Prof. Richard Falk on Gaza: "To lock people into a war zone .. evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto …"

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory said in a telephone interview arranged by the UN in Geneva that “the entire Gaza population, which had been trapped in a war zone with no possibility to leave as refugees, may be mentally scarred for life. If so, the definition of casualty could be extended to the entire civilian population”.

We discussed this situation in our earlier post, “No other country in the world…” here.

“To lock people into a war zone is something that evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto”, Falk said in remarks that were reported today on Israel’s YNet website.
Continue reading Prof. Richard Falk on Gaza: "To lock people into a war zone .. evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto …"

Israel opens small field hospital inside Erez terminal

The Israeli government opened a small “emergency medical treatment center” on Sunday in the main building of the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. A doctor working in the “field hospital” said that three patients had arrived from Gaza on Sunday. [UPDATE: There have also since reportedly been seven children who passed through the treatment center — most of them cancer patients wanting to resume their treatment in Israeli or Palestinian hospitals outside the Gaza Strip.]

Many people may not have known about the new “field hospital”, one of the medical personnel at the clinic said, and more are expected in the coming days.

Haaretz reported here that “Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, who attended the clinic opening in the Erez crossing pedestrian zone, said the clinic would treat as many people as possible”.

The maximum capacity is 100 to 150 people a day.

It is actually set up more like a neighborhood clinic than a “field hospital” in the war zone that Gaza has become. The clinic does not appear to be prepared to mount a massive rescue operation of critically wounded patients. It will take a minimum of two to three hours — a minimum — to process a patient through, once they arrive at the clinic, which is set up in converted office space on the ground floor of the Erez terminal building. There is even a play area for small children.

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post has written that “the clinic is a humanitarian gesture by Israel following the 22-day operation in Gaza”.

Patients would have to be pretty mobile just to get there, and they have to go through an Israeli security check — after passing through a Palestinian security control — before entering the terminal. There does not seem to be an operating room, although there is an emergency resuscitation room with life support machines which were used for one Gazan who had managed to walk in before having a heart attack in the terminal. Another woman was allowed to pass through to Israel to resume her cancer treatment at a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem. And a third patient was treated for sinusitis, before choosing to return to Gaza.

Access to the Erez terminal is now strictly controlled by the military at a point about a mile away on the Israeli side. From the Gazan side, it is a nearly two-kilometer walk on earth that is un-even because it is regularly dug up by IDF tank forays. It can be creepily empty at times, and it is occasionally shot at by both sides. Back-to-back ambulance transfers would be difficult, if they are even possible under the current security regulations.

Arriving at the large grey concrete terminal, two very large white banners are clearly visible, hanging over the line of glass doors. These banners, in three languages, prominently proclaim that here is the “The State of Israel REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER FOR THE PEOPLE OF GAZA” …

MDA photo of Erez medical center for Gazans

Meanwhile, international NGOs are complaining about their lack of access to Gaza (which now reportedly looks rather like downtown Grozny did after two Russian offensives), more than a day after the cease-fire went into effect. Cassandra Nelson of The Mercy Corps said “It’s a disgrace. There’s no transparency, no process — not even any single point person to contact. We’ve had to call all over, and we don’t know what is happening, or when we can get in”…
Continue reading Israel opens small field hospital inside Erez terminal

European leaders come from Egypt to Jerusalem for dinner

Israel’s main highway No. 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was completely closed to traffic from 16h30 until 19h30 Sunday evening, to allow for the secure and unimpeded arrival of six European leaders who had earlier attended a meeting in Egypt co-hosted by Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited them to dinner in his official residence in Jerusalem.

The dinner was organized less than 20 hours into a cease-fire that Israel had unilaterally proclaimed after twenty-two days of military attack on Gaza.

They all wore business attire and suits — and posed for photo-ops as if it were a G-8 Summit. There were floral arrangements, plenty of flags, and avowals of unusually close friendships.
Continue reading European leaders come from Egypt to Jerusalem for dinner

Unprecedented humanitarian operation to follow unprecedented military attacks

It appears that an unprecedented humanitarian operation for Gaza will now follow three weeks of unprecedented Israeli military attacks that, it has now been determined, have met and surpassed their goals.

