In Brooklyn, Passengers Aboard the Flotilla Ship Give Eyewitness Accounts

The deaths of nine Turkish nationals aboard the Mavi Marmara as it tried to breach the blockade of Gaza has brought a flood of attention to the coalition that co-sponsored the flotilla. But the deaths have also brought to light apparent contradictions between the public aims of the coalition and the views of some of its members, who reject Israel’s legitimacy and the principle of nonviolence.

This contradiction was on display June 17 at a pro-Palestinian gathering in Brooklyn. Kevin Ovenden, who was a passenger on the ship and witnessed the events that took place in the Mediterranean on May 31, told the crowd that those on the boat who fought the Israeli commandoes should not be faulted for breaking with nonviolence. “Victims of lethal violence have an absolute right to defend themselves,” he said.

And Lamis Jamal Deek, an activist with Al-Awda New York, which sponsored the gathering at the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, told the crowd, “My biggest fear today is that as this movement grows, it will not end justly.”

For Deek, the new supporters that the recent events have drawn to her cause bring with them a range of views that may imperil one of her group’s core convictions: that the Israel-Palestinian conflict must be resolved with only a one-state solution. Most observers believe that this would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Some nights, I wake up in the dead of night with a nightmare,” she told the gathering of about 250. “Palestinians are walking happily into a big white house” as she and others seek to warn them of the danger it holds. That danger, she said, was a two-state solution, in which the Palestinians would be consigned to “Bantustans.”

“When the Palestinians of Gaza voted for Hamas, they were not just voting for an Islamic party or Islamic policies for Gaza,” she said. “They were voting for one Palestine in all the 1948 territories… one democratic state in all of Palestine.”

Other speakers — eyewitnesses who came to tell the gathering about what they experienced aboard the Mavi Marmara — agreed with Deek about what the fatal events on the ship would mean for their movement, but welcomed the prospect of greater, if more diverse, support.

“We must open ourselves wider now to new forces, people moved as never before to come to our movement by the atrocity on the Mavi Marmara,” Ovenden urged the crowd.

But Deek highlighted a key distinction between her group and some others in the coalition confronting Israel by citing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel as “a really wonderful movement — but there is a more insidious problem, and it’s Zionism.”

Ovenden, too, was unambiguous about the aims of his group, Viva Palestina, led by George Galloway, a former member of Britain’s parliament, among others. “Now is the time for all to step forward and head back to Gaza,” he said, “and through Gaza, towards the liberation of Palestine.”

In contrast, on its website, the Free Gaza Movement — the coalition of which the speakers and Al-Awda are a part — declares its adherence to the principles of “nonviolence and nonviolent resistance in word and deed at all times.” It also defines its immediate mission as being limited to Israel’s withdrawal “from all territories occupied since June 5, 1967.”

At the same time, the movement affirms the unqualified right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes “in Israel and the occupied territories” — a right that Israel holds would effectively mean its end as a Jewish state, because of the huge demographic shift that would result. It is a provision seemingly included to allow adherents of both a one-state and two-state solution to work together under the Free Gaza Movement umbrella.

How well they can continue to do so if new, more moderate supporters flock to their cause remains to be seen.

In the meantime, those who saw what happened on board the Marvi Marmara are spreading the word about their experience — and vigorously contesting the account offered by Israel, which says that its soldiers, sent to commandeer the ship peacefully in international waters, were confronted by a group of violent thugs who provoked the commandos to shoot them in self-defense.

Ovenden spoke of “the brother who was shot through the leg one meter in front of me” and “the one shot through the abdomen 50 cenimeters to the right of me” by Israelis from above.

“It is a complete lie,” he said, that the commandos who fired the shots could “in any sense feel threatened by the two men who were shot on either side of me.”

Al-Awda spokesman David Letwin denounced the State Department’s decision to deny a visa to ex-Turkish parliamentarian Ahmet Faruk Unsal, who was also scheduled to speak. It was, he said, “an effort to shut down discussion, intimidate people and make it harder for them to be heard.” He noted that Unsal had visited the United States frequently in the past.

A State Department spokesman was unable to provide a reason for Unsal’s visa denial by press time.

Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at

This story "In Brooklyn, Passengers Aboard the Flotilla Ship Give Eyewitness Accounts" was written by Larry Cohler-Esses.


Larry Cohler-Esses

Larry Cohler-Esses

Larry Cohler-Esses was the Forward’s assistant managing editor and news editor. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others.

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

In Brooklyn, Passengers Aboard the Flotilla Ship Give Eyewitness Accounts

Thank you!

This article has been sent!