foreign policy ramifications.

The anthology, taken as a whole, rejects the idea that an official record or single historical narrative can appropriately explain exactly what happened on board the flotilla’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, last May.

Memories still smolder

In his introduction, Bayoumi writes: “Even if the Israelis confiscated all recordings of the event in a desperate attempt to control the narrative…you can’t confiscate people’s memories.”

Contributors to the book include Noam Chomsky and Alice Walker

He urges readers to remember those killed because “the dead are easily maligned and even more easily forgotten. What we need to recall most is that these were ordinary men, shot to death in a middle of a humanitarian mission.”

Several of the essays allege that mainstream American media and Israel’s public relations machine, or hasbara, controlled what was reported and published about the flotilla attack.

Iara Lee, a passenger on the Mavi Marmara and a documentary filmmaker, writes in her essay that “control of information was part of the Israeli attack on our flotilla from the start”. Lee describes how the Israeli army jammed satellite communication, confiscated cameras, phones, and computer hard drives that contained footage of the raid in order to manage the flow of information.

In another account, journalist Max Blumenthal exposes how a number of claims made by the Israeli army were false; for example, that passengers had links to al-Qaeda, weapons were on board, and activists yelled anti-Semitic slurs.

Struggle goes global

Bayoumi introduces the anthology’s subject by emphasising its international impact.

The attack on the Mavi Marmara, he explains, resulted in demonstrations in major European capitals, Turkey, Canada and many US cities. Bayoumi credits the attack for pushing Egypt to finally open its Rafah border crossing into Gaza.

Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Spain Greece, and Sweden summoned their Israeli ambassadors, Bayoumi continues, while Turkey, Ecuador and South Africa recalled theirs from Jerusalem. Some dockworkers in American and European cities refused to unload Israeli ships for a time in protest, a move he cites as evidence of the attack’s widespread global unpopularity. 

Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss, co-editors of Mondoweiss, a news website devoted to American foreign policy in the Middle East, state in their essay that the Mavi Marmara raid will be understood as this generation’s “anti-1967” moment.

Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, many Western observers viewed Israelis as the “scrappy underdogs beating the odds. That image has now changed forever, and the ongoing siege on Gaza has caused many to consider what Zionism has built in the Middle East,” Horowitz and Weiss write.

The contributors’ diverse backgrounds also underscore the “internationalisation” of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the flotilla’s aftermath. The anthology presents the views and experiences of writers who are Swedish, Korean, American, Turkish, Israeli, and Palestinian. Midnight on the Mavi Marmara includes contributions from celebrity activists such as Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and philosopher.

Rights and resistance

A number of essays provide in-depth depictions of the siege conditions of Gaza and go further to explore the complexities of Palestinian resistance.

Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, argues that the blockade is simply a symptom of a larger issue – the decades of statelessness endured by Palestinians.

Cole contends that being without state citizenship and protections leaves people marginalised, vulnerable to domination and without human rights.

Contributor Amira Hass, a journalist at Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, agrees. She writes that the blockade is “denying the right and thwarting the will of Gazans to be an active, permanent and natural part of civil society”.

Yet Hass criticises the Freedom Flotilla for their stance that activism is essentially “non-violent resistance”.

For Hass, any distinction between violent and non-violent resistance assumes that the Israeli occupation is a natural state of affairs. Calling the Freedom Flotilla a form of non-violent resistance, in Hass’ words, “diverts attention from the fact that forced rule is based on the use of violence”.

The contentious issue of Palestinian identity is also addressed in various segments of the anthology. Midnight on the Mavi Marmara explains how academics, analysts, and activists have struggled to voice the identity of a people who remain without an official record of their history, and their continued present. 

Power of communication

The contributors’ close relationships with the modern Middle East resonates throughout the book, filling it with personal sentiment and political power. 

Last week, when the self-described Freedom Flotilla 2.0 tried unsuccessfully to deliver aid to Gaza amid sabotage and international pressure, it seemed evident that last year’s attack may not have “Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict” as the book’s title claims.

Perhaps not, but Midnight on the Mavi Marmara makes a convincing case that the deadly fiasco of the original flotilla is exactly why Israel’s exceptionalism in the international arena must end.

In 2010, Israel faced terrible media exposure and global condemnation, when its military raided the Mavi Marmara. Rather than risking direct confrontation, this year, Israel used its exceptional status to recruit European countries to assist in the enforcement of its naval blocake of Gaza and have international airlines deny entry to passenger wanting to fly to the occupied territories.

Most significantly, this dynamic 302-page anthology conveys the importance of writing history from divergent viewpoints and in the context of different experiences. In this process, as the book shows, comes the difficulty, and therefore the power of communication.

As the late French writer and iconoclast Jean Genet said in a 1983 interview with La Revue d’études palestiniennes: “The moment I begin to speak, I am betrayed by the situation. I am betrayed by whoever listens to me, simply because of communication itself. I am betrayed by my choice of words.”  

Follow Roxanne Horesh on Twitter: @RoxanneHoresh

Source: Al Jazeera