Israel is about to open, with a certain amount of fanfare, a “forward emergency treatment center” at the Erez border crossing to receive, treat, and perhaps refer to Israeli hospitals, some of the nearly 6,000 Palestinians in Gaza who have been wounded by the IDF Operation Cast Iron over the past three weeks, and probably also some critically ill patients who may not have been wounded but who need advanced treatment not currently available in Israel.

A note of caution: the IDF says Operation Cast Iron is continuing, despite the unilateral cease-fire that began at 2 am today.

UPDATE: Word has just been received of a Hamas decision to have its own one-week cease-fire (can this be called “unilateral”, too?) to allow for the withdrawal of IDF troops.
Continue reading Unprecedented humanitarian operation to follow unprecedented military attacks

How to tell this story: Gazan doctor who works in Israeli hospital stricken by grief after three daughters killed by IDF tank, Israeli woman tries to block his words to the press

This has been a developing story — and it develops in shocking and disturbing ways.

Last week, there were reports that a doctor who lives in Gaza but who works in an Israeli hospital lost three of his daughters and a niece in an IDF tank shelling of his house. He said that his house, however, was well-know to the IDF and other Israeli authorities …

The doctor, who speaks perfect Hebrew, has been giving regular updates over the phone to Israeli TV and to other Israeli media, as it turns out. He was about to give another on-air report when his house was attacked, out of the blue (at least for him and his family), and his daughers and niece killed. He described what happened in an outpouring of grief, shrieking on the phone. This has been broadcast.
Continue reading How to tell this story: Gazan doctor who works in Israeli hospital stricken by grief after three daughters killed by IDF tank, Israeli woman tries to block his words to the press

Israeli human rights groups ask: "Can a moral society live as if nothing is happening (in Gaza)"?

“The level of harm to the civilian population is unprecedented”, said an all-star line-up of Israeli human rights organizations at a group press conference in West Jerusalem at midday today.

They were speaking of the people in Gaza.

Since the start of the Israeli Defense Force’s Operation Cast Lead on 27 December, the human rights groups said, ‘military forces are making wanton use of lethal force which has to date caused the deaths of hundreds of uninvolved civilians and destroyed infrastructure and property on an enormous scale. In addition, Israel is also hitting civilian objects, having defined them as ‘legitimate military targets’ solely by virtue of their being ‘symbols of government’.”

And, caught in the middle, are “1.5 million civilians in extreme humanitarian distress”.

But to say, as the human rights groups did, in the same breath, and in a polite and even-handed way, that the IDF is providing “limited help” is both a gross exaggeration and a huge understatement. See our earlier post calling attention to this problem here.

The human rights groups also said that “a heavy suspicion has arisen of grave violations of international humanitarian law by military forces. After the end of the hostilities, the time will come for the investigation of this matter, and accountability will be demanded of those responsible for the violations”.

But right now, they said, there is a “clear and present danger” that must be faced.

Sari Bashi, the Executive Director of GISHA, said that it was important to note that “this crisis was pre-planned since the September 2007 Cabinet decision” that branded the Gaza Strip –one of the most densely-populated areas on earth — an “enemy entity” or a “hostile territory”. Gaza was systematically emptied of vital supplies, Bashi explained. But, while the policy is described as being directed against Hamas, it is really against civilians, she said.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense was tasked with implementing this Cabinet decision, and they did so by coldly and cruelly and carelessly conducting what can only be called an obscene laboratory experiment in seeing how much vital supplies could be cut before a “humanitarian crisis” would inevitably ensue. Supplies of fuel and gas were cut by 15% starting at the end of October 2007 — and Israel’s Supreme Court allowed even cuts to directly-supplied electricity (though these were quickly rescinded when the drastic effects were quickly observed). The military pledged it would avoid creating a “humanitarian crisis” — but how did the military define that? By January 2008, Gaza’s only power plant had completely run out of reserves, and was operating only on what it received day to day. The IDF shut down the transfer facility for days because of fighting in the area, and the power plant soon had no fuel left to operate, and it shut down on 21 January. It soon grew much more complicated — with Fatah-allied groups skirmishing with the IDF whenever the fuel situation became critical, causing more frequent interruptions in supply. Then there was a payment dispute. Then there were accusations of Hamas requisitioning part of the fuel supplied. And this is only one part of the overall picture.

