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The Seizure of the Gaza Boats

Another mission accomplished, or so it seems. Israeli navy ships have managed to thwart yet another civil society ‘provocation’ (as described by a spokesman for the Israel Embassy in Dublin, Irish Times, November 4).

Thus the 27 activists from nine countries aboard two boats were rounded up and hauled, along with their ‘provocative’ medical supplies, to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

It was a successful operation conducted by a well-equipped navy, one that is credited for sinking numerous Gaza fishing boats, while forcing fishermen to swim naked back to shore. Of course, one can hardly address such valor without mention of the May 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, which killed nine Turkish activists and wounded many more.

But unlike the disordered attack on the Mavi Marmara in international water, the interception and boarding of the two boats – one Canadian (Tahrir) and the other Irish (MV Saoirse) – was swift, well-organized and supplemented with all the necessary sound bites to indict unarmed humanitarian activists and absolve an ‘elite’ navy force.

The boats were stopped between 60km and 90km from the Gaza coast. The Electronic Intifada had provided a live map, which followed their course shortly after they departed the Turkish port of Fethiye on November 2. The map “showed the boats were still in international waters when the Israeli army made contact” on November 4 (as reported by Maan News Agency). The Israeli military also admitted that the interception happened in international water (as reported in the Irish Times).

But all that matters little. The Israeli government is not a strong believer in boundaries. It is an occupation power, with military and espionage operations that reach far and wide, crossing Gaza to Damascus, Washington to Dubai. This versatility is what enabled a geographically small country like Israel to enjoy a formidable reputation of military brutality (for example, Cast Lead 2008-09) and electrifying unpredictability (for example, spying on the United States, the very country that consistently allows Israel to violate international law).

Predictably, the US government and mainstream media stood in unhinged solidarity with Israel in its latest escapade. Instead of warning Israel from harming any US citizens participating in the humanitarian mission, US State Department officials “renewed a warning to American citizens… saying that breaching an Israeli blockade aboard two ships headed to Gaza may be a violation of US law” (according to the Calgary Herald, November 4). A department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland also “reminded U.S. citizens that they could face civil and criminal penalties in their efforts to deliver resources to the Gaza Strip.”

The reporting of the story was meant to serve as a ‘reminder’ of the risks of such an act. In her New York Times report, Isabel Kershner anchored much of her article in Israeli military and official statements, giving negligible space to activists who were illegally detained. More, the report opted to remind Times readers that Gaza “is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas” (NYT, November 4). The fact that Hamas was democratically elected by a decisive majority in January 2006 seemed immaterial. Also irrelevant was the fact that the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits collective punishment. Article 33 states that: “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”

It was particularly interesting to watch the short video clip released by the Israeli military on their website – http://idfspokesperson.com – where a naval official called on the ships to turn around. The official used some phrases rarely used by Israeli spokespersons. “Your attempt to enter the Gaza Strip by sea is a violation of international law. We remind you that humanitarian supplies can be delivered to the Gaza Strip by land, and you are welcome to enter Ashdod port and deliver supplies through land crossings,” the unnamed official said.

If Israeli officials insist that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, why did the navy official make a reference to the delivery of “humanitarian supplies”?

As for the underhanded mention of ‘international law’, that referred to the politically-motivated Palmer report, which, with no legal foundation, resolved that the blockade on Gaza was ‘legal’. The inquiry (released in September 2011) was a tardy attempt at balancing numerous other reports that lashed out at Israel for imposing a devastating siege on Gaza, interrupted by a very costly war and a fatal attack on the Mavi Marmara. One such report, by the UN Human Rights Council, condemned Israel’s violation of “international humanitarian and human rights law” and called the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza ‘unlawful’ (The Guardian, September 22, 2010)

Israeli navy, military and government officials must have been congratulating themselves on a job well done, as international activists were arrested, herded into police stations and forced to sign their deportation papers. However, the latest mission – named ‘Freedom Waves’ – actually exposed as fraud the logic Israel used to justify its siege of Gaza. The October 18th prisoner swap that saw the freedom of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and few hundred Palestinian prisoners, was expected to bring an end to the Gaza siege altogether.

But it didn’t.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Just Foreign Policy Director, Robert Naiman claimed, “In practice, the issue of the Gaza blockade has been entangled with issue of the captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.” He cited a Washington Post article stating: “The blockade was widely seen as a punitive measure driven in large part by the outrage that Shalit’s abduction in 2006 generated in Israel” (October 26).

Now that Shalit is free, Israel is clearly uninterested in ending its ‘collective punishment’ of Gaza. The latest act of piracy is the latest indication that the blockade will remain in place, under an array of pretexts and justifications.

Thanks to Tahrir and MV Saoirse, we know that the siege as a response to Shalit’s capture was a ruse, and that Israel has no immediate plans to end the perpetual captivity of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.

But we also know with equal certainty that the Freedom Waves will continue. “Despite this Israeli aggression, we will keep coming, wave after wave, by air, sea, and land, to challenge Israel’s illegal policies towards Gaza and all of Palestine,” said Huwaida Arraf, a spokeswoman for the activists. “Our movement will not stop or be stopped until Palestine is free.”

Ramzy Baroud is editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle  and  “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London). 

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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