On May 31, 2010, a flotilla of six vessels carrying humanitarian aid aimed at alleviating and protesting against the Israeli siege of Gaza was attacked in the international waters of the Mediterranean. The Israeli attack began with an attempt to shut down all satellite connections to and from the flotilla, marking the beginning of a “battle of images”.
On board the largest vessel, the Mavi Marmara, a violent confrontation resulted in the death of nine activists. After taking control of the ship, the Israeli military confiscated all memory cards of cameras, mobile phones, hard drives, and videos they found there. These images were selectively mobilised to support the Israeli narrative of the event, but these and other pictures tell different stories. The incident demonstrates the extraterritorial power of images as they circulate and battle beyond central control.
The Gaza Freedom Flotilla: background
In 2005 Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip and Israeli settlements were evacuated. In the democratic legislative elections held in Gaza the following year, Hamas came to power, replacing the secular Fatah. In real terms, however, Gaza has remained under Israeli control. With Egyptian collaboration, Israel continues to control all land, naval, and aerial pathways to and from Gaza. In 2007, invoking security concerns, Israel imposed a closure on the Gaza Strip, severely limiting the movement of goods into the region.
The subject of extraterritoriality can be either people or spaces, holding persons or spaces at a (legal) distance. The concept of extraterritoriality can also be extended to regimes of information and representation. In cases of exclusion, the images are removed from visibility and circulation by those in power through mechanisms of boycott, censorship, privatization, or nationalization; in such cases, the extraterritorial images may remain present in public discourse, but only indirectly. But images can also make exempt the arbitrary constraints of territorial regimes. The extraterritorial image may enable us to rethink the current limits of both space and law from an ethical point of view.
Excerpts from selected interviews, 2013, video documentation.
Standpoint and representation
Interestingly, the Israeli military and the activists chose different images to represent the launching of the electronic blackout. Whereas the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) clip shows an image of a boat surrounded on all sides by moving red waves, the IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief) clip shows a screenshot of a cellular phone announcing reception failure. The difference indicates a certain economy of vision: whereas the military views the event from an external vantage point, the activists view it from within and individually, through the solitary signifier of the individual cellular device.
Conceived as a high-profile media event, the flotilla organizers invested in live broadcast infrastructure and ensured broadcasters were on board the vessels. As soon as the violence erupted, and despite Israeli attempts to block transmission, images of the confrontation began to reach viewers worldwide. As these testimonies indicate, the scenery of the battlefield was shaped in large part by the activists’ goal of protecting and sustaining the flow of images. The battle over the images was entangled with the physical conflict on board to such an extent that the two became barely distinguishable.
Freedom: The Last Destination
The following segments are extracts from a documentary film made by the IHH (the Turkey-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, which was the main organizer of the initiative). The movie combines testimonies of the activists who were on board with footage taken from clips and other visuals released by the Israeli military (IDF, Israeli Defense Forces) to present and illustrate the activists’ description of event; it also includes a staged reenactment.
Interestingly, the IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief) reenactment seems to emphasize that activists who were killed during the confrontation were in fact trying to photograph the takeover operation. This can be deduced from the placing of cameras near those who play the deceased.
Freedom: The Last Destination—Mavi Marmara, 2012 documentary film directed by IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief), Turkey. http://vimeo.com/50824956 16 Minutes
Still images from the ship, mostly showing injured soldiers, were also published after the event. In the media, the same still images were often used in support of conflicting claims, although in contrast to the use of video footage, this was usually facilitated by deceptive efforts to manipulate the contents of the images, e.g. by cropping. In one instance, an American blogger charged Reuters with deceptive cropping and image editing: Reuters’ photo service edited out knives and blood traces from pictures taken aboard the activist ship Mavi Marmara. The pictures of the fight were released by IHH, the Turkish-based group. In one photo, an Israeli commando is shown lying on the deck of the ship, surrounded by activists. The uncut photo released by IHH shows the hand of an unidentified activist holding a knife. But in the Reuters photo, the hand is visible but the knife has been edited out. Reuters eventually admitted to the charges.
The flotilla has been the subject of national and international processes. In Israel it was the Eiland Report, the Turkel Commission Report, and the Israel State Comptroller’s Report. In Turkey investigations were conducted by the Turkish National Inquiry Committee and criminal charges were pressed against senior IDF commanders (the latter are now being tried in absentia at Istanbul’s criminal court.) Internationally the UN Human Rights Council launched a fact-finding mission, and the UN Secretary-General commissioned a panel of inquiry. In May 2013 the International Criminal Court conducted a preliminary examination “in order to establish whether the criteria for opening an investigation are met.”