The human rights groups said that “fighting is taking place throughout the Gaza Strip, whose border crossings are closed, so that residents have nowhere to flee … The health system has collapsed. Hospitals are unable to provide adequate treatment to the injured, nor can patients be evacuated to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip. This state of affairs is causing the death of injured persons, or chronically ill patients, who could have been saved … Areas that were subject to intensive attacks are completely isolated … The army is preventing local and international rescue teams from accessing those places and is also refraining from helping them itself, even though it is required to do so by law. Many of the residents do not have access to electricity or running water, and in many populated areas sewage water is running in the streets”. They said that “This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes. The responsibility of the State of Israel in this matter is clear and beyond doubt. The army’s complete control of the battle zones and the access roads to them does not allow Israel to transfer that responsibility to other “…

Medical rescue teams could not come to the aid of the injured, either because there was no “coordination” with the IDF, or — even if there was such coordination — the rescue teams were subject to attack anyway, even in clearly marked vehicles. And so far, some 7 medical rescue workers had been killed, and 17 wounded, while 15 medical facilities had been attacked.

“You don’t direct fire at targets where there are civilians”, Jessica Montell of B’Tselem told the press conference. She added later that “there is no way to compare or to have a competition of suffering. The situation is intolerable and must be stopped”.

“Even if Hamas people are hiding at a hospital, as long as fire has not come from that hospital, by international law there is no justification for military action, and a hospital does not become a legitimate target”.

Montell, the B’Tselem official, confirmed that her organization had received reports from eyewitnesses, which it transferred to the military, that a woman who walked out of her house yesterday in the village of Khuza’a, east of Khan Younis, waving a white flag, was shot. Injured, and lying the ground where she had fallen, the woman had continued to wave the white flag until she was shot in the head. An ambulance which tried to reach the woman was fired at. Later in the day, a group of 30 civilians waving white flags was also shot at, and at least three more people died. Montell said she could not confirm greater numbers, but said that “This is not the first time that we get such information about the IDF shooting people who leave their houses with white flags, or waving white sheets.”

The human rights groups called on the Prime Minister and the Defense establishment to act immediately to:
“1. Stop the disproportionate harm to civilians, and stop targeting civilian objects that do not serve any military purpose, even if they meet the definition of ‘symbols of government’.
2. Open a route for civilians to escape the battle zone, while guaranteeing their ability to return home at the end of the fighting.
3. Provide appropriate and immediate medical care to all of the injured and ill of the Gaza Strip, either by evacuating them to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip or by reaching another solution inside the Gaza Strip.
4. Allow rescue and medical teams to reach battle-torn zones to evacuate the injured and bring supplies to those who remain there. Alternatively, the army must carry out those activities itself.
5. Secure the proper operation of the electricity, water and sewage systems so that they meet the needs of the population”.

There are also disturbing reports about detainees, according to Dalia Kerstein of Hamoked. “The Army has a lot of new arguments [including about the detainees being “illegal combattants”], and a number of people are unaccounted for. She said there There are reports that there are huge puts dug, where people are held in terrible conditions, with no food and no water, before being transferred to Sde Tal Mon, a military base in the south of Israel itself [outside Gaza].

Michael Sfard, the attorney for Yesh Din, said that the press conference had been convened not only from fear of the present humanitarian catastrophe, which is acute and which will become worse. But, he said, afterwards, this will have to be investigated — “and Israeli society will have to look into the mirror and ask, ‘how did we do what we did’?”

Asked by a journalist why the Israeli public is so supportive of this military operation, Sfard replied that “This question bothers us as well”. He said that he felt he was witnessing “a moral corruption destroying everything at a fantastic pace … What we would like to evoke here is not only the legal situation, but also the moral aspects. Can a society which is moral live as if nothing is happening?”

Free Gaza expedition to Gaza to resume with 9am departure from Cyprus

A message – forwarding a Free Gaza press release — arrived by email overnight, saying that the sixth Free Gaza expedition, on board the now-repaired Spirit of Humanity ship, will resume with a 9am departure from Cyprus.

UPDATE: The Spirit of Humanity apparently actually set off at 10:30 this morning — there is no further word yet on their progress.

