The return of the Mavi Marmara

The Mavi Marmara receives a hero’s welcome in Istanbul. (Faiz Ahmed)

The Mavi Marmara returned to a hero’s welcome at Istanbul’s Sarayburnu port late last month. Docking at its port of departure for the first time since its fateful voyage began seven months ago, it is perhaps the most celebrated of humanitarian relief vessels that set sail to carry foodstuffs, medicine, school materials and other household supplies to the Gaza Strip in defiance of Israel’s siege in May 2010.

To be sure, the craft itself was a sight to see. Palestinian and Turkish flags adorned the ship’s decks in fraternal tandem, the Bosphorus’ coastal breeze causing them to flutter spiritedly in a splendid sea of red, white and green. Brave slogans of solidarity with the oppressed in Palestine — painted in Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew across its sides — boldly identified the former ferry liner’s peaceful but defiant international relief mission. Meanwhile on shore, cheering crowds of thousands amassed in excitement, gathering from an arm’s length of the ship to several blocks down the harbor. Children sat on shoulders of parents and siblings, scrunching tightly to secure a better view.

Yet for anyone familiar with what transpired on the Mavi Marmara’s decks hardly one week after departing from Istanbul last May — when Israeli commandoes stormed the ship, killing nine humanitarian volunteers — it goes without saying that the hero’s welcome was not only for the ship. When news reporters referred to the vessel in Turkish and Arabic as “heroic,” even “holy,” they were in fact referring to the specific humanitarian mission it represented.

Furkan Doğan, Necdet Yıldırım, Cevdet Kılıçlar, Ali Haydar Bengi, Cengiz Akyür, Fahri Yaldız, Cengiz Songür, Çetin Topçuloğlu and İbrahim Bilgen — these are the names of the nine aid workers killed in cold blood by Israeli soldiers. And here are the facts: as stated in the UN’s international fact-finding mission report published on 27 September 2010, at least five of the victims were shot in the head, two at close range as they lay injured. The 56-page report states unequivocally that “the killing of at least six of the passengers” was “consistent with an extra-legal, arbitrary and summary execution” (“Report of the International Fact-Finding Mission,” UN Human Rights Council, 27 September 2010). A forensic examination led by Turkish Attorney-General Mustafa Ercan identified some 250 bullet holes in the ship, with many painted or plastered over by Israeli authorities (“Mavi Marmara’da 250 mermi izi çikti,” Turkish Radikal, 11 August 2010). This was not self-defense by any stretch of the imagination.

Beyond their numbers and nationalities, large placards with photos and biographies of those laid to rest were posted near the ship, providing viewers with a bit more of their humanity to reflect upon: “married with seven children,” “in April he answered 75 out of 80 questions correctly on his university entrance exam,” “his dream was to become a doctor,” “a soccer champion,” “ever-cheerful,” “always coming to the aid of others.”

For some, scenes from Sunday’s reception also evoked unmistakable imagery and symbolism. Towering minarets from the city’s mosques ornamented Istanbul’s hilly panorama. Topkapi Palace, the home and administrative quarters of former Ottoman sultans, rests atop a nearby hill, overlooking the entire Sarayburnu port. A gigantic Turkish standard streamed from a prominent flagstaff nearby. Speeches in Arabic and English, but mostly Turkish, blasted Israeli policies intrepidly. Some news pundits may well have described the symbolism of a rising Turkey, rebuffed by the European Union, and reasserting its longstanding historical influence in the region.

But let no one be deceived — this was not a Turkish political rally. As evident in the diverse cast of speakers and supporters in attendance, this was an international coalition of humanitarians, standing up for Palestine, and against injustice, wherever it may be. In addition to Istanbul-dwellers and Turks from across the country, including family members of those killed, among the thousands in attendance were guests from around the world, including Israelis and Americans against Israel’s occupation, representing a plurality of backgrounds, nationalities and faiths. “Muslims, Jews, Christians and non-believers,” as one Israeli speaker put it, proudly stood to salute and honor the ship’s return. And its continuing mission.

Less inspiring has been the foreign news coverage outside the region. US news coverage on the reception was minimal, or nonexistent. CNN failed to post even a single report of the reception on its webpage. Incredibly, the BBC’s lone relevant headline the day of the reception read: “Turkey wants to repair ties with Israel,” thereby marginalizing Ankara’s staunch demands for an apology and compensation, and its unwavering call to lift the inhumane siege of Gaza. The few European news agencies that did cover the reception seem to be obsessed with one question: will Israel apologize for its “mishandling” of the raid in international waters? Cynics would say not a chance. After all, has any Israeli government apologized for massacres it has previously perpetuated on innocent men, women and children? In Deir Yassin and numerous villages throughout Palestine in 1948, in Lebanon in 1982, in Jenin in 2002 and Gaza in 2009, just to begin a long list? More recently, is Israel really interested in easing the unspeakable siege of Gaza that has refused entry of household items such as crayons, pasta, fruit juice, and children’s shoes? Or is it a useful way to “punish” Palestinians when they vote the wrong way?

Others opt to view the issue in a broader light. Apology or no apology from the Government of Israel, the return of the Mavi Marmara was a historic moment here in Turkey, the region and the world. The journey of the Mavi Marmara marked one of the most well-documented and well-publicized demonstrations of civil disobedience by an international coalition of civilians since the anti-apartheid movement. It may well represent a turning point in global indignation at Israeli policies against the Palestinians — a process that has already accelerated in Europe, though less rapidly in the United States — again not dissimilar from the nascent solidarity movements against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s, the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and Jim Crow in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. Each began as a trickle of “activists” and intellectuals of conscience, eventually growing to an immense and unstoppable wave of global public opinion.

Certainly, the Israeli government should apologize for its woeful and brutal raid of the Mavi Marmara, offering compensation to the families of victims killed and the humanitarian organizations and individuals whose vessels and equipment were damaged. And the confiscated personal belongings of the passengers should be returned, to say the least. But more significantly, what happened on the Mavi Marmara has inspired countless numbers to continue, or join anew, the emerging tide of global public opinion speaking out for justice in Palestine. This includes a growing number of Jews in Israel, the United States and worldwide who refuse to sanction the crimes of a state that defiles their noble religious traditions and claims to act in their name. It is this undeniable authority of global public opinion, the world’s only true superpower in the long-run, that can overcome any arsenal of high-tech weapons that the Israeli army may hurl in its way.

True, Israel will continue to impose incalculable suffering on Palestinians struggling to cope before any genuine change comes to light. Yet one thing is sure: business as usual in occupied Palestine can be no more. In a powerful invitation to all to see for themselves the nature of Israeli “self-defense,” Turkish authorities again opened the Mavi Marmara for visitors to board its decks and examine the blood stains, bullet holes and, most poignantly, the exact locations where the nine civilians were slain. Through such educational measures and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, the Israeli government will be forced to abandon its inhumane siege of Gaza, and brutal occupation of Palestine in general. This growing tide, more than anything else, is the lasting symbol of the Mavi Marmara’s return to a hero’s welcome in Istanbul last Sunday.

Faiz Ahmed is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently in Turkey conducting dissertation research.