Investigation: the Challenger, Israeli military sanctions

In a telephone interview from Ireland, Shane Dillon, First Mate of the Challengera U.S.-flagged ship that was one of six in the Freedom Flotilla sailing together when they intercepted by the Israeli Navy before dawn on Monday 30 May— said that the six ships were steaming ahead, slowly, at approximately 7.5 knots per hour when the Israeli naval raid at sea began. There were other ships in the area at the time, Dillon confirmed, but because there was no radar on board the Challenger, he had no idea of how many. They continued to sail, though followed by Israeli naval vessels, for about 15 to 20 minutes (during which time there were several radio exchanges).

Dillon said that the Captain of the Challenger was asleep (!) at the time that he saw the Israeli Navy prepare to board the largest ship in the Freedom Flotilla group, the Mavi Marmara (chartered by the Turkish humanitarian relief organization IHH).

[The Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), published an interesting information in an account earlier this week that “Challenger One’s first mate, Shane Dillon, saw (SMH staff photographer, Kate) Geraghty being attacked and Israeli forces ripping equipment from McGeough. ‘She was just doing her journalistic duties … She advised them she was a bona fide photographer … She was just attacked’, Mr Dillon told the Herald from Dublin. He said Challenger One had attempted to outrun the Israeli boats to give Geraghty a chance to send her images. ”We were 15 minutes from the flotilla before they could board us’, he said”. This was published here.]

Questioned in the phone interview today, Dillon said that at the moment when he saw the Israeli naval forces preparing to board the Mavi Marmara, he made the decision to break away and make a run for it, as he described to the SMH. “I sounded the whistle — the Captain of the Challenger was asleep (!) at the time. We speeded up to about 22 knots”, Dillon said. The Challenger travelled for about 15 minutes or so, he said, flanked all the while by one Israeli naval vessel. Dillon explained that he only stopped at the point where a much bigger Israeli naval vessel suddenly materialized, and shined a very bright light on the Challenger. He said he was not aware of any other of the six ships travelling together in the Freedom Flotilla doing the same.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the Israeli Ministry of Defense has begun to loosen some of the restrictions it has imposed on goods entering the Gaza Strip.

And, after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington on Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama told journalists that “We – and I think President Abbas agrees with this – recognize that Israel should not have missiles flying out of Gaza into its territories. And so there should be a means by which we are able to stop the flow of arms that could endanger Israel’s security … At the same time, we’re doing so in a way that allows the people in Gaza to live out their aspirations and their dreams both for themselves and their children…we’ve already begun some hardheaded discussions with the Israelis in achieving that.” This was reported here.

The Israeli human rights organization GISHA noted that “On Monday, Israel permitted jam, halva, and shaving razors to enter Gaza, and it has said that it is willing to allow additional foods such as coriander, cardamom, and cookies into Gaza, after banning them for three years. GISHA is pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security However, Israel continues to prevent the transfer of purely civilian goods, such as fabrics, fishing rods, and food wrappers, as part of what it calls ‘economic warfare’ aimed at crippling Gaza ‘s economy. In doing so, it denies 1.5 million human beings the right to engage in productive, dignified work. It is not enough to permit Gaza residents to purchase Israeli-made cookies. Israel should stop banning raw materials such as industrial margarine and glucose, so that Gaza residents can produce their own cookies and restart the economy that has been paralyzed for three years. International law requires Israel to allow the free passage of goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip, subject only to individual security checks”.

More than a week ago, [on 31 May, a day after the tragedy on board the Mavi Marmara] Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that he wanted all kinds of goods, and “any humanitarian aid”, to enter Gaza — except “war materials” (which, it should be noted, has been rather broadly defined by the Israeli Ministry of Defense).

After that remark, GISHA sent a letter to the Prime Minister, asking him “to instruct the security authorities to implement a policy of free passage of civilian goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, subject only to individual security inspections”. In the letter, GISHA said it “welcomes the statement by the Prime Minister but points out that it does not reflect the policy of the security officials operating on the ground. As a matter of practice, Israel prevents the entry of hundreds of items into the Gaza Strip, including sage, vinegar, ginger and children’s toys … These restrictions constitute collective punishment under international humanitarian law, because they are designed to punish civilians in the Gaza Strip for acts they did not commit.
Despite a Freedom of Information Act petition submitted by GISHA to the Israeli district court, security officials refuse to reveal their procedures and the criteria that guide them in determining which goods are permitted and forbidden to be brought into the Gaza Strip. ‘If, as you say, any product can be brought into Gaza as long as it is not war materiel, then the parties operating on the ground are either unaware of the government policy or are not acting according to the policy’,” said the letter, which was signed by the Director of GISHA’s Legal Department, Attorney Tamar Feldman.