The message adds that although “Israeli authorities have threatened to use ‘any means’ to keep the SPIRIT OF HUMANITY from reaching Gaza. Despite this threat and a previous attack [n.b. on 30 December] by an Israeli war ship on our motor vessel DIGNITY, the Free Gaza Movement is determined to continue nonviolently challenging Israel’s aggression and break the siege on the 1.5 million Palestinians being terrorized and slaughtered by Israel in the Gaza Strip. Free Gaza Movement organizer Huwaida Arraf said, ‘We will not let Israel’s threats deter us. The Israeli authorities have been put on notice again of our mission; any attack by Israel on the boat will be considered a deliberate attack on unarmed civilians engaged in a humanitarian action”…

The message explained that “After departure on January 12 at 3 pm from Larnaca Port the boat encountered problems with one of its two generators that was compounded by rough weather. For the safety of the passengers, the captain decided to return to port and the boat docked in Larnaca at about 9 pm on January 12. Thanks to the generosity and support of the people of Cyprus, the problem has been quickly repaired and the boat ready to depart”.

It also reported that “The ship will carry desperately needed doctors, journalists, human rights workers, and members of parliaments as well as medical supplies donated by the people of Greece and the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza. The medical supplies being taken in include essential parts for ventilators, which will allow the only burn center in the Gaza Strip, at Shifa Hospital, to double its capacity, as well as medicines and basic medical supplies requested by area hospitals in Gaza”.

Day 17 of Israeli attacks on Gaza – no let-up in sight: UPDATED

Almost 900 Palestinian deaths have been confirmed in Gaza — and nearly 4,000 Palestinians have been wounded [UPDATE – the UN is reporting this evening 4250 Palestinians injured so far, and at least ten percent in critical conditions]– on the 17th day of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which started on 27 December, and which is said to be aimed at changing the “security situation” in Israel’s south.

The attacks are continuing.

The AP reported that “Early Monday, Israeli navy gunboats fired more than 25 shells at Gaza City, setting fires and shaking office buildings, including the local bureau of The Associated Press. The military said that in general, the targets are Hamas installations but had no immediate information about the shelling that began just after midnight”. This report can be read in full here.

Yaakov Katz reported in the Jerusalem Post that “Israel dispatched reserve units to the Gaza Strip on Sunday as the IDF was said to be carving out a ‘security zone’ along the border, which it would retain even after an end to the fighting and use to conduct routine patrols aimed at halting rocket attacks against the South … A senior [Israeli] military officer who is commanding forces fighting inside Gaza said on Sunday that Hamas terrorists were trying to cross the line the IDF had created separating northern Gaza from the south. Some attempts to cross the line, he said, were made by Hamas gunmen hiding inside Red Crescent ambulances … On Saturday, flyers were dropped on Gaza City warning residents of a wider offensive. ‘The IDF is not working against the people of Gaza but against Hamas and the terrorists only’, the flyer said. ‘Stay safe by following our orders’.” This report can be seen here .

The Israeli military has spoken for some time of its desire to create “security zones” in the outer periphery of the small and already very over-populated Gaza Strip — one of the most densely-populated places on the planet. It is about 25 miles long and 6 or so miles wide.

Amira Hass reported in Haaretz, after speaking to her contacts in Gaza, that “As of Sunday, the streets of Gaza are full of people fleeing – both from Sheikh Ajleen [to the south of Gaza City], an area with open fields and houses, where battles between Hamas gunmen and Israel Defense Forces soldiers are taking place, but also from nearby neighborhoods. Everyone is carrying his possessions … A relatively small number – some 20,000 – have found refuge in UNRWA schools. Many more have moved in with relatives and friends: in Gaza City, Rafah, Khan Yunis, Beit Hanun and the Nuseirat refugee camp. The military is steadily forcing the areas known as ‘population concentrations’ to move inward, ‘clearing’ areas on the periphery – first the agricultural land, and now the neighborhoods bordering them – and pushing people into an increasingly smaller territory“. This report is posted here.

