Israel lining up options to deal with Freedom Flotilla

The Freedom Flotilla says its rendez-vous in international waters offshore Gaza will be on Saturday, there are reports of Turkish-Israeli contacts, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls this big operation a “publicity stunt”.

(Do you use military force against a publicity stunt?)

Israel is lining up its options to deal with the situation.

UPDATE: The IDF is now pulling out the big guns, and has just posted on its website,  saying: “Top level Islamic extremists linked to Gaza flotilla“. This IDF claim says that “a new report reveals the groups cooperation with radical human rights violators. According to a report by the Intelligence & Terrorism Information Center, senior Islamic extremists attended the launching ceremony in Istanbul of a boat participating in the flotilla. Among the participants were Mahmad Tzoalha and Sahar Albirawi, both top Hamas terrorists who today operate in Great Britain, and Hamam Said, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Bolant Yilderim, the chairman of the IHH, a Turkish based pro-Palestinian organization that is spearheading the Gaza flotilla, delivered a radical speech at the ceremony to the applause of Turkish politicians and radical Islamic activists. ‘Israel behaves like Hitler did towards the Jews. Hitler built concentration camps in Germany, and today the Zionist entity is building concentration camps in Palestine’, said Chairman Yilderim. The rally was also attended by Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who praised the attitude of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and asked leaders of the entire Arab world to follow his example”. According to this IDF accusation, “Salah has previously admitted in an Israeli Court to conferring with foreign agents and assisting unauthorized organizations, after it had become known that he was in contact with Hamas. He often voiced anti-Semitic hate messages that are based on the most ancient blood libels” … [etc. – because what follows is too vile to reprint here] The IDF note continues: “ ‘If the goal of the flotilla was humanitarian, they would have let Israel transfer the aid through, and would not have attempted to infiltrate the Gaza Strip in an illegal way’” explains Col. (res.) Reuven Ehrlich, a former member of the Israeli Intelligence Corps who currently heads the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. ‘Their only goal is to generate a provocation aimed at embarrassing Israel and the IDF, and to aid Hamas and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip’.” This is posted here.

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center has been following the organization of the Freedom Flotilla as a possible “terrorist” threat since early April, as we have previously reported on this blog here.

However, the IDF reported a few hours earlier (note the use of the phrase “grab hold of”, about midway through, and then the words “no intention” and “however” in the last sentence) that: “Maj. Gen. Marom [the commander of the Israeli Navy] required soldiers not to be dragged into provocations while fulfilling their mission … According to the decision made by the Israeli government, the IDF and the Israeli Navy are getting prepared to prevent the flotilla from reaching the shores of Gaza. The flotilla’s passengers will be given the opportunity to turn back at any stage of their trip or to give up the control of their ships. 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. Should the passengers decide to continue the journey and not take the Israeli Navy’s warning into consideration, they will be arrested, brought to Israel’s shores and transferredst to the Ministry of Interior and the immigration authorities so they can be sent back to their country of origin. The security forces will grab hold of the aid expected to be brought to Gaza by the flotilla, and after a security check of the goods, they will be transferred into the Gaza Strip … He [Maj. Gen. Marom] stressed that during the operations, Israeli forces will take all the required steps in order to protect the soldiers’ lives, and make sure that no terrorist agents have been infiltrated into the ships. Maj. Gen. Marom instructed his forces not to be dragged into provocations and act with fair judgment; otherwise it could be harmful to the mission’s accomplishment. He also said to his men that there is no intention to cause any harm among the hundreds of people expected to arrive on these ships, however a clear mission has be assigned to the Israeli Navy and it has to be accomplished”. This IDF announcement is posted here.

This can hardly get any clearer. And all on board the Freedom Flotilla are probably adults (though no passenger lists have been published so far, unlike what happened with the 8 Free Gaza expeditions)… The stage has been set. What will happen now?

