Behind the Freedom Flotilla: The 4-Year-Long Siege of Gaza

June 3rd, 2010 - by admin

Ismail Patel / Al Jazeera & Janine Zacharia / Washington Post – 2010-06-03 01:04:05

Convoy to End Gaza Siege
Ismail Patel / Al Jazeera

(May 27, 2010) — The Gaza Freedom Flotilla has been months in the planning and now consists of nine boats which will set sail for Gaza and converge just off its shores.

Being part of the 700-strong civilian ‘crew’ was an easy decision to make. Individuals such as myself have been forced to take bold steps to challenge Israel. In order to bring about justice, we are forced to face this danger. Even as we make our plans, the Israeli navy, headed by none other than Ehud Barak, the defence minister, plans to block our efforts – at all costs.

The startling truth is that Israel has no authority over Gaza’s waters, and so its defence force should perhaps go back to monitoring Israel’s real border, although they may be hard pushed to figure out just where they lie.

Crippling Siege
The siege on Gaza will enter its fourth year in June, although it has failed to materialise on newspaper headlines for much of this time. Many are aware of the facts, which include consistent obstruction by Israel in permitting adequate resources to enter Gaza such as fuel, gas, baby supplies, school materials, medicines and even basic foods.

The consequences of these obstacles have been catastrophic, and the images of this catastrophe are for the most part kept away from the world.

With Israel controlling all borders, the only lifelines available to Gazans has been a maze of underground tunnels along the border with Egypt. This forced black-market has claimed lives and is being continually challenged by Israeli bombings and Egyptian reinforcement of the border with an underground steel wall.

For the needs of Gaza’s 1.5 million people to be met, there needs to be 1,300 containers of merchandise and foods passing across the Karni Crossing every day. The supplies that do manage to pass fail to meet even 20 percent of the populations’ needs. The result has been 80 per cent poverty, dependency on aid for even their daily meals and hundreds of deaths from lack of medical equipment and supplies.

Governments around the world have taken a number of different positions where the Gaza siege is concerned. Many are indifferent, few challenge Israel and some are complicit, such as Egypt and the USA. The result has been an abysmal failure to confront the legality of such a blockade and a lack of accountability for the hundreds of Palestinians who have died as a result of it.

As planned by Israeli politicians, Gazans have been put on a grotesquely expressed lean ‘diet’ that is threatening the health of entire generations. This is the background to the Freedom Flotilla and all initiatives like it.

Challenging Israel
Since the siege on Gaza began, many around the world vowed to challenge and break it. This came in the form of convoys of hundreds of vehicles amassing on the Gaza/Egypt border; boats sailing into the Gaza seas; and millions of dollars in aid being sent for the people on the ground.

However, Israel has remained determined to ensure that Gazans are subject to nothing but misery in their daily lives in repayment for electing a Hamas government and so called retaliation to rockets.

Never mind the fact that the blockade has been accompanied by near constant attacks from the Israeli army and navy, which totally eclipse any home made rockets from Gaza. The death toll speaks for itself, with four civilian deaths on the Israeli side and over 2,000 on the Gaza side since June 2007.

This is not a just conflict between Israel and Gaza, it is an annihilation of one group of ill-equipped people by one of the mightiest armies in the world.

Our motives go beyond drawing attention to the crisis in Gaza. It is now about ensuring that ordinary people around the globe ask themselves why we are allowing the persecution of the Gazans to continue. An open air prison camp where people die from treatable illnesses and suffer malnutrition while living beside openly running sewage – this is Gaza’s reality, and it is man made, by Israel.

Gazans don’t need bags of flour and rice, they need the siege to end and we need to rise above donating money to massage our consciences and take action to end the siege. Our bold aim is to achieve justice for the people of Gaza, and this is an aim that we carry on our shoulders with millions of people around the world backing us.

The author is founder and Chair of Friends of Al-Aqsa, a UK based NGO. He is also the Director of IslamExpo and Youelect. He has published several books and his work on the Palestinian issue is published extensively in the English media.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

Nations Decry Israel’s Blockade of Gaza
Janine Zacharia / Washington Post Foreign Service

JERUSALEM (June 2, 2010) — Israel’s botched and deadly commando raid on an aid flotilla has set off widespread international criticism of the Gaza blockade, with popular opinion in many countries swinging heavily against Israel and even the United States urging its ally to find new ways to allow aid shipments to reach the Palestinians.

The United States continued to tread carefully in public on Tuesday — expressing regret about the deaths but not condemning Israel’s actions. Behind the scenes, administration officials pressed Israel to make sure the incident is not repeated, especially with a new aid ship heading for the besieged coastal strip within days.

Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren and national security adviser Uzi Arad spent four hours in meetings Tuesday at the White House, including a session with James L. Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser. The meetings focused on how to contain the immediate diplomatic fallout from the raid, which has endangered the push for sanctions against Iran and peace efforts in the Middle East.

The discussions also explored ways for future humanitarian deliveries to reach Gaza without jeopardizing Israel’s security, a White House official said. Behind the White House’s message was a sense within the administration that Israel’s approach toward upholding its blockade is unworkable over the long term, and the focus now is on preventing another deadly raid at sea.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Defense Minster Ehud Barak during a phone conversation that “we should be extremely cautious in both what we say and what we do in coming days,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

The Obama administration faces a difficult balancing act as it tries to patch up relations with Israel while not letting Arab anger over the raid, which left nine activists dead, undercut its outreach to the Muslim world.

While Israeli officials closed ranks in fending off international criticism, the internal debate in Israel focused on why the government and the military had permitted the operation to turn into a public relations fiasco that has tarnished Israeli relations with onetime allies, especially Turkey. Israeli officials were adamant that their policy toward Gaza will not change.

Israeli military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, while visiting navy commandos who were wounded during clashes aboard the 600-passenger Mavi Marmara ship early Monday, said everything would be studied, “from the commander of the navy to the last of the soldiers, in order to learn for the future.”

The future may come as soon as later this week when the MV Rachel Corrie, the seventh ship in the flotilla, will attempt to reach Gaza. The ship is named for an American activist killed in Gaza in 2003 while protesting Israeli home demolitions.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, upon returning home Tuesday after canceling a trip to Washington, convened his security advisers for a four-hour review that covered Monday’s raid, the diplomatic fallout from the incident and how to contend with other attempts to breach the blockade.

An Israeli official said no change has been made to Israel’s policy to stop ships from reaching Gaza, which Israeli forces have kept under a maritime blockade since the Islamist Hamas movement took control of the strip in 2007.

Israeli commandos seized five ships in an aid flotilla early Monday but fought with protesters aboard a sixth. Israeli officials say the demonstrators attacked the commandos with axes and metal rods, while flotilla organizers say the troops used excessive force on unarmed civilians.

Even as Israeli officials defended their right to use force to uphold the blockade, Israeli commentators decried the raid, and some called for Barak to resign. Others blamed the military. A former senior Israeli military official said the navy tried “to be like Rambo” and “gave this kind of illusion to the political level that they can carry it out very easily without complications. It’s the navy chief who is responsible.”

While Israeli officials said soldiers had not expected violent resistance, officials had alleged for days that the activists aboard the large Turkish ship were part of a radical group with links to militant organizations.

Hundreds of activists on Tuesday remained in an Israeli prison south of the city of Beersheba. Israel’s security cabinet decided late Tuesday to expel all of the remaining detainees within 48 hours, but it was not immediately clear whether activists accused of ambushing the soldiers would be held for prosecution.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which visited some of the activists, released a statement Tuesday raising “serious questions concerning the methods and means used by the Israel Defense Forces to prevent the flotilla from proceeding to Gaza.” Israel’s actions have been condemned by governments worldwide, and the raid spawned demonstrations in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

Central to the criticism of Israel were questions about the legality of its actions. The raid took place on a ship that was apparently unarmed, in international waters. But Allen Weiner, a former State Department lawyer and legal counsel at the U.S. Embassy at The Hague, said Israel was technically operating legally.

“Israel claims to be in a state of armed conflict with a non-state group, with Hamas in Gaza. Under the laws of war, a blockage is legal,” said Weiner, who teaches at Stanford Law School. “That includes operating on the high seas. You don’t have to wait until you are on territorial waters.”

The UN Security Council condemned “those acts which resulted in” the deaths of nine civilians and called for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent” investigation of why and how the Israeli military acted to stop the ships.

Though officially the Obama administration insisted that Israel was “best positioned” to conduct an investigation, a senior administration official acknowledged that an Israeli probe will not be seen as legitimate, so “we are pushing hard for an international role.”

As anger spread throughout the Arab world, Egypt, in a symbolic gesture, partly opened the Rafah crossing with Gaza. Israel and Egypt have coordinated in keeping their crossings with Gaza closed for all but humanitarian purposes in an attempt to isolate Hamas leaders. Because of the Egyptian and Israeli blockades, most commercial goods sold in Gaza are smuggled from Egypt through tunnels.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff writers Glenn Kessler and Scott Wilson in Washington and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.