The Jerusalem office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process reported that as of 17h00 on Sunday, “The number of displaced people staying with host families remains unknown, but reports indicate that it is likely to number in the tens of thousands. According to the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, an estimated 80,000–90,000 people have been displaced, including up to 50,000 children. UNRWA opened four new shelters on 10 January in response to increased demand in Gaza City, Jabalia, and Deir al Balah. UNRWA is currently operating 31 shelters providing refuge to 25,696 people, an increase of over 4,000 from 9 January … Access between northern Gaza and the rest of the territory remains possible only via the coastal road west of the former Israeli settlement of Netzarim and is restricted to humanitarian relief assistance (including ambulances) following coordination with the Israeli authorities“.

The IDF announced this morning that today’s three-hour lull for “humanitarian respite” would be from 10a.m. to 1p.m. — and that a number of trucks would go in from Kerem Shalom and Karni carrying food and medical supplies (but no fuel, apparently)

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza reported on Sunday that the IDF ground operation had expanded over the previous 24 hours, and it accused the IDF of using “incinerating bombs in the areas into which they moved. According to residents of these areas, they have never been subjected to shelling by such kind of shells, which are like inflaming objects that explode and disperse shrapnel. They release white smoke that causes suffocation and fainting”.

From the start of the Operation, which is now in its third week, there have been persistent reports that the IDF was detaining many males, and taking them away for questioning in an unknown location. These men are still under detention.

Yesterday, the PCHR reported that a number of houses in various areas of Gaza have been siezed, and their occupants detained inside, in poor conditions: “Palestinian civilians in these houses have been denied access to food and water, and they have been even used by IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] as human shields during armed clashes with Palestinian resistance groups”.

The PCHR warned that the lives of Palestinian civilians are endangered in light of threats vowed by Israeli political and military officials to expand military operations against the population of the Gaza Strip.

And the PCHR called again for immediate intervention from “the international community” to stop the Israeli attacks, and urged the States Parties to the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War to fulfill their obligations to ensure respect for its provisions — and to search for and to prosecute those responsible for grave breeches of the convention, because such grave breeches constitute war crimes.

The Gaza-based organization also called for investigations into crimes committed by the UN and by the UN Human Rights Council into crimes committed during the on-going attacks, in particular into the reported use of internationally-prohibited weapons against the Palestinian civilian population.

UPDATE: The Agence France Presse news agency is reporting from Oslo that two medics who just returned home to Norway after spending 10 days working at Gaza City’s main hospital — including the often-quoted surgeon, Mads Gilbert — said they believe “Israel is testing a new ‘extremely nasty’ type of weapon in Gaza”.

The AFP report said that ” ‘There’s a very strong suspicion I think that Gaza is now being used as a test laboratory for new weapons’, Mads Gilbert told reporters at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, commenting on the kinds of injuries he and his colleague Erik Fosse had seen while working at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza. The two medics, who were sent into the war zone by the pro-Palestinian aid organisation NORWAC on December 31, said they had seen clear signs that Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), an experimental kind of explosive, were being used in Gaza. ‘This is a new generation of very powerful small explosives that detonates with an extreme power and dissipates its power within a range of five to 10 metres (16-98 feet)’, said Gilbert, 61. ‘We have not seen the casualties affected directly by the bomb because they are normally torn to pieces and do not survive, but we have seen a number of very brutal amputations… without shrapnel injuries which we strongly suspect must have been caused by the DIME weapons'” he added. The weapon ’causes the tissue to be torn from the flesh. It looks very different (from a shrapnel injury). I have seen and treated a lot of different injuries for the last 30 years in different war zones, and this looks completely different’, said Fosse, 58 … Gilbert also accused Israel of having used the weapon in the 2006 Lebanon war and previously in Gaza, and referred to studies showing wounds from the explosive could cause lethal forms of cancer within just four to six months. ‘Israel should disclose what weapons they use and the international community should make an investigation’, he said, stressing the amount of damage apparently caused by the new form of explosive. ‘ We are not soft-skinned when it comes to war injuries, but these amputations are really extremely nasty and for many of the patients not survivable’, he said”. This AFP report is posted here.

Haaretz reported, meanwhile, that 700 protesters (of whom 237 were minors) — all either Israeli Arab citizens or Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem — have been arrested since the start of the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Dozens have been indicted, and 226 are still in custody, according to the Haaretz report. “Most of the protests that led to arrests took place in Jerusalem or the north. Palestinians and Israeli left-wing activists [this terminology ususally means Jewish rather than Arab] claim that in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the IDF has reintroduced the use of a semiautomatic rifle that uses live ammunition to disperse crowds that was banned after the second Intifada. The Ruger .22 rifle was banned following the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in which it was used to break up protests and caused the deaths of a number of Palestinians, including youths and children”. This report can be read in full here.