Yesterday, the Israeli MFA sent around a message saying that one of its legal experts, Sarah Weiss Maudi said: “The reason why ships can’t come into Gaza currently is because a maritime blockade is currently in effect off the coast of Gaza. Such a blockade has been imposed by Israel because Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas regime that controls Gaza. Hamas has repeatedly bombed civilian targets in Israel proper with weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza by various routes, including the sea.  Under international maritime law, when a maritime blockade is in effect, no vessels can enter the blockaded area. That includes both civilian vessels and enemy vessels.  Any vessel that violates or attempts to violate the maritime blockade may be captured or even attacked. Maritime blockades are a legitimate and recognized measure under international law, and may be implemented as part of an armed conflict at sea”.

Is there an “armed conflict at sea” – at least until now?

Weiss Maudi is, the MFA says, the ministry legal expert on maritime and humanitarian law — but she is very young.  No senior Israeli government official has spoken so clearly, publicly, on these matters.  

She duly notes “the requirement to give due notice” of the blockade, and to “publicize the existence of the maritime blockade in effect” — and, she says, Israel has “published the exact coordinates of the blockade via the accepted international professional maritime channel”.  (See the Youtube video starting at 1’16”.)

IDF spokespersons refused to return my calls recently, when I asked for confirmation that its naval blockade of Gaza still exists. Other Israeli government spokespersons have appeared, generally, to evade this issue, and have appeared to make efforts to refrain from calling it a naval blockade…

See this for yourself, either on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, here or on youtube:

In the same statement, sent out by email and also on the MFA website, here, Weiss Maudi says that Israel’s “effective control” of Gaza has ended — and it has been replaced by what she described, again, this way: “What currently exists is a state of armed conflict“. 

The two bilateral cease-fires (one declared by Israel, the other by Hamas) that went into effect on 18 January 2009 at the end of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza apparently don’t count…  Her explanation, instead, is pegged on Israel’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza in 2005 — after which, she notes, rocket and mortar attacks on Israel coming from Gaza.

She continues: “in light of the Hamas-sponsored attacks on Israeli civilian targets, Israel undertook a number of measures against the Hamas regime. One of these measures is the imposition of economic sanctions against the Hamas regime in Gaza … It is a very common practice.  Under international law, every state gets to decide what goes in and out of its borders.  Also under international law, every state gets to decide whether it wants to forge economic relationships with any entity or state.  Similarly, a country has a sovereign right to decide whether to impose economic sanctions on any enemy state or entity“.   [N.B., on 19 September 2007, just three months after the Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security Services in Gaza, the Israeli government formally decided to declare the entire Gaza Strip, with its 1.5 million inhabitants, an “enemy entity”, or , and “hostile territory”, and authorize the Israeli military to administer tightened sanctions…]

After consulting prepared notes on a paper on her desk (see the Youtube video at 3’59”), she says [blithely contradicting what other international legal experts have argued for the past three years]: “I want to emphasize that this is not an act of collective punishment – the imposition of economic sanctions.  Rather, this is a measure to put pressure on a regime that is attacking Israel’s citizens.  Under international law Israel has a basic right to defend and protect its citizens.  Such economic penalties have been imposed throughout modern history, and there are many examples of bilateral sanctions … These penalties are imposed as a consequence  of certain policies undertaken by a certain regime, and these are considered in the international arena a legitimate and effective tool for putting pressure on terrorist or other regimes such as that of the Hamas terrorist regime”…

She added: “… Israel has a humanitarian obligation to make sure that certain vital humanitarian interests are met, and that supplies go in. But I want to emphasize that Israel is under no obligation to supply non-vital goods, or goods that could give Hamas a military or economic advantage.  Thats why Israel limits, for example, the supply of concrete into the Gaza Strip. Concrete could be used to mould rockets.  It could be used to build reinforced bunkers which are clearly for military purpose against Israel. [Here, she erroneously implies that what Israel allows into Gaza is an Israeli humanitarian donation] I want to emphasize that Israel supplies Gaza with large quantities of humanitarian supplies.  These include baby formula, meat, dairy products, etc. And in the last year and a half it has supplied Gaza with over a million tons of goods”.

It is important to note that — contrary to what is implied — that none, absolutely none, of what is sent into Gaza is a donation from the Israeli military or government.  The goods are is either purchased by the Gazans themselves,  after placing the order through the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, or donated from international organizations and aid agencies.

