“The fact finding mission concluded that a series of violations of international law, including international human rights law, were committed by the Israeli forces during the interception of the flotilla and during the detention of passengers in Israel prior to detention.”
Summary of the report of the international fact finding mission to investigate violations of international law.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — September 22, 2010. On September 22nd the Brooklyn Law School was the site of a most interesting panel discussion on the subject, Flotilla: Fact, Fiction and the Law. The speakers were Fatima Mohammadi, a lawyer who was part of the flotilla and aboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli commandos attacked the ship, Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, news analyst on Washington Journal (C-Span), Majority Report (Air America), and To The Point (Public Radio International), blogger, and Salon.com columnist, and Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. He was also an advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference (1991) and has been a guest on many TV and radio shows. The event was sponsored by: Network of Arab-American Professionals of NY, Muslim Law Students Association at BLS, Islamic Law Students Association at BLS, National Lawyers Guild – BLS Chapter, Adalah-NY, and Brooklyn for Peace. Months after the flotilla to Gaza was attacked there was still great interest in hearing what these speakers had to say. The auditorium at the BLS Subotnik Center was filled to capacity and people had to be turned away.
Fatima Mohammadi spoke first. She is an activist who has been in Gaza several times and has witnessed the horrific living conditions there. Mohammadi brought a part of the Cultures of Resistance film that was successfully smuggled off the Mavi Marmara when the IDF was searching and confiscating all the photos and videos from the passengers so that there would be nothing to counter the Israeli line fed to the press after the assault. It was a very good copy of the video and she did a commentary as the video was viewed which was very helpful in understanding exactly what was happening at several points. It showed the arrival of the Zodiac boats in the pre-dawn darkness, blood splattered on the walls before the helicopter arrival (Israel claimed that the IDF only shot passengers as the IDF came down from the helicopters), commandos shooting from the upper deck before the arrival of the helicopters arrived, red laser lights from the weapons targeting people on a lower deck, also before the helicopters arrived, and a book with photographs of some of the passengers on the Mavi Marmara that was confiscated from an Israeli soldier. It is not known if it was meant to be a hit list or a capture alive list. Passengers could be seen throwing onions at the soldiers and using a sling shot against a helicopter. There were many people bleeding from gunshot wounds. That was the only kind of injury, indicating that they had made no direct physical contact with the commandos. Passengers were carrying them below deck where others were desperately trying to save them. The injured were surprisingly calm. Several had been taking photographs at the time they were shot.
Mohammadi said that the Israelis gave no medical aid to the injured and dying until hours later when the ship docked in Israel. The air conditioning was turned off on the ship and she could smell the blood of those injured in the next room. She sat with the captain’s one year old son sleeping on her lap. A soldier, face covered by the black hood he was wearing, kept looking at the child. She asked him if he had a son too. His response was to point his weapon at the head of the sleeping child.
One passenger onboard, an Australian, who was badly injured was taken to an Israeli hospital for surgery when they docked. He said the doctors there treated him well but the soldier guarding him beat him while he was in the hospital.
At one point she stopped the video – there was too much to see (it can be viewed on line: youtube – Israeli Attack on the Mavi Marmara).
She said that Israel had circulated lies about the events that night. There were no weapons on the ship. People fought the commandos that attacked them with objects at hand – like tools. The purpose of the flotilla was not to anger or provoke Israel. It was to help the people of Gaza and show them that they are not forgotten. It was also to call the attention of the world to what was happening there. When Mohammadi was there last year she spoke to parents who had to walk around picking up their children’s body parts after Operation Cast Lead. One family lost 29 members leaving only 4 little girls, now orphans, alive.
Today people all over the world are raising money to send a ship in the flotilla this fall. In the U.S. fundraising continues. “Do you have any idea of the effect, the symbolism, that will have?”, she asked. It will be a repudiation of the U.S. policy of unlimited aid to Israel. This fall there will be 3 efforts to break the blockade. A convoy going overland through Europe to get aid to Gaza through the Raffah crossing. Then the Viva Palestina convoy which will travel through Europe to Syria where they will take a ferry. Then, finally, another flotilla which the U.S. boat, the Audacity of Hope, flying an American flag, will be part of. The 3 groups will be bringing mostly building supplies and prefab housing so that the homes, schools, hospitals and roads destroyed in Operation Cast Lead can be repaired.
When the people in the last flotilla were released after spending a few days in an Israeli jail they were met by people from their country’s consulates but the Americans were not – no government officials were there for them.
She ended by saying that all had a role to play in this struggle. Put your body on the line by going on a convoy or make a financial contribution, support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and spread the truth.
