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The Stalled Voyage of St. Mariam

Why is Israel Terrified of a Ship Full of Women?

by RANNIE AMIRI

“We will not even bring cooking knives.”

– Samar al-Hajj, coordinator of the all-women Lebanese aid vessel Mariam

The bloody wake left by the Mavi Marmara after the May 31 Israeli commando raid has not deterred 50 female activists from trying to break the four-year-old siege of Gaza. To hear Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speak of their planned relief effort, one would think the very existence of Israel was at stake.

The women plan to set sail aboard the Saint Mariam, a Bolivian-flagged cargo ship named in honor of the Virgin Mary, a figure sacred to both Christians and Muslims. Although they intend to depart from Tripoli, Lebanon, the crew is not only composed of multi-faith Lebanese but foreign nationals as well, including a group of nuns from the United States. So as not to give Israel pretext to attack, Hezbollah deliberately did not sponsor the mission nor were any members allowed to participate.

Its cargo? Books, toys, medical instruments and supplies, and most importantly, anticancer medication.

The ship cannot sail directly from Tripoli to Gaza since Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war (and Israel controls Gaza’s territorial waters) and thus must pass through a third country first. The Mariam was scheduled to leave for Cyprus last Sunday but authorities in Nicosia, capitulating to Israeli pressure, prohibited use of its ports for vessels departing to Gaza. Without the green light from Cyprus, Lebanon’s Transport and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi was forced to cancel the voyage until another country with whom Lebanon enjoys maritime relations could be found. Negotiations with Greece are now under way.

Barak, however, was outraged at the very notion that Lebanon would even consider allowing the Mariam to sail, characterizing its mission as “… a provocation intended to aid a terror organization.”

He went on: “The ship that is preparing to sail from Lebanon has nothing to do with humanitarianism … If the ship insists on arriving, in opposition to the current blockade, Israel will be forced to stop it and bring it to the port of Ashdod.”

The Israeli delegation to the United Nations submitted a formal complaint to both the Secretary-General and the Security Council, indicating Israel reserves the right to use “all necessary measures” to prevent the Mariam—and the toys and medications it carries—from docking in Gaza.

No rational person believes the all-women crew presents a physical or armed threat to Israel, either by their persons or cargo.

So why is Israel so terrified of the Mariam?

It has nothing to do with the activists, Hezbollah or even Hamas. What it does involve is ensuring the continuation of collective punishment of Gazans, who continue to wither under a four-year material and economic embargo.

It is why innocuous items like wheelchairs, crutches, books, crayons, or even chemotherapy pose such a threat; any relief provided to Palestinians not under the direct jurisdiction of Israel jeopardizes its role as sole arbiter of deciding whether to enforce or relax punishment of civilians. Only the occupying power has this right.

Collective punishment is an illegal and heinous form of warfare, and Gaza’s Palestinians have suffered from it as retribution for overwhelmingly electing Hamas to govern in the January 2006 parliamentary elections.

If the Mariam is allowed to sail and Israel cannot find justification to stop the nuns, doctors, lawyers, journalists, human rights workers and a pop star aboard from landing—if they are permitted to break the siege—then the Gaza shore could soon become inundated with ships, vessels and relief flotillas from the world over. And the myth of Israel as invincible regional superpower would, yet again, be shattered.

This is why Israel is terrified of a ship full of women, and why they are being demonized.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri@yahoo.com