This MFA legal expert concludes: “The Israel Supreme Court constantly reviews these supplies to make sure that Israel is in line with its requirements under both Israeli domestic law and international law to supply vital civilian goods that are needed. And indeed, it has confirmed that Israel has been meeting its obligations under international and domestic law”.

Sari Bashi, Executive Director of the Israeli human rights organization GISHA, who is currently pursuing an appeal to the Tel Aviv District Court to know how, and what, the government decides should get into Gaza under Freedom of Information procedures, says that “The Supreme Court is not involved in the FOIA petition, and no review of the policy is taking place in that context – the dispute is over disclosure of information”.

Bashi contradicts the MFA legal expert, noting that she [Bashi] is “not aware of a current case in which the Supreme Court is reviewing the closure. They have done so in the past, in the context of the three petitions we brought against the fuel restrictions, and various petitions against the blocking the transfer of meat, clothing and other goods into Gaza”. 

[And, if anyone outside the  non-communicative Israeli military would know if the Israeli Supreme Court is “constantly” reviewing the blockade against Gaza — or not — it would certainly be Sari Bashi… ] 

But those petitions ended months ago — while the sanctions that the Israeli military administers against the 1.5 million people trapped in Gaza continue every single day, but without any political or judicial review. Nor is there any transparency or public oversight.

This Israeli MFA Youtube video, part of a massive effort rolled out  the Israeli authorities over the past two days, has only had 180 views so far — and a couple of dozen of those have been mine, as I transcribed the remarks…

Meanwhile, it is reported that “The Israeli Minister of Social Welfare, Yitzhak Herzog, has confirmed his government will stop the Freedom Flotilla from reaching Gaza unconditionally. According to Herzog, however, the Israeli government will allow the flotilla to reach its destination and distribute its aid unhindered in return for a promise to release Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held prisoner by Hamas. Hebrew Radio quoted Herzog on Sunday saying, ‘It would not be acceptable to permit the convoy of ships to reach Gaza unless its organisers vow to release the soldier, Gilad Shalit, from the Strip’.”   This report can be viewed here.

UPDATE: As the situation reaches fever pitch in Israel, Haaretz has just reported that “A group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators sailing toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies on Thursday have refused a request by the father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to deliver a package and letter to his son. Activists rejected Noam Shalit’s offer to mediate on their behalf with the government, which has vowed to block the flotilla’s entry to Gaza, if they agreed to his request … At Wednesday’s meeting, ministers decided that the ships would be directed to Ashdod by force if necessary. The activists would be arrested and deported. Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser offered a dissenting voice, suggesting that the ships should be allowed to dock in the Strip. The flotilla is expected to approach Gaza by the weekend. A senior source in Jerusalem said the forum of seven convened to discuss potential negative media fallout abroad if the navy intercepts the ships. The ministers met before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left on a trip to Europe and North America. In a bid to produce more favorable coverage, the forum decided to allow foreign journalists aboard Israel Navy ships during the operation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak surprised his colleagues at the meeting when he described a suggestion by journalist Eitan Haber, who reportedly proposed that the demonstrators be greeted at Ashdod by women soldiers dressed in’ white. They would give the activists letters destined for Shalit, after which their ships would be thallowed to sail on to Gaza”. This report is posted here. This is a pity — it would be the least the participants could do, if they really expected to reach Gaza (of course, as long as they wouldn’t have to stop in Ashdod to get the letter and package…). Hamas has participated in at least two exchanges of letters between Gilad Shalit and his family.

UPDATE ON FRIDAY: An email from the Freedom Flotilla/Witness Gaza said that report is untrue: “Israel claims that we refused to deliver a letter and package from POW Gilad Shalit’s father. This is a blatant lie. We were first contacted by lawyers representing Shalit’s family Wednesday evening, just hours before we were set to depart from Greece. Irish Senator Mark Daly (Kerry), one of 35 parliamentarians joining our flotilla, agreed to carry any letter and to attempt to deliver it to Shalit or, if that request was denied, deliver it to officials in the Hamas government. As of this writing, the lawyers have not responded to Sen. Daly, electing instead to attempt to smear us in the Israeli press. We have always called for the release of all political prisoners in this conflict, including the 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, among them hundreds of child prisoners”.