Glenn Greenwald spoke next. He said he was going to focus on what it was about this episode that resonated and caused such a strong reaction. The condemnation around the world was more visceral than we’ve seen before. Diplomatic leaders abandoned niceties. It was hard to see a ship with a humanitarian mission be attacked with such brutal aggression. Lives were wiped out in cold blood for no reason. U.S. commentators were struck dumb – they didn’t reflexively defend Israel. In the first few days the pro-Israel propaganda machine was disoriented, stunned by the criticism in the U.S. media but after about 3 days they had their story down: the people on the ship were the true aggressors, they were terrorists. How the Israeli and the U.S. propaganda apparatus responded is a potent illustration for how fiction, or lies, could deceive. It showed how suffocating and false our discourse is and how the pro-Israel propaganda is maintained in the U.S. media.
The legal issues were totally distorted. First, the IDF seized all documentary evidence of what took place. Then they arrested all on board the Mavi Marmara and the other ships so Israel could create their own narrative without contradiction. Israel created a video that began in the middle of the event. It looked like the passengers on the ship initiated the aggression, fighting the IDF when they climbed down from the helicopters (which they would have had the right to do since this was an act of piracy on international waters). The manipulated video didn’t start with the actual beginning of the event – the Zodiacs filled with commandos attacking the passengers. A video can be started at any point in an event to make it look like the other party started the aggression. As unsophisticated as this attempt was, U.S. media kept showing the video without questioning it. Greenwald added, imagine if 2 sides are in a dispute and 1 side gets to hold back and manipulate the evidence. You ought not trust what you are being shown but there was no skepticism. Israel refused to release videos made on the ship and because of that the finger of guilt should have been pointed at them. Instead the lies went unchallenged. Once again they were allowed to present themselves as a victim, as always and without deviation.
The Turkish government responded to the attack very strongly. The fatalities were Turkish citizens, with one holding U.S./Turkish dual citizenship. One of the main jobs of any government is to advocate for their citizens abroad. The Obama administration didn’t do that. There was no condemnation. Right wing commentators, and then it leaked into the mainstream, implied that somehow the murdered 19 year old with dual citizenship wasn’t a “real” American citizen like the rest of us. After all, he lived in Turkey and might have terrorist leanings. The U.S. government was, therefore, justified in siding with Israel. This view, a noxious notion, showed anti-Muslim bigotry. A core principle of this country is that we don’t have different classes of citizenship. We are all supposedly equal.
Defenders of Israel had to invent legal reasons why they attacked the ship. When one of the best armed, most brutal militaries in the world attacks a ship of unarmed civilians in international waters it most certainly is not legal. Israel invented a defense that began with the premise that the Gaza blockade is legal. It isn’t. It is a violation of the Geneva Convention regarding collective punishment. If, according to Israel, the blockade is to be considered legal, Israel could, therefore, claim the right to board ships in international waters to stop them from breaking the blockade. It follows then, they can kill those who resist them boarding. Following this thought process would bring total anarchy. Imagine, for example, Venezuela announcing a blockade of the U.S., then attacking ships and killing the people on board if they were headed towards the U.S. Yet the U.S. – Israeli position is that once a blockade is announced there is no limit to what they can do.
The entire world condemned the aggression but, for the most part, the U.S. media didn’t report that condemnation. They presented the story as the U.S. and Israel fighting terrorism on the seas. The U.S. stood in isolation. “Any human being with a beating heart and a conscience” is going to react with horror at the idea of innocent human beings being murdered and must conclude that Israel acted “excessively”. Yet the U.S. congress never gave a thought to Israel crossing a line. There was total bipartisanship.
With the U.S. trying to improve it’s image in the Muslim world Israel has become a liability. After the murders on the Mavi Marmara Israel’s Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, stated before the Knesset, “Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden.” He was willing to say what nobody in Congress would.
A nation that wants to perpetuate war and aggression must convince itself that it is the victim. The U.S. and Israel are very well armed yet are perpetual victims. This leads to a meaningless concept of victimization.
The word “terrorism” is also very malleable and manipulated. It is impossible to discuss what it even means and that can be easily noted in this instance. The Israeli attack was pure terrorism – violence against civilians – an attempt to frighten other people out of attempting the same mission. But the U.S. and Israel define terrorism an anything that defies their will. And their definition excludes whatever they do.
Aside from being a war crime the event was extremely instructive. It drew in so many people and we continue to talk about it. For a few days we saw an erosion of the way Israel is thought about. The same was true of the attack on Gaza. What enables Israel to do these things is the U.S., and by changing the way we talk about it in the U.S. we can change the struggle.
