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‘International solidarity was instrumental in bringing freedom to South Africa, as it will be in freeing Palestine’

MEMO interviews the director of 'Fire on the Marmara', a documentary film exploring the tragedy of the Mavi Marmara

Seven years after the bloody assault by Israeli commandos on the MV Mavi Marmara and the Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, MEMO contacted David Segarra, director of the documentary film Fire on the Marmara, in order to hear what that incident meant to him, as an activist and as a journalist, to the world and to the Palestinians. He provided an unmatched testimony to help us understand the complex reality of a conflict that’s almost 70 years old.

Firstly, David, thank you very much for agreeing to answer our questions and, of course, for providing us with your documentary, Fire on the Marmara, an essential testimony about the tragedy of the Mavi Marmara and, more broadly, about the dramatic situation surrounding the Gaza Strip and everything that the Israeli military occupation in Palestine means.

After watching your documentary, many people wonder how all those who were involved in this project feel, years after experiencing the events of 31 May, 2010. How did you personally cope with a situation of direct confrontation with the Israeli army while you were trying to get humanitarian aid to Gaza and also trying to capture it all on film?

The Freedom Flotilla, I think, was a life-changing experience for the activists on board, as well as for the journalists. For the majority of the 700 participants, it was our first time facing and seeing violent death up close. Ten people were murdered by the Israeli commandos. One of them was Cevdet Kiliçar, a Turkish photographer and journalist. He was the press room coordinator. He was the person who facilitated communications between us and the media. When the attack started, the army set up an electronic interference field that blocked all communications between the ships and the rest of the world. Without any contact with the outside media, all of the journalists took our cameras and started to photograph or film the assault. Cevdet got shot at very close range while he was taking a picture of a soldier.

Image of David Segarra, director of the documentary film Fire on the Marmara

During the attack, the thing that struck me the most was the fact that no one panicked. Everybody assumed an active and constructive role. Recording, photographing, helping the injured or defending the ships. Nobody got paralysed by the brutal use of force. Collective brotherhood, support and solidarity were key to emotional and psychological survival. Living through the trauma of watching our companions die and finding ourselves together in the same situation — kidnapped in international waters — it generated a spirit of unity.

When we arrived at the port of Ashdod, the [Israeli] intelligence services processed us individually and started questioning and threatening us. Each one of us was presented with a self-incriminating document to sign, admitting the crime of “illegal immigration to Israel”. We were given the option of recognising ourselves as guilty of a crime that we had not committed and then get deported to our home country, or refusing to sign and go to prison in Israel. At that moment, all of us had to meditate and reflect on our decision: we could lie or we could resist. Nobody wanted to go to prison run by a regime capable of shooting and injuring fifty-three people.

Miraculously, the Flotilla passengers all decided not to sign the document. The Israeli authorities couldn’t believe it: hundreds of people from all over the world were defying their power. Many journalists also decided to not sign a farce that would have haunted us for the rest of our lives.

Civil society had sent a very powerful message to the State of Israel and to the whole world: we don’t accept the military blockade on Gaza; we don’t accept the occupation of Palestine; and international society acts directly by bringing aid. And the free press doesn’t give in to censorship.

When you boarded the Mavi Marmara, did you intend to make a documentary like Fire on the Marmara, or did you plan just to record the events from the activist’s perspective?

It was a triple project: first, cover the events on the ships for the international network Telesur; second, make a television report; and third, advance in the production of a documentary feature on Gaza. After the assault on the Flotilla and all its consequences, my objectives and priorities changed radically.

What about the technical difficulties of making a documentary under those conditions; how did you manage to keep all the devices safe in such a dangerous context? Were you pressured by the authorities to hand over the material that you had filmed?

From the beginning, the Israeli army tried to silence and censor everything that happened during the attack. All satellite phones, radios and internet were blocked. What they didn’t know was that our communications technicians managed to keep a satellite broadcast that got through the military interference. We were able to broadcast all of the events on the Flotilla live. Those images were seen all over the world.

Image of the cover photo for the doccumentary

None of the dozens of journalists who were on board managed to save their equipment. Our memory cards, tapes, cameras, computers, phones, notes and material were seized by the Israeli authorities. In the same way, hundreds of phones and cameras belonging to the activists were taken off them. Some colleagues got their equipment back a few days later, but it was completely destroyed. To this day, we’re still waiting to get our equipment and our work back. There are photographs, recordings and notes stacked in some file held by the censors. Maybe in decades to come, if it’s not destroyed, this material will be declassified and used.

However, the silence strategy wasn’t perfect. Some activists and journalists managed to hide little memory cards that weren’t very common at that time. Once I was free, I gathered a team to tour Europe and Turkey looking for the images that had survived. Along with this extraordinary material, we recorded the survivors’ testimonies. We spent a year gathering all the pieces together in order to tell the story of the Freedom Flotilla.

