A new phase of struggle is born

June 28, 2010

Israel's murderous assault on a flotilla of ships carrying solidarity activists and humanitarian aid to break the U.S. and Israeli-imposed siege of Gaza spurred outrage around the world--and catapulted the international movement in support of the Palestinian people to a new stage.

At the Socialism 2010 conference in Chicago, four voices from that movement discussed the future of the struggle for a free Palestine and a free Middle East at a forum attended by nearly 1,000 people.

Kevin Ovenden is a leader of the Viva Palestina movement that has organized three overland convoys to bring aid to Gaza through Egypt's Rafah border crossing.

Kevin was on the lead ship of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, when it was attacked in international waters by Israeli commandos who killed at least nine people and injured many more. Along with other survivors, Kevin was detained and held in an Israeli prison in the Negev Desert until his release. He and Viva Palestina are working with other solidarity organizations to plan a new effort to break the siege this fall.

"ALL CHANGED, changed utterly." So wrote the great poet William Butler Yeats after the British suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. After Bloody Monday in the Eastern Mediterranean, we can complete that couplet.

A new phase of struggle is born, but at a terrible, almost unbearable price: Nine of our brothers taken from us, scores more wounded by gunshots, their blood now lapping on the shores of Gaza. But their blood was not shed in vain, because the tide has turned, and we must seize this tide to make a lasting change in Palestine, the Middle East and around the world.

We remember all of them. I remembered them on the Monday night, bound in an Israeli dungeon in the Negev Desert, a place where any self-respecting friend of Palestine would be honored to spend just one minute.

I remembered the older man, one meter in front of me, shot through the leg. The man slightly younger than me, just to the right of me, shot through the abdomen. I remembered the photographer holding a camera, shot through the forehead, the high velocity bullet blowing away the back third of his skull, cradled by a friend of mine, Nicci Enchmarch, as the last few seconds of his life expired.

Protesters march in New York City for an end to the siege of Gaza following Israel's massacre on the Mavi Marmara
Protesters march in New York City for an end to the siege of Gaza following Israel's massacre on the Mavi Marmara

All three of these men were shot from above. In all three instances, not one Israeli commando was in any immediate proximity. It's completely unfeasible to claim that anyone was in fear of their life or in fear of violence when the shots rang out which gunned down those men.

The lies are falling apart, thick and fast. I could go through all the testimony and the evidence, and it will be accumulated not by the Israeli tribunal--the whitewash tribunal that they've set up in Tel Aviv.

There's only one thing you need to know about this tribunal: the bona fide for its impartiality is that Israel has invited onto it a man called David Trimble, who is a representative of the Unionist establishment in the north of Ireland, which itself is complicit in covering up the massacre of 14 unarmed civilians on the streets of Derry--covering it up for 38 years.

There will be no truth, of course, from this inquiry, and we want an independent inquiry. But we do not have to wait for an independent inquiry, because the bold and blood-soaked facts are very straightforward. On the one hand, nine people dead. On the other, three or four roughed-up Israeli commandos. As you say on this side of the Atlantic, go figure. And millions of people around the world have already gone and figured.

That's why Israel was on the back foot immediately after this massacre took place. But the enemy doesn't rest, and they're trying to get back onto the front foot. In particular, there is now a concerted effort to isolate, to denigrate, to calumniate against the government of Turkey, the people of Turkey and the civil society organizations of Turkey--in particular, the courageous IHH [Foundation for Humanitarian Relief] led by Bülent Yildirim.

In these circumstances, we as an international movement cannot allow the Turkish front to be isolated. That means that from California to Cairo, we must link arms together and all take a step forward into the front rank of this movement to propel it forward. This is what we must do now.

We cannot allow the propaganda that they're putting about to gain currency. We need to refute them. We need to refute the slander that there is any affinity whatsoever between the mass, democratic, politically and civilly engaged but Islamist-inspired organizations in Turkey and the nihilist sectarians of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We cannot allow any credence for their arguments whatsoever.

And we cannot allow the argument that the massacres on the Mavi Marmara were in any sense the responsibility of those of us who were aboard--that Israel was, in some sense, attacked.

Attacked by Ibrahim Bilgen, a 61-year-old father of six who was a candidate for mayor in forthcoming elections in his hometown? Attacked by 38-year-old Cevdet Kiliçlar, a brilliant photographer and journalist and father of two? Attacked? I'm reminded of what Malcolm X might have made of this--we didn't land on Israel, Israel landed on us.

IT IS because we collectively defied and resisted Israeli terror that this event has had such an impact. Because of that, and because of something even more important--it was an event that connected with processes already underway for some time, reinforced those processes and opened up new possibilities for the movement.

The meaning of the massacre of the Mavi Marmara is that the miasma of defeat which has settled for far too long in the Middle East and on the minds of even many of us is finally lifting. And through the clearing fog, we can begin to see the steps that we can take forward to victory, and the ultimate victory for the Palestinian cause and the wider cause.

What are those processes? First, we know Israel's hard, lethal power--we experienced it firsthand. But I must say in the names of the families at the gravesites of those who were buried on this Thursday and Friday after the massacre: We are not afraid. We weren't afraid in Istanbul, and we're not afraid in this room tonight.

And the reason we're not afraid is that despite all the firepower and political capital, the legitimacy of the state of Israel has withered and wasted and is lower now than at any time since the inception of the Zionist entity 62 years ago.

