On January 4, 2009, tens of thousands of people gathered in Istanbul's Çağlayan Square to protest Israel's murderous Winter assault on Gaza. Organized by the Saadet (Felicity) Party, a conservative Islamic group with strong societal ties, the demonstration saw people professing solidarity with Gazans while shouting slogans against Zionist Israel. Few would have imagined then that over one year later this historical site, which in 2007 saw hundreds of thousands rally in support of a secular Turkey, would again draw thousands not only for a free Palestine, but this time also to honor Turkey's own victims of an Israeli attack.
Men, women and children gathered in the afternoon heat and stayed well into a rainy evening in solidarity with besieged Gaza and Turkey's hailed martyrs - 9 of which were shot to death by Israeli commandos who boarded the aid-stocked Mavi Marmara at 2am while it was in international waters.
Several press outlets have incorrectly reported that Saturday's protest was organized by the Turkish aid organization, İnsani Yardım Vakfı (IHH), the group that sponsored the Mavi Marmara, but the IHH only attended as participants and it was actually organized by the Saadet Party. Also rampant in many mainstream media reports is the Israeli line that the IHH is not a humanitarian organization as it and its supporters claim, but a group tied to alleged terrorist groups. In a continued effort to justify their actions against the Turkish victims (one victim also had American citizenship), the Israelis have also released edited audio of radio communication that reveals people shouting offensive insults at the Israelis. While the factuality of the recording itself continues to be challenged by Max Blumenthal, the question of how any insult warrants a bullet in the head is also absent.
While reporters bank on the anger displayed by the protest crowds which are not only in Turkey but attended by thousands all over the world, few are doing much to counter Israel's organized propaganda campaign focused on portraying the event as an even-handed conflict. According to Israeli spin doctors, the peace activists were not peaceful (the passengers tried to defend themselves and shouted insults at us!) and the Israeli commandoes were only trying to defend themselves when they shot 9 of the passengers to death (Israeli commandoes are known for their peaceful nature and soft touch).
That Turkish protesters would chant "Murderer Israel" and wave a banner that reads "Zionist, Terrorist Israel, Get out of Palestine" is something which is looked at with a fearful Western lens, conveniently blind to the reasoning behind the rage. Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said on Thursday that media outlets are finally beginning to see Israel's side of things. Translation: the propaganda campaign is working.
International understanding of the situation today is greater...We will never get a fair hearing at the UN Human Rights Council, but in Washington DC, London, Canberra, Paris, Rome, Ottawa and even Moscow, they can get it. I think we are creating a situation of greater understanding among the key international actors, and we are turning this around.
However, as with Israel's reasoning behind Israel's "inhumane" and illegal siege of Gaza, the Israeli side of things in this case, no matter how skillfully it is displayed, should do little to explain the way in which the Israelis have acted.
According to autopsy reports revealed in the Guardian, the 9 victims of Israel's attack were shot 30 times between them. Two men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back. A 60-year-old activist was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back, and nineteen-year-old Furkan Dogan was shot five times from close range in the face, the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back.
Speaking at Dogan's funeral, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan asked:
You killed 19-year-old Furkan Dogan brutally. Which faith, which holy book can be an excuse for killing him?
Erdogan has also stated that he is considering going on a mission to end the siege of Gaza himself.
In the streets of Istanbul, London, Toronto and New York people are expressing rage at the Israeli government, which has been described as a spoiled child that is always threatened with punishment but never punished. In response, pro-Zionist commentators argue that Israel is being targeted because those who claim they are interested in human rights are actually just anti-Israel, and of course then also anti-Semitic by default. But some Israeli journalists, as Robert Fisk has brilliantly pointed out, are doing an excellent job of challenging this claim.
According to Gideon Levy in Haaretz, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may finally get what he wished for, since the world may finally be turning "against us" due to Israel's blatant disregard for human rights:
Netanyahu said the whole world is against us. Wasn't he right? He also said we live under an existential threat. Isn't it beginning to look like that? Give it another minute and Turkey will be at war with us too. Netanyahu said there's no chance of reaching an agreement with the Arabs. Wasn't that spot on? Our prime minister, who saw danger lurking in every alleyway and enemies waiting around every corner, who has always taught that there is no hope, who has drummed into us that we shall forever live by the sword (just as his father the historian taught him ), knew what he was talking about.
At the end of the protest here in Istanbul tonight it began storming, the sky seemingly mirroring the fury on the streets. All those who dream of a free Palestine, be they in Europe, the Middle East or North America, are also acting according to the storm of frustration and anger in their hearts, coming out to protest Israel's continued injustices against the Palestinians. But given Turkey's reaction and the return of the world's attention to strangulated Gaza, some may be finding reason to be hopeful again. At least in Istanbul, this storm doesn't look like it's going to end.