The Jerusalem Post, however, said Monday that the IDF has back-tracked from an earlier report that there had been a mistake in targetting that resulted in killing about 40 people sheltering in a UNRWA school in Jabalya last week. Later in the week, the JPost wrote, an AP story “reported that Israeli defense officials have said in private that at the time of the attack, the IDF was returning fire at Hamas men who had just fired a rocket at Israel. The army fired three mortar shells, two of which hit the target and one missed by about 30 meters, causing the casualties at the school, whose number the IDF believes was inflated by Hamas”. But, upon following up, the JPost reported that it was told, by IDF Capt. Ishai David, that “We are still sticking by our official position that according to our initial inquiry, the whole thing started when terrorists fired mortar shells from the school compound [at soldiers]. The IDF returned fire to the source, and the unfortunate result was the death of innocent civilians”. David said. Capt. David also told the JPost that in another case as well, there has been no finding that the IDF shot and killed an UNRWA relief truck driver in last week near the Erez crossing. David said that “the initial inquiry indicates that it was not IDF fire that killed him.” This story can be read in full here.

Haaretz today carries a report on the opinion of Prof. Yuval Shany, an expert in international law from Hebrew University’s law faculty, about possible violations during the current IDF operation: “The relevant question, he said, is ‘whether the operation is proportionate to the provocation that led to it. When a single Qassam [rocket] is fired, the state cannot invade and conquer an entire country. There must be a measure of proportion between the action and the reaction. But here, we are not talking about a single Qassam, but about years of Qassams’. Israel, he continued, ‘is permitted to use force to the degree necessary to end the attacks against it. Therefore, it [the operation] is legal as long as it is meant to prevent the attacks’ … However, Shany stressed, by law, Israel would not have the right to use force to effect regime change in the Gaza Strip … Regarding claims that Israel has deprived Gaza of fuel and electricity, and prevented the evacuation of the wounded, Shany said that once Israel has taken control of the Strip, it must enable the population’s humanitarian needs to be met. This includes an obligation to treat the wounded and to supply food, water and electricity. This report can be read in full here.

Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour, who lives and works in the West Bank wrote today on the TPM blog that: “I watch in shock, like the rest of the world, at the appalling death and destruction being wrought on Gaza by Israel; and still it does not stop. Meanwhile, we see a seemingly never-ending army of well-prepared Israeli war propagandists, some Israeli government officials, and many other people self-enlisted for the purpose, explaining to the world the justifications for pulverizing the Gaza Strip, with its 1.5 million inhabitants. Curious about how Israel, or any society for that matter, could justify a crime of such magnitude against humanity, I turned to my Jewish Israeli friends today to hear their take on things. One after another, the theme was the same. The vast majority of Jewish Israelis has apparently bought into the state-sponsored line that Israel was under attack and had no other option available to stop Hamas’ rockets. More frightening is the revelation that many Israelis—including one person who self-identifies as a ‘leftist’—are speaking of accepting the killing of 100,000 or more Palestinians, if need be”.

In his post, Bahour said there were actually plenty of other options, and added that “there is nothing that can justify, by Israel or any other country on this earth, the decision to opt for a crime against humanity as your chosen response. Nothing!” This post can be read in full here.

Free Gaza says it will set sail for Gaza again on Monday – despite formal Israeli naval blockade

On its last attempt to reach Gaza (30th December), the sixth expedition of the Free Gaza movement which sailed about the SS Dignity from the Cypriot Port of Laranca, was intercepted, interdicted, rammed and damaged by Israeli naval vessels. The Free Gaza movement says this happened in international waters.

Since then, Israel has formally announced a naval blockade of Gaza’s territorial waters (as delimited by the Oslo Accords) — see our previous post, here.

This proclamation which provides legal justification for a number of measures, including interception and interdiction. It has not been challenged.

