The legacy of the Mavi Marmara raid – a decade on
Ten years ago on Sunday, Israeli forces stormed the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-owned vessel that was part of a flotilla seeking to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza by delivering aid and humanitarian support.
Eight Turkish nationals and an American-Turkish activist were shot dead during the raid, while another Turkish man later succumbed to his injuries. Dozens were injured in the attack.
The boat was owned and run by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO.
On its Twitter account on Saturday, the IHH posted the names of the people who died, with the message: “We will not forget the Mavi Marmara martyrs who sacrificed their lives for a Free Jerusalem.”
Özgür Kudüs için canlarını feda eden Mavi Marmara şehidlerini unutmayacağız.— İHH (@ihhinsaniyardim) May 30, 2020
Ali Haydar Bengi
Uğur Süleyman Söylemez
Furkan Doğan.#MaviMarmara10Yaşında pic.twitter.com/fGOINreriN
A decade on, the painful legacy of the incident has ongoing implications for Turkish-Israeli relations.
A 19-minute film called "Signal" has been commissioned by IHH to mark the 10th anniversary of the raid. The film, which will be broadcast on IHH's social media accounts on Sunday evening, is a blend of contributions from passengers, politicians, writers, artists, and journalists, along with footage from the attack itself, Anadolu news agency said.
The film’s director Recep Köse said that the Mavi Marmara incident was important because it showed that the spirit of resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and its blockade of the Gazi strip - in place since 2007 and at times also imposed by Egypt - could not be broken.
"The spirit of Mavi Marmara stands in front of us as such an inspiration for us and reveals who is the real culprit in the Palestinian problem,” Anadolu quoted Köse as saying.
Köse said that the film provides insights into the Palestinian experience under occupation, and went deeper into what happened during the Mavi Marmara raid and how Israel tried to subsequently suppress and manipulate coverage of the event.
“In terms of understanding what is going on in the region, it offers the audience the opportunity to empathise psychologically," he said.
The title “Signal” could refer to the feed from the flotilla, which had been streamed live on Al Jazeera but was abruptly cut as the Israeli raid began.
At 4 a.m. on May 31, 2010 the six ships in the flotilla were boarded in international waters by the Israeli forces, about 130 km from the Israeli coast. The ships were carrying 10,000 tonnes of goods, including school supplies, building materials and two large electricity generators.
Israeli commandos landed on the largest ship, the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara, descending from helicopters on ropes as the Israeli navy circled. Clashes broke out immediately and the Israeli commandos opened fire, according to an account by the BBC.
The activists said that the commandos started shooting as soon as they hit the deck, while Israeli officials said the commandos opened fire only after being attacked with clubs, knives and a gun.
Al Jazeera journalist Jamal Elshayyal was on the boat, and recalled the attack in an article on Saturday.
He said that, "while many of the passengers were praying, loud bangs of sound grenades, tear gas canisters and then cracks of live bullets being fired filled the air. In an instant, what was a peaceful night in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, turned into a dawn of death and horror".
Elshayyal said it was the first time he had seen someone killed in front of him, as a passenger – a fellow journalist – was shot.
“Killed by a bullet to the head as he held his camera taking photos of the attack, trying to document what was happening. When he fell to the ground, some of his blood covered my shoes,” he recalled.
There was widespread condemnation of the violence following the attack. The United Nations Security Council issued a statement calling for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent" inquiry, and the then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to lift the Gaza blockade.
In September 2010, a U.N. Human Rights Council report said Israel's military broke international laws, and that the action by commandos was "disproportionate" and "betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality".
Israel rejected the report as "biased" and "one-sided", and an Israeli inquiry later deemed the action by Israeli forces to be lawful.
However, Turkey's report, drawn up by government officials, accused Israeli commandos of "excessive, brutal and pre-meditated" conduct, the BBC reported.
Turkey ruled that the attack on the Mavi Marmara was unlawful. Post-mortem examinations had earlier suggested a total of 30 bullets were found in the bodies of the dead activists, including one who had been shot four times in the head, the BBC said.
In September 2011, a U.N. panel reported that the use of force by Israeli troops was excessive and unwarranted.
"Israel's decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable," it said.
A United Nations investigation found that at least six of the deaths could be regarded as "summary executions".
The incident caused a diplomatic rift between Turkey and Israel that has yet to be fully resolved.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel in the wake of the incident and expelled the Israeli envoy from Ankara, downgrading diplomatic relations between the two countries. A six-year diplomatic standoff followed.
In June 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government provoked criticism among victims’ families in Turkey after a deal was announced to normalise relations between Turkey and Israel.
Following the deal, contrary to his earlier remarks defending the victims, Erdoğan accused the IHH of not asking for his permission to make the trip when he was Turkey's prime minister and of turning a humanitarian aid campaign into "show of force" against Israel.
The reconciliation deal would see Israel pay $20 million in compensation to the families of the 10 activists that were killed on the Mavi Marmara, in exchange for Turkey dropping charges brought in absentia against Israeli officers. Turkey also said it had secured concessions to send aid to Gaza.
İsmail Bilgen, the son of 61-year-old İbrahim Bilgen who was killed on the Mavi Marmara, told Al Jazeera in July 2016 that his family would not accept any compensation from Israel under the deal and that the decision to drop charges against Israeli officials was not the Turkish government's decision to make.
"Their money can't even meet our loss because we lost our father. Israel always tries to make money the focus, but we say that this is an issue of lifting the blockade," he said.
Turkey’s ambassador returned to Tel Aviv in December 2016. But relations between the two countries have not returned to normal.
In May 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassadors to Israel and the United States and expelled the Israeli ambassador in Ankara in response to Israeli security forces killing and injuring Palestinians protesting the opening of a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
In April 2019, it was reported that the International Criminal Court would hear a trial on the raid, with victims from 37 countries are still pursuing justice, making their case on various legal platforms.
Meanwhile, recent years have been alarming for Turkish Jews, as Erdoğan and his top aides have regularly peddled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Yet, there are also signs of a recent thaw in relations between the countries.
Israeli national carrier El Al resumed cargo flights to Turkey last week after a suspension lasting a decade that had followed the Mavi Marmara attack.
Columnist Seth Frantzman said in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month that there are signs that Israeli-Turkish relations may be set to take a positive turn due to shared enemies in Syria, a desire to work together to boost claims over gas exploration in the Mediterranean, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new Israeli foreign minister.
Frantzman cited a recent article in the Israeli media by Israel’s Charge’ d’Affairs for Turkey, Roey Gilad, which argued that Turkey and Israel have common interests – notably a shared enmity towards Lebanese Hezbollah, who played a part in the battle in Idlib, northwest Syria. Gilad said that COVID-19 and other challenges might spur a normalisation in relations, including in trade, tourism, energy and academic cooperation.
But he said that “the ball is on the Turkish side,” because it was Turkey that expelled Israel’s ambassador in May 2018.
Frantzman said the Mavi Marmara raid remained a sore point.
Al Jazeera journalist Elshayyal said that, when he looked back at that night a decade on, he was angry that justice had still not been achieved for the victims, and that it underlined the necessity of a free media that can expose such incidents.
“Because while the victims may never get their day in a court of law, at least the public is able to make up their minds after seeing factual evidence on their screens and in their news feeds,” he said.