Attorney Feldman’s letter to Netanyahu stated: “I am very sorry to say your words do not reflect the policy of the security officials on the ground nor are they consistent with their declarations to the court. For more than a year, GISHA has been trying to clarify the criteria that guide the security authorities in determining which goods are permitted and which are banned from entering the Gaza Strip. After failing to get an answer from the authorities, GISHA submitted a petition to the court under the Freedom of Information Act (Administrative Petition 2744/09 – GISHA v. Defense Ministry), which is still pending. In the security authorities’ responses to GISHA’s requests, they repeatedly declared that according to government policy, the authorities only allow the entrance of ‘humanitarian’ goods, which are required to ‘maintain the vital humanitarian needs of the population’ (section 6 of the state response from April 25, 2010). Which is to say, not all goods with the exception of weapons, but rather only goods that maintain the ‘humanitarian minimum’, as defined by Israel. Since the security authorities refuse to reveal their procedures and the list of goods they permit into Gaza, we do not know how Israel defines the ‘humanitarian minimum’ or which goods it considers to be ‘humanitarian’. Nevertheless, we do know that there are civilian goods, including basic food products and vital raw materials that Israel systematically forbids from entering the Gaza Strip”.

The GISHA letter specifically requested of Netanyahu, “you must take the necessary measures to achieve a full accordance between the government policy and the conduct of the operational authorities. Past experience shows that government decisions to ease the closure policy are not implemented to the letter, and the operational officials adopt particularly expansive interpretations in order to avoid changing their practice. Therefore, even though the cabinet decision from March 22, 2009, stated explicitly that ‘the unlimited transfer of food products to the residents of Gaza from all relevant sources should be allowed’, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the territories did not diverge from his previous policy as a result of it. The entry of many food products is still banned, and the reasons remain vague”.

Earlier (on 6 May), GISHA announced that “After 12 months of unsuccessful attempts by Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement – to obtain documentation from the Israeli authorities about Israel’s policy concerning the entry of food and other goods into the Gaza Strip, and after claiming for many months that no such documents exist, Israel has finally admitted that it does indeed possess the information requested by Gisha, including a list of goods whose admission into the Gaza Strip is permitted”.  This, with more details, was posted here.

Time Magazine reported today that “Palestinian liaison official Raed Fattouh, who coordinates the flow of goods into Gaza with Israel, said that soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy were now permitted. He said some products have already entered Gaza, and others would cross in the coming days”. This is posted here.

Time Magazine’s newsfeed said “Israel to allow snack food into Gaza — Pressure must be getting to Israel, huh? After a widely-criticized raid on a flotilla that left nine dead, the country is ready to let up a bit by letting Chips Ahoy into Gaza”. And this is posted here.

Reuters used an almost identical headline, “Israel eases Gaza embargo to allow snack food in“, for its report, posted here, which adds these bits of information:
(1) “An Israeli official said the new product list, announced hours before U.S. President Barack Obama hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, was unrelated to Israel’s May 31 takeover of the convoy that challenged its Gaza blockade”, and
(2) “Hamas played down the impact of the new Israeli product list. ‘We have three factories that make carbonated drinks. They say they want to allow in potato chips, but we have factories that produce more than enough to meet Gaza’s needs’, said Ziyad al-Zaza, economic and trade minister in Hamas’s Gaza-based government. ‘We are looking for a true, real lifting of the blockade … the import of raw materials for industry and construction materials for the reconstruction of Gaza’, he said”, and
(3) U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asked Wednesday about Israel’s policy, said Hamas has used humanitarian donations to strengthen its military capabilities in Gaza. ‘Construction materials haven’t gone for housing, they’ve gone for bunkers’, Gates said on the program Frost Over the World to be broadcast on Al Jazeera’s English-language channel” …

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