Haaretz journalist Yaakov Katz — who has good sources in Israel’s Ministry of Defense, was a guest on board an Israeli naval vessel last week, and he reported some interesting details on Israel’s naval operations against Gaza, quoting a Maj. Tzur as saying: “We are guarding Israel’s coastal borderline, including Gaza fishing areas, in order to prevent a terrorist infiltration into Israel”. (As shown in our previous post, the name given in the Oslo Accords map of Gaza’s Territorial waters first called the zone a “Fishing Zone”. This term was later changed (after the announcement of the discovery of potentially exploitable undersea gas deposits) to an “Economic Activity Zone”.

Katz also reported in his Haaretz story that “The navy is tasked, among other things, with imposing the sea blockade on the Strip, preventing weapons smuggling to Gaza via the Mediterranean and thwarting terror attacks. The navy has a significant force and maintains a constant presence near the Gaza coast. Several other Israeli naval vessels sail in the area, including Sa’ar 4.5s, hunting Hamas terror cells and backing up ground operations … Palestinian police boats have also been hit during naval operations, and according to the officer, Hamas naval forces have been dealt a severe blow. The officer said that there had been attempts to fire at Israeli naval ships, mostly with light arms and anti-tank missiles … 10 Hamas terror operatives were killed by naval forces … ‘All the time, there are attempts to approach us…they are dying to hurt us’, said the officer. ‘There is now a naval blockade so anyone who is in the sea is considered suspicious’.”   This report can be read in full here.

Undaunted, the Free Gaza movement has just announced that they intend to set sail on a 7th expedition from Cyprus to Gaza at noon on Monday, with expected arrival on Tuesday. Today’s announcement said that “Israel has been notified that we are coming. A copy of the notification to the Israeli Authorities is attached [see below].

They will have to go in a new boat — the Spirit of Humanity, which sails under a Greek flag — as the Dignity (which was registered in Gibralter and sailed under a British flag) is still under repair in a Lebanese port.

Last Wednesday, the Free Gaza movement announced that it was “sending another emergency boat to Gaza. We will announce our exact departure date, time and route in the next few days. We will travel from Cypriot waters, into international waters, then directly into Gaza territorial waters, never nearing Israeli waters”.

That first announcement, the movement said, “put Israel on notice”.

It also said that “The United Nations has failed to protect the Palestinian civilian population from Israel’s massive violations of international humanitarian law … [But] We are not deterred by the violence of the Israeli military and intend to sail to Gaza again and again … We are willing to put our bodies on the line to stop Israel’s unlawful massacres of the Palestinian people (we have received death threats warning us not to repeat our attempt) and bring the attention of the world to the war crimes happening in Gaza against 1.5 million Palestinians”.

In an official notification of their intent to enter Gaza’s territorial waters sent to the Israeli Navy and to the Israeli Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, the Free Gaza movement wrote that “We will be carrying urgently needed medical supplies in sealed boxes, cleared by customs at the Larnaca International Airport and the Port of Larnaca … Our boat and cargo will also have received security clearance from the Port Authorities in Cyprus before we depart. As it will be confirmed that neither we, the cargo, any of the boat´s contents, nor the boat itself constitute any threat to the security of Israel or its armed forces, we do not expect any interference with our voyage by Israel´s authorities”.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council met in emergency session on Friday to consider the current Israeli attacks on Gaza. Professor Richard Falk, the HR Council’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian territory, told the emergency session that “about 75% of the population lacks access to sanitary water and has no electric power. Such conditions are superimposed on the circumstances of Gazans resulting from the prolonged blockade that had deteriorated the physical and mental health, and the nutritional status, of the population of Gaza as a whole, leaving some 45% of children suffering from acute anemia. Interference in the supply of medicines and health equipment, and border closures, had made it impossible for many Gazans to receive or continue treatment for life-threatening conditions. It was also reliably concluded that up to 80% of Gaza was living under the poverty line, that unemployment totals approached 75%, and that the health system was near collapse from the effects of the blockade. This set of conditions certainly led impartial international observers and civil servants to an uncontested conclusion that the population of Gaza was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis of grave magnitude prior to 27 December … This blockade in effect for a period of 18 months was unlawful, a massive form of collective punishment, and as such in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and also a violation of Article 55, which requires that the occupying power ensure that the civilian population has sufficient food and that its health needs are addressed. Such blockade does not alter the unjustifiable character of the rocket attacks, but it does suggest two important conclusions from a legal perspective: first, that the scale of civilian harm resulting from Israeli unlawful conduct was far greater than that of Palestinian unlawful conduct; secondly, that any effort to produce a sustainable ceasefire should ensure that Israel as well as Hamas respect IHL, which most concretely means that interferences with the access of goods for the maintenance of normal civilian life must end, and cannot be reestablished as a retaliatory measure if some sort of rocket attack occurs in the future. Similarly, if Israel should impose such constraints in the future, it would not provide any legal cover for resumed rocket attacks or other forms of Palestinian violence directed at Israeli civilians. There are some difficulties in attributing responsibility for all rocket attacks to Hamas. There are independent militias operating in Gaza, and even prior to Hamas, governing authorities were unable to prevent all rocket firings despite their best efforts to do so”.

