From small beginnings and with few resources, the international movement in solidarity with the Palestinians has grown into a force that Israel perceives as a major threat. The assault on the Gaza aid flotilla was a lethal escalation in what has become an increasingly bitter campaign against that movement, whose constituents now range from dockworkers in South Africa refusing to offload Israeli goods to students at Berkeley demanding divestment.
The brutality of the flotilla attack was a measure of the extent to which the Israeli polity has grown to fear and loathe this global grassroots movement. In a way, the violence was a perverse tribute to a band of voluntary campaigners who are massively outstripped by Israel in money, institutional resources and access to the media, but who nonetheless have put more pressure on Israel than the world’s most powerful governments. Indeed, it’s the long-term collusion of those governments with Israel that has prompted the growth of citizen’s initiatives, such as the Freedom Flotilla, to redress the balance. People from very differing societies have come to the politics of international solidarity with Palestine via many routes. Nearly always, their commitment to the cause, the commitment that led the passengers on the boats to take such risks and suffer such punishment, is an expression of a wider aspiration for social justice, and above all a belief that this justice must be global in nature if it is to mean anything. One of the primary objects of the Israeli media barrage that followed the assault was to discredit and divide this movement. In particular, it sought to isolate and demonize an “Islamist” or “jihadi” element among the activists. (This was presaged by the especially vicious treatment meted out to those passengers identified by Israeli armed forces as Muslims.) The “Turkish boat” was said be the source of all the trouble. At one point it was claimed that an “al-Qaeda” team had been on board. The Turkish charity Isani Yardim Vakfi or IHH was traduced. People in the West with sympathies for the Palestinians were being warned: there was a type of person involved here with whom they would never want to make common cause.
Unfortunately, in France, a section of the left, driven by a misconceived interpretation of secularism, seemed to agree. They refused to join a protest against the assault on the flotilla on the grounds that other participants would include Muslim clerics. Under the guise of a dedication to universal values, this refusal was actually a restriction of those values: the expression of human solidarity was subjected to ideological conditions. Elsewhere the movement has prospered by its embrace of pluralism. This pluralism has been forged not by making a special case for the Palestinians but by universalizing their struggle: founding it on a commitment to human rights and common standards of justice. Far from “singling out Israel,” as is routinely claimed, the movement has begun, at long last, to expose how Israel singles itself out, demanding (and receiving) exemptions from those standards.
The diversity of the passengers on the flotilla was always its greatest strength. It meant that a much wider circle of people felt some kind of connection with the events in the Mediterranean, and also that they would have access to sources of information not trammeled by the Israeli state line. Transcending the boundaries of nation, religion and language, the passengers represented a growing global public that feels itself compelled to act because its governments will not. Like the motley delegation of foreigners who pledged their support for the French Revolution to the National Assembly in 1790, they were “ambassadors of the human race.” Of course, far from deterring Israel, this status made them a threat which had to be countered with a show of extreme violence.
True to form, Israeli spokespersons described the killings on board the Mavi Marmara as “self-defense” by Israeli soldiers threatened with “lynching.” The ensuing arguments about “violence” and who was responsible for it recapitulated a long history in which Israel has identified every denial of Palestinian rights or annihilation of Palestinian life as “self-defense.” Conversely, every assertion of those rights and every attempt to preserve those lives is deemed illegitimate, denounced as “aggression” or “terrorism.”
Here the Israelis tapped into a long-established bias in the Western media. A study by Arab Media Watch of the mainstream British press from January to June 2008 found that violent Israeli actions were almost always portrayed as “retaliating” to Palestinian aggression. Rocket attacks were represented as a “provocation” to Israel five times more often than the Gaza blockade was represented as a “provocation” to Palestinians. Forty years of occupation were portrayed as a provocation to Palestinians on only one occasion and settlement building twice. Where debate arises within the mainstream media, it tends to revolve around the “proportionality” of Israeli action, thus evading the underlying questions of Palestinian rights and Israeli domination.
Unlike the solidarity movements which grew up in response to the struggles in Vietnam or South Africa, the Palestine movement faces an opponent with its own international network, preaching its own form of solidarity (with Israel), very much a movement in its own right, however reliant on state support. Its rhetoric and tactics may be cynical in the extreme, but there’s no denying its emotional fervor. Building opposition to South African apartheid never involved the kind of on-the-ground contest with ideologically motivated, well-resourced opponents that pro-Palestinian activists routinely engage in. Just as the Palestinian cause is a global magnet for victims of discrimination and dispossession, so the cause of Israel is a magnet for the privileged, the entitled, the beneficiaries of Western and white supremacy. The rich and powerful see themselves as under siege from the poor and powerless and in Israel’s self-portrayal they recognize themselves. The gated communities of the world rally around the gated nation. The increasingly wealthy Indian elite — which has vigorously pursued governmental and business exchanges with Israel — sees in Israel not only an ally in a struggle against “Islamic terror” but a stepping stone to a closer relationship to the United States, and in a wider sense an entry into the exclusive club of the affluent and powerful.
Thus the highly particularist ideology of Zionism — which rests on the assertion of eternal ownership of a specified territory by a specified people — becomes a broader “civilizational” cause. This ideology underpins the ever-widening Israeli definition of “self-defense.” To those for whom the maintenance of a Jewish supremacist state in Palestine is the sine qua non of Jewish survival, any assertion of Palestinian rights is an “existential” threat — a negation that must itself be negated. As a state for all Jews, Israel embraces a global mission and enjoys special prerogatives. In the contemporary world only the US claims a wider remit of self-defense, insisting that it can strike anywhere to protect its perceived interests. Israeli exceptionalism finds a mirror and enabler in US exceptionalism, which in turn has its roots in the long history of Western colonialism, whose stock-in-trade was, for centuries, acts of piracy on the high seas. Through many years of grassroots education, agitation and organization, not to mention a steadfast defiance of intimidation, the solidarity movement has begun at last to have a real effect on the balance of power. But there is so much further to go. Governments around the world joined in the condemnation of the Israeli attack on the flotilla, but many of these same governments continue to provide essential means for Israel to pursue its destruction of the Palestinian people. In that context, those who consider themselves, in Thomas Paine’s words, “citizens of the world” are called upon to redouble their efforts to secure boycott, divestment and sanctions. If Israel continues to act with impunity, if Palestine instead of Israel is subject to isolation, then the powerful everywhere will have their options strengthened.
This essay is excerpted from Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, exclusively available from OR Books.
Mike Marqusee is the author of If I am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew (Verso).