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Day 17

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Free Gaza

Standing Against Oppression in Palestine

by ISMAIL PATEL

Three years ago, I left Britain and flew to Turkey with the intention of joining the Freedom Flotilla bound for the shores of Gaza. Our intention was to break the illegal and immoral siege that was slowly draining the life from the densely populated land. I boarded the Mavi Marmara to take hope to the people of Gaza. What ensued was one of the toughest and most heartbreaking experiences of my life. Over 500 of us were on board the ship, and nine were dead before the end of our journey, having been shot and killed with a total of 30 bullets.

My faith means I believe that they were all martyrs, who were killed while attempting to stand up against oppression. Their families celebrate their heroism. However, the state of Turkey and the international community owes them a debt – to ensure that Israel is brought to account for their deaths. Immediately afterwards I wrote, ‘war is failure of diplomacy and since diplomacy is a scarce commodity in the Holy Land we need to make sure those conducting war have a standard to adhere to, and upon those whom war is being conducted have a legal recourse. Otherwise failure of diplomacy will be a matter of course for war to ensue and Israel is taking advantage of this to its limit.’

The full-scale military attack on our ship by the Israeli commandos was incomprehensible. A civilian ship on international waters was attacked by one of the most sophisticated military’s in the world using deadly gunfire. There was no opportunity to negotiate as the attack was launched in the dead of the night, and in the aftermath, the Israeli navy was forced to scrounge around the ship to find ‘evidences’ for its disproportionate and insane attack. Thus, a ludicrous pile of kitchen knives and fire-safety axes were showcased to the world as the ‘deadly weapons’ which we had on board.

Despite the international condemnation, it was not until 22 March 2013, almost three years later, that Israel issued an apology to Turkey, in a complete reversal of its denials of all wrong doing in the period prior to this. This apology was orchestrated by Barack Obama and it is unsurprising that Netanyahu was required to complete the telephone call while the President was still in the region. This is a key fact in determining how Israel’s apology should be construed. While diplomacy is always the preferred option for resolving conflict; once violent aggression has taken place, upholding the law is an action which cannot and should not be surrendered. Despite Israel’s apology, the rights of the victims cannot be reinstated by compensation alone as this does not adequately make amends for the loss of life, injuries, psychological trauma and confiscation of all personal possessions. In short, the apology and compensation payments do not absolve Israel of any criminal responsibility it has over the events.

It is up to Turkey to ensure that Israel does not use this apology as a disguise to subsume its flagrant abuse of international norms and its intransigence whilst continuing to bask in the impunity it enjoys. The political pressure to normalise relations between Turkey and Israel is being applied vigorously by the US, in a bid to strengthen a regional alliance against Iran and to toughen the international opposition to President Assad in Syria. Turkey’s role is pivotal and it has only been the recognition of this influence which has induced Israel to apologise at all. Thus, the surprising about-turn reflects little of the remorse and sorrow required for an apology, and is rather a compromise for political gain.

Thus, if Turkey accepts this apology and reparation to the victims’ families, and normalises its military and diplomatic relationship with Israel, it will be a disgrace to the mission of the Mavi Marmara and the Freedom Flotilla. Once again, the Palestinians will be sidelined while global powers reinforce their geo-political interests in the region. Israel will continue unchecked in its violation of Palestinian rights and the Freedom Flotilla will be truly defeated.

This is an opportunity for Turkey to bring Israel to account and set a precedent for the victims of all of Israel’s violations. Over the years, countless thousands of Palestinians, journalists and peace activists including its own citizens have paid the price for Israel’s occupation. For every Rachel Corrie or Tom Hurndall, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, who remain nameless and faceless to the rest of the world. Turkey has the unprecedented opportunity to confront Israel on all counts, and to ensure that the devastating siege on Gaza is lifted.

Turkey’s actions following the attack on 31 May 2010 was to expel the Israeli Ambassador, demand an apology, and seek compensation for the victims. It also called for the end of the siege on Gaza in honour of the aims of the Freedom Flotilla. This was the first time a nation had upheld its right and demanded that Israel acknowledge the extent of its crimes. It also tied the rights of its own citizens with that of the people of Gaza. For this reason, the victims’ families and those on board the Mavi Marmara such as myself, refuse to accept any apology which is not tied to an end to the siege.

If Turkey and Tayyip Erdogen are unable to hold fast to this demand, and succumb to geopolitical pressure; it will further emboldened Israel, which will have found a new card ‘of words and dollars’ to coerce surrender under the guise of cooperation. The apology and compensation has been hailed as a coup, and indications from Erdogen’s reluctance to set a date for the much touted trip to Gaza which was to coincide with the date of the flotilla attack appears to suggest some waning over Turkish demands.

Israel is conversely utilising negotiations with Turkish officials to thwart legal efforts to hold Israeli officials to account, by essentially attempting to buy off the legal proceedings. Turkey must recognise that at the state level, it does not have the mandate to undermine the law. Peace activists must be allowed to exercise their right to legal recourse.

This is an opportunity for Turkey to establish equitable parameters for engagement with Israel and the U.S. which breaks away from the subordinate position of other states in the region, thereby establishing a new facet of solidarity with Palestinians. By placing the rule of law at the centre of negotiations, Turkey can force Israel to measure its actions in accordance with international standards, rather than its own varying standards of inequality and inequity. This opportunity has further been presented by the International Criminal Court probe into the Flotilla attack, which was announced on May 14. Although Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute, any prosecution will be a vindication.

Despite the discussions at state level, a civilian trial will continue to take place in Istanbul next week. I will journey across once more, to give evidence in the legal proceedings on Monday 20 May; In memory of my colleagues who were attacked and killed by Israeli commandoes on 31 May 2010, one of whom took his last breath in my arms. This is my opportunity to ensure that the call for a free Gaza is not undermined by geopolitical factors masqueraded in perfidious words coated with dollar bills.

Ismail Patel is Chairman of Friends of Al-Aqsa.