Falk added that “It is also relevant that Hamas repeatedly offered to extend the ceasefire, even up to ten years, provided that Israel would lift the blockade. These diplomatic possibilities were, as far as can be assessed, not explored by Israel, although admittedly complicated by the contested legal status of Hamas as the de facto representative of the Gazan population. This has legal relevance, as a cardinal principle of the UN Charter is to make recourse to force a matter of last resort, making it obligatory for Israel to rely in good faith on nonviolent means to end rocket attacks”.

And, Falk told the HR Council emergency session on Gaza that: “It is also important under international law to determine the extent to which the reliance on force is proportionate to the provocation and necessary for safeguarding security. Here, too, the Israeli arguments seem unpersuasive. As mentioned above, the rocket attacks, although unlawful and potentially dangerous, had caused little damage, and no loss of life. To mount a major military campaign against an essentially defenseless society already gravely weakened by the blockade accentuates the disproportion of reliance on modern weaponry in combat situations where military dominance was largely uncontested … The one-sidedness of casualty figures is one measure of disproportion. Another is the scale of devastation and the magnitude of the attacks. It is obvious that the destruction of police facilities, as well as many public buildings, in crowded urban settings represents an excessive use of force even if Israeli allegations are accepted at face value. As discrediting as is the reliance on disproportionate force, is the lack of connection between the alleged threat associated with Gaza rockets and the targets of the Israeli attacks, giving added weight to the claims that the Israeli use of force is a form of ‘aggression’ prohibited by international law, and certainly excessive in relation to criteria of ‘proportionality’ and ‘necessity’. ”

Falk also noted that “In many contemporary situations of warfare large number of civilians seek to escape from harm by moving away from immediate danger, becoming ‘internally displaced persons’ or ‘refugees.’ But Israel through its rigid control of exit, directly and indirectly, has denied the civilian population of Gaza the option of becoming ‘refugees,’ never an option of choice, but reflective of desperation. Its denial tends to lend credibility that the population of Gaza is essentially imprisoned by Israeli occupation policy. From the perspective of IHL (International Humanitarian Law), this foreclosure of a refugee option for Gazans is a serious aggravation of the dangers posed for a civilian population, and underscores the gravity of the humanitarian crisis that has existed in Gaza since 27 December …”

Official Notification of Intent to Enter

January 11, 2009
To: The Israeli Ministry of Defense, Fax: 972-3-697-6717
To: The Israeli Navy
To: The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fax 972-2-5303367

From: The Free Gaza Movement

This letter serves as a formal notification to you as the Occupying Power and belligerent force in the Gaza Strip that on Monday, January 12 we are navigating the motor vessel, Spirit of Humanity, from the Port of Larnaca to the port of Gaza City. Our vessel will be flying the Greek flag, and, as such, falls under the jurisdiction Greece.

We will be sailing from Cypriot waters into international waters, then directly into the territorial waters of the Gaza Strip without entering or nearing Israeli territorial waters. We expect to arrive at the Gaza Port on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.

We will be carrying urgently needed medical supplies in sealed boxes, cleared by customs at the Larnaca International Airport and the Port of Larnaca. There will be a total of 30 passengers and crew on board, among them members of various European Parliaments and several physicians. Our boat and cargo will also have received security clearance from the Port Authorities in Cyprus before we depart.

As it will be confirmed that neither we, the cargo, any of the boat’s contents, nor the boat itself constitute any threat to the security of