Freedom Flotilla minus one ship

Cypriot authorities have barred one boat from leaving its port today — it was the Spirit, the Free Gaza boat that was seized and boarded by Israel’s Navy late last June while attempting to reach Gaza. Those on board were detained — some for up to ten days — and deported.

Once the Spirit was released, it made its way back to Cyprus, and has been docked there since then. “Today they tried to take it and leave, and we didn’t allow them”, a Cypriot official said.

Cypriot authorities say they barred the Spirit from leaving because it was attempting to travel to an area where there is an existing naval blockade (that is, the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space, as defined by a map attached to the Oslo Accords; this naval blockade went into effect on 3-4 January 2009, and has still not been lifted, despite the separate but simultaneous cease-fires declared by Israel and Hamas on 18 January 2009).

Right now, a Cypriot official says, “We know where six of the [Freedom Flotilla] ships are: the Mavi Marmara, Gazze, VN Rachel Corrie, Sofia, Defne Y., and Eleftheri Mesoyeios. We cannot locate the Al-Jazair cargo ship, and the Challenger One, a passenger yacht. Most probably they have closed their transmitting device”.

He said he expected the ships to stay out of Cyprus’ 12-mile territorial waters, but to head in the direction of Cyprus before turning south towards Gaza.

The rendez-vous point for the eight vessals now at sea would probably be in international waters between Cyprus and Israel, he said.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense said earlier Thursday that “From the moment of their departure, the ships will receive formal warnings at various stages of their journey, requesting them to stop their trip to Gaza’s shores”.

Two of the boats in the Freedom Flotilla are reportedly flying U.S. flags. Three boats are flying the Turkish flag.

Haaretz reported that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke with the foreign ministers from several countries on Thursday … The defense minister told the foreign ministers that ‘Hamas, which rules Gaza, is a terror organization supported by Iran. It smuggles weapons and rockets with the sole purpose of harming Israelis, as it has done many times in the past’. The minister explained that Hamas has been holding Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive for four years, in complete isolation and in prevention of Red Cross intervention. ‘For these reasons Israel must oversee the waters in the area’, Barak said”. This Haaretz report is published here.

When it was intercepted and boarded by the Israeli Navy in late June 2009, the Spirit seems to have just entered inside Gaza’s maritime space (its geographical coordinate were given by Free Gaza ast 31.68 04, 34.11 43, which can be viewed here, and which would most likely be one full nautical mile inside Gaza’s maritime zone, according to Aletheia Kallos, to whom I am grateful for the calculations).

Israel. like many countries in the world, claims a 12-mile territorial sea off its shoreline.   (It now, since 2009, also seems to claim 3 miles off Gaza’s coast, according the British Admiralty notices to mariners: “reduced to 3M off Gaza” – see footnote 17 on latest list of Maritime Claims here from…)

In fact, that looks suspiciously like a territorial claim — for whatever reason, including security — and it adds one more question that must be addressed by those who argue that Is rael’s occupation of Gaza ended with Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” in 2005.

Also intriguing is the fact that the 3 mile slice of Gaza’s maritime space that Israel now appears to claim is also exactly the space to which Israel restricts Gaza fishermen.

But Gaza’s agreed maritime space, as defined by the Oslo Accords, extends 20 nautical miles out to sea from the coastline (it is Area L. minus a strip south of the Israeli border, and a strip north of the Egyptian border), and can be viewed here.

In mid-2008 — as the Free Gaza movment was preparing its first expedition by sea from Cyprus to Gaza — Israel published this notice to mariners about Area L (which it referred to as “Security Area L”):

Chart Update NM 5452/2008 for Chart 2634


(31° 33´·8N., 34° 10´·6E.)

Vessels are advised to remain clear of
Security Area L extending north-westwards
from the coast of the Gaza Strip. Vessels
approaching this area are requested to
maintain radio contact with the Israeli Naval
Forces on VHF channel 16 and will be subject
to supervision and inspection.

The Free Gaza movement carried out 8 expeditions to Gaza (6 before the IDF Operation Cast Lead from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009; the 7th was in the early days of Operation Cast Lead, and the 8th, a much smaller prototype of what is likely to happen this weekend, set sail at the end of June 2009).

Then, Israel declared a formal naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space on 3-4 January 2009, as  it began the round invasion during  Operation Cast Lead.   The Israeli MFA said this week that it had made full and proper formal international notification — but I haven’t found it yet. 

Israeli MFA + IDF: while you’re at it, sending out all those Twitter comments, it would be nice if you could kindly supply full details (text and web location, s.v.p.) of the formal naval blockade.

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