The final speaker was Professor Rashid Khalidi. He said that rather than talk about the flotilla he preferred discussing the “transformations in recent years of the way Palestine is treated in the public sphere.” For 63 years, since the Nakba (catastrophe) when the Palestinians were driven out of Palestine and the “miraculous birth of Israel” only 3 years after the Holocaust we only spoke of 1 side of the issue. For over 50 years any reference to the dispossession of the Palestinian people was seen as scandalous. Most Americans know nothing about Palestinians except what they learned from decades of carefully crafted propaganda, the work of seasoned public relations professionals. Very early in Israel’s history Edward Gottleib, an accomplished public relations expert, hired (for money) a novelist and Zionist, Leon Uris, to go to Israel and write a novel to be used as a propaganda piece for the state. The result was Exodus, later made into a movie with Paul Newman as the hero. This shaped the American image of Israel for decades: a brave little state (David) fighting off the evil, dark Arab hordes (Goliath). Exodus sold as many copies as Gone With The Wind.
This was only the beginning. It has continued unabated since then. Zionism, a wildly successful colonial settler movement, still operates in those terms. There has been a systematic hoodwinking of the public by public relations professionals, the same ones that recently sold us the Iraq war.
Over the past decade the limits of this indoctrination have become clear, especially among young people, including Jewish young people. In 2002 Jewish advocacy groups urged Jewish youth to “take back the campus” believing that campuses had been lost to them. Part of the reason for this change has been the accessibility of alternative information. More are getting their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than CNN and the New York Times. There is also a natural skepticism of the hypocrisy of their elders. At the same time there is a growing segment of the Jewish community, especially among liberals, that has become disenchanted with Israel’s increasingly right wing pro-occupation, pro-settlement, pro-war with Iran government and their supporters here (AIPAC, ADL) who support Israel on everything without question. Washington lives in a parallel universe, “They don’t dare stick their heads above the parapet.”
The idea that Palestinians are human beings and entitled to the rights of all people is a very new concept. 25 years ago the Palestinian people were thought not to exist. Although Israelis are still considered to be the victims, certain realities are creeping into people’s minds. Recent occurrences have overshadowed the Israel/Holocaust history. There was a series of events that the news media covered almost in spite of itself. First, the 1982 attack on Lebanon and seizure of Beirut where Israel caused the death of 17,000, almost all civilians. Then the brutal repression of the 1st intifada in 1987. In 2006 there was a 2nd attack on Lebanon when 1,000 civilians were killed. And finally the murderous assault on Gaza in 2008-2009. Israel described it as a “war”. There were 1,400 dead Palestinians, who fought with primitive weapons against the army of Israel, using the most advanced weaponry in the world, which had 13 casualties. Journalists weren’t allowed into Gaza so Israel was free to determine the narrative. These events undermined the concept that Israel was the eternal victim of aggression and that it acts only in self defense. The same was shown in the attack on the flotilla – an act of extraordinary aggression against unarmed civilians bringing humanitarian aid to a people in desperate need because of the Israeli blockade.
The changes in attitude towards Israel is evident in several areas. Students no longer accept the Israeli line. Campuses are open, all sides are aired. Publishing is more open. Books about Palestine sell. They didn’t before. And there are discussions going on in churches and within the Jewish community. So, there is reason for long-term optimism. The myths weren’t created overnight, they won’t disappear overnight. It will take a lot of work to end the slavish support politicians give Israel but “the handwriting is on the wall.”
Israel is based on violence. They have relied on it for decades. The occupation is violent, ethnic cleansing is violent. The propaganda line is crumbling before our eyes (a personal note: the Israeli Navy stopping the boat full of Jews attempting to break the blockade of Gaza is on the front page of the New York Times today, 9/28). Our responsibility, said Khalidi, is to give all we can to see to it that there is a U.S. boat in the next flotilla to Gaza, to raise the issue of Israel on campus and in our churches, synagogues, mosques, and with the media. “The tide has turned, the sand castle is dissolving, we have to give it a push.”
The sponsors of the forum organized a very informative event. Each speaker spoke on a different aspect of the subject and gave a clear, organized, perceptive, and dynamic talk. All that was said was valuable in increasing the listener’s understanding. The one thing that I would have liked to hear more about is why the U.S. gives Israel total support no matter what heinous things the Zionist state does. It is not just fear of AIPAC and the money it controls. Clearly Israel and the U.S. have mutual interests and the U.S. need for this alliance enables it to further it’s own global interests. Hearing more about that would have added to an already enlightening evening.