The same Haaretz also reported that “In a bid to produce more favorable coverage, the forum [of 7 ministers, known as the Security Cabinet] decided to allow foreign journalists aboard Israel Navy ships during the operation”…

However, this will apparently be done only by allocated an extremely limited number of places to a “pool” — possibly to be designated by the Foreign Press Association (FPA). The FPA itself sent out a message to its members saying “As you are aware the international media will give preferential space to their own images and independent reporting rather than IDF hand-out images of this important news event. The FPA is ready to assist, but we insist on free access for all”.

UPDATE: On Thursday 27 May, it was announced by press release that “A delegation from the California-based Free Palestine Movement, including a retired U.S. diplomat, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran, and three Bay Area activists, set sail Tuesday evening from Piraeus, Greece, aboard the Sfendoni, one of the vessels that make up the Freedom Flotilla.  The passenger ship, purchased by the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, is carrying 54 passengers from more than a dozen countries. This morning it rendezvoused near the island of Rhodes with a Greek cargo ship that is also taking part in the flotilla, and later this week it will meet up in the eastern Mediterranean with the rest of the fleet, including a freighter and passenger ships that have already left from Turkey, two smaller ships soon to embark from Crete, and the MV Rachel Corrie, which is on its way from Ireland. The convoy aims to dock in Gaza City this coming weekend”.   Also on board, according to this press release, is “Joe Meadors, a decorated Navy veteran and one of the survivors of the 1967 attack on the U.S.S. Liberty, in which Israeli fighter planes and ships killed 34 Americans and wounded 173″…

UPDATE: The IDF made a well-publicized announcement on Wednesday evening about its preparations. YNet reported tonight that “According to its plan, the IDF will alert the participating ships, within different ranges, and urge them to turn around. If the vessels continue to advance – its passengers will be detained by the navy and returned to their countries in accordance with the Ministry of Interior. The IDF also decided it will transfer the humanitarian supplies carried on the ships to the Gaza Strip, after they undergo a security check … Navy Commander Major-General Eliezer Marom said the navy forces will use measures to protect the soldiers’ lives and ensure that there were no terrorist elements or explosives on the ships. Marom said he instructed the forces to act sensibly and avoid provocations, adding that the IDF had no intention of harming the hundreds of passengers on board these ships”. This YNET report can be read in full here.

The JPOST’s well-informed defense correspondent Yaakov Katz reported that “The IDF announced Wednesday evening that it was planning to stop the international convoy of nine ships currently on its way to Gaza carrying hundreds of activists and thousands of tons of supplies. The IDF said it planned to intercept the ships as they approached the Gaza Strip and urge them to turn back. ‘If they decide to continue sailing and do not listen to the instructions, then they will be stopped, brought to Israel and dealt with by the Interior Ministry, which will return them to the countries they came from’, an IDF statement said. According to the statement, the IDF will unload the supplies and transfer the shipment to the Gaza Strip, after inspecting it for weaponry. The Navy has held a number of drills in recent weeks to prepare for the arrival of the small fleet, which is expected to try breaking the Israel-imposed sea blockade on Gaza and dock at its newly expanded port. The scenarios drilled included the commandeering of the ships, which could, military sources said Wednesday, include violent clashes – depending on the response by the passengers on the vessels. ‘We will do everything to ensure that the operation runs smoothly, but are prepared for every possible scenario’, one defense official explained”. The JPost report is published in full here.

Haaretz adds that it was informed by sources in the IDF that “The ships are expected to reach Gaza’s waters by the weekend. But the IDF will carry out government orders to prevent the ships from reaching the Hamas-ruled territory … According to a decree signed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, ships are forbidden to come within 20 miles of the shore.  If the convoy ignores the order, the navy plans to block their path, using special forces soldiers to board and take control of the ships. The convoy will then be directed to the Israeli port of Ashkelon, where police and migration authorities will detain the activists and eventually deport them to their countries of origin, the army said”.   The Haaretz report is here.

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