There was a time, and some people in the audience are old enough to remember, when in many countries, even progressives--and in some countries, particularly progressives--saw the state of Israel as some kind of social-democratic outpost facing a sea of hostile, barbarous Arabism. A Sweden on the Eastern Mediterranean.

That visage is gone, and it's been replaced by the faces of Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman--and my God, what ugly faces they are.

The process has accelerated in the last four years. Israel's invasion of Lebanon four years ago resulted in military and political defeat. It's compensatory murderous attack on the people of Gaza 18 months ago resulted in a political defeat and did not achieve its military objective.

We now have a situation in the country where I come from, in Britain, as well as in Germany and in Australia, where many people who don't really care that much about the Middle East are asking the question, "What's in it for us in this relationship with a state that will forge the passports of our citizens in order to carry out an extra-judicial execution, thereby putting at risk any British passport holder who travels to Dubai?"

We have a situation now where some people in the United States are asking, and we should encourage more to ask, "What's in it for the citizens of the United States for the billions of dollars to be voted through every year by Congress, to provide the very five bullets that were fired into the head of Furkan Dogan, an American citizen? What's in it for people? What's in it for you? What's in it for the ordinary people in the United States?"

BECAUSE OF this, the movement has been growing. The convoy movement of organizations like Viva Palestina has become bigger and more effective over the last 18 months. So have individual ships going to Gaza, leading to the flotilla of six ships that was so brutally attacked. And the movement to isolate apartheid Israel in the way that apartheid South Africa was isolated through boycott, divestment and sanctions.

It's because this movement is growing that even in the Negev Desert, isolated as we were, we could explain to those who were perhaps more fearful, "Don't worry, the truth will get out. We have friends, some of them we know, many of them we don't, but they will take to the streets instantaneously." And you did--you took to the streets instantaneously.

There's another factor, and it's that the geopolitical plates in the Middle East that have locked in place the oppression of the Palestinians for so long are beginning to shift.

Put simply, you didn't have to be Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski to know in 2003 that if you knocked out the Baathist regime in Iraq, that the Islamic Republic of Iran would gain in prestige and influence in the region. That was obvious. But it was also predictable that other powers or would-be powers would seek to step into the regional vacuum that was created.

And underlying all the contingent political events taking place is what's happening with the state of Turkey and sections of Turkish capitalism--attempting to redefine its role inside the Middle East, not in complete opposition to the United States, but straining at the bonds of the embedded relationship between the Turkish state and the state of Israel, and between the Turkish state, through NATO, to the United States.

This is a process that isn't moving simply in one direction. In 2003, the Turkish parliament voted, in what was a pivotal moment, not to allow the United States to use 14 airbases in Turkey to muster an invasion of Iraq from the north. It helped to concentrate the minds of the members of parliament in Turkey that there were hundreds of thousands of people protesting outside in the streets of Ankara.

It's not that these state actors will deliver victory, but the actions of these states will create the fissures through which the struggle can emerge in order to win victories.

THE MOVEMENT is at a turning point. The question is not whether the siege of Gaza will be lifted, but how long it will take and how it will be lifted.

How decisive this turning point is will not be completely in our hands. But a part of it is in our hands. This is the Sharpeville, the Soweto, of the Palestine solidarity movement. Not the Sharpeville and Soweto of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have seen more and more massive massacres every year--since Deir Yassin, through Black September, through Sabra and Shatila, through to the atrocities against the people of Gaza. Not of the Palestinians, but of the movement of us who stand with the Palestinians.

Brothers and sisters, comrades, we must change ourselves. All movements need activists, but we cannot simply be a movement of activists. We must become a movement of people, of social and mass democratic forces, above all in the Middle East, which can transform the lives of the Palestinian people.

People ask me whether there will be more flotillas and more convoys. There will be more flotillas and more convoys. Immediately after the month of Ramadan, around the middle of September, a gigantic international convoy organized by Viva Palestina will leave from London, heading through Europe, into the Near East, down to Aqaba, across the Sinai, and up to the Rafah crossing. Simultaneously, a bigger flotilla, representative of more countries, will muster in the Mediterranean, travel port to port, and aim to be off the coast of Gaza at the same time that we are at the crossing at Rafah.

Why? Why must this continue? Because of the direct challenge it presents to Israel and, it must be said, with those states that are complicit in the siege on the Palestinian people. Rafah is an Arab-Arab crossing. If Egypt opened the border to everything that Gaza needed, the siege would be ended.

So a combined pincer movement, and on that day, if not before, the siege will fall--the siege will be directly challenged, and the siege will fall.

And this can spur on the burgeoning movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, and create a climate of opinion in which no self-respecting person regards the apartheid state of Israel as any form of a legitimate entity in the 21st century.

This is what happened with apartheid South Africa. That climate of opinion created the circumstances in which a young shop worker in Dublin, Mary Manning, could refuse to serve a customer who wanted to buy South African produce. She was fired, there was a strike, and it became an international cause célèbre.

There are Mary Mannings out there in this city, in Britain, in Ireland and in other countries. We must create the circumstances in which they feel confident to act.

This is the Sharpeville and the Soweto. Remember, the apartheid abomination could murder 69 people in Sharpeville. It could gun down Hector Pieterson and hundreds of school students in Soweto. It could torture and execute our prince Steve Biko. But Nelson Mandela walked free. Apartheid did fall.

The siege will be lifted. The apartheid wall will fall. To Gaza, through Gaza, for Palestine--Free, sovereign, dignified!

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song

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