Review: ‘Midnight on the Mavi Marmara’

Midnight on the Mavi MarmaraPublished less than two months after Israeli commandos boarded an international aid flotilla bound for Gaza and killed nine activists, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara is, in the words of editor Moustafa Bayoumi, “the first book about the attack,” but “will likely not be the last.” This collection of some four dozen essays from eyewitnesses and “activists, novelists, academics, analysts, journalists, and poets,” serves many purposes. Some essays are expressions of simple outrage. Others probe more deeply into Israel’s broader political strategy in the region and its human costs for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Author and Harvard scholar Sarah Roy’s essay offers a detailed and rigorous accounting of Gaza’s humanitarian and economic woes, while well-known academic and blogger Juan Cole’s excellent contribution emphasizes the deeper problem of Palestinian statelessness, the political fact of which the Gaza blockade and even the Israeli occupation itself are merely symptomatic.

But perhaps most urgently, and certainly most befitting a work so quickly assembled after the incident, the book’s eyewitness accounts from activists aboard the flotilla and essays from their sympathizers represent an attempt to recapture a narrative of the event. As their testimonies indicate repeatedly, Israeli soldiers confiscated laptops, cameras, and other recording devices when they arrested and detained the activists for several days. This enabled Israeli public relations officials to fill a vacuum of information about the event and the parties involved with a media campaign described by filmmaker and flotilla activist Iara Lee as “aggressively dishonest.” Every eyewitness account in the book attests to several key facts. The activists carried no weapons. The Israeli soldiers boarded at night in international waters, which means that they were by definition aggressors who cannot claim to have acted in self-defense. They fired on the flotilla before boarding and without warning, and several of those killed were shot multiple times from close range in the back or back of the head.

Journalist Max Blumenthal and other contributors, however, illustrate how Israeli officials propagated false or misleading claims that “al-Qaeda mercenaries” were among those aboard the ships, that the passengers were carrying weapons (using photographs of kitchen knives and boating equipment as evidence), and that the activists were yelling anti-Semitic slurs (accompanying this claim with a doctored audio clip). Blumenthal describes drawing confessions from IDF officials that such claims were baseless, even while these and other reports have persisted without retraction in Israeli and Western media outlets. To this end, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara represents a critical re-litigation of the events that reclaims the activists’ humanitarian intentions.

Drawing on this understanding, one readily discerns two prominent themes in Midnight throughout the considerable diversity of its contributions. First is the internationalization of the Palestinian cause. “This international movement,” writes Adam Shapiro in the book’s concluding essay, “offers to the world a different narrative than the old notion of this being a blood feud between two irreconcilable foes. The story is no longer Arab vs. Israeli or Palestinian vs. Israeli…[I]t is freedom vs. apartheid.”

The second theme is a tremendous faith in the efficacy of civil society and individual action. Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla may have posed for the state a thorny diplomatic challenge, but many activists are bereaved to note its diminutive impact on segments of establishment opinion, particularly in the United States. However, its impact on popular opinion has been markedly more pronounced. It may be said that Israel’s subsequent decision to “loosen” the Gaza blockade, however nominal, represents an accomplishment of civil society yet unmatched by any government. “In a way,” writes author and activist Mike Marqusee, “the violence was a perverse tribute to a band of voluntary campaigners who… have put more pressure on Israel than the world’s most powerful governments.” Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most well known contributor, similarly concludes, “International law cannot be enforced against powerful states, except by their own citizens.”

The first book on the flotilla massacre serves accordingly as the general public’s introduction to civil society and the Gaza crisis — a collection of eyewitness accounts as well as a useful background reader, and a clarion call to action infused with the energy and efficacy of the activists themselves.

Peter Certo is an intern for Foreign Policy In Focus.