The resultant documentary has had a huge impact. It was broadcast via satellite by Telesur across Latin America; Arab, Turkish and Palestinian television stations broadcast it with subtitles. It was nominated for awards at many film festivals, and it won some. In Spain, it was projected in the squares of forty cities during the 15 May [“15M”] popular anti-austerity protests in 2011. You can watch it on the internet nowadays.

How has going through an experience as traumatic as the events on the Mavi Marmara affected your political view of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

What’s interesting is that the events on the Mavi Marmara have gone down in history as an example of resistance. It was a lesson and a great personal, professional and political strengthening. We learnt to value life in its beauty and fragility. For a few days, we had to live as Palestinians. We learnt the concepts of “sabr” [patience] and “sumud” [steadfast perseverance] from this experience: resistance, resilience, patience and perseverance in the face of difficulties. And “shukr”, gratitude, joy for life. On the other hand, it allowed us to witness the coexistence of different religions and cultures. Aboard the Flotilla I met Jews, Israelis, Muslims and Christians, and other religious, secular or atheist people. All of them were united by the ideal of peace and justice. It’s impossible to feel anti-Semitism or Islamophobia after living with such extraordinary Jews and Muslims.

Image of David Segarra and his camera crew on the Mavi Marmara ship

In 2014, after the fall of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, I travelled across Sinai to the Gaza Strip and perceived some new messages. A call was being made to international society to join the BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions] campaign. Palestinian society still calls for the prioritising of BDS against the State of Israel as a way to beat its apartheid and occupation. I also heard the proposition of a single secular state [the “one state solution”] with equal rights for Jews, Christians, Muslims and any other religion or culture. In the face of the demise of the ancestral Palestinian territory, the South African way is being considered: a non-racist state where all citizens have the right to vote. We mustn’t forget that the main Palestinian political forces also accept an independent Palestinian State in just 20 per cent of their historic homeland, yielding 80 of their land to Israel.

However, as in all colonial processes, only the joint pressure of the colonised and the international community can stop what’s happening. The problem lies in the fact that a handful of European countries and the United States confront the UN and paralyse any solution for Palestine. That’s why the joint pressure of civil societies around the world is key to change the politics behind government policies.

After seven years, do you think the solution reached between Turkey and Israel does justice to the victims of the Mavi Marmara?

I don’t think they have reached a solution. The murder of ten people is only brought to some closure by the trial of the killers and the other people responsible. It’s the same with the injured, the kidnapped and the destruction of material. Again, for geopolitical and economic reasons countries are turning their backs on justice. This reinforces the legitimacy of civil disobedience as a way of defending justice.

Do you think that initiatives like the Freedom Flotilla or the Women’s Boat to Gaza campaign we saw last year are helping to end the blockade in Gaza and, in general, helping to achieve the goals of the Palestinian cause?

The South African government has just held a symbolic hunger strike in solidarity with and support of Palestinian political prisoners. They did it to send a message to the world and to the Palestinian people that international solidarity was instrumental in bringing freedom to South Africa, as it will be in freeing Palestine. Native Americans, African-Americans, Latin Americans and the people of southern Europe understand exactly what’s happening in Palestine. That’s why councils such as Valencia or Seville and city councils like Barcelona or Dublin have positioned themselves in favour of Palestine.

It’s also very interesting to witness the historical change taking place among Western Jewish communities. A large number of young Jews feel morally obliged to support Palestine against their elders’ Zionism. That’s why we always find Jews involved in flotilla projects, BDS, in the occupied territories and in all mobilization in support of Palestine. This hasn’t been valued properly yet, but it is a very deep social change.

Finally, the most important thing is the fact that Palestinian civil society has made the call and it is Palestinian civil society which values it most. Leadership in a Palestinian liberation and decolonisation movement belongs to the Palestinians. They are teaching the world the values of solidarity, perseverance and courage.

What is your medium-term vision about the Israel-Palestine conflict, in such a changing context across the Middle East and internationally?

According to the US, Western economic hegemony will end in 2030 after centuries of absolute domination. The birth of a multipolar world headed toward Asia changes all geopolitical equations. Considering that only one Euro-American power supports Israel militarily and politically, there’s not much to say. However, divisions, totalitarian regimes, terrorism, poverty and the fragmentation of the Islamic and Arab world are key to Palestine’s oppression. If Kurds, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Muslims and Christians are unable to develop alliances, coexistence strategies and mutual support in the decades ahead, there’ll be no feasible solution for the region.

You can watch the documentary Fire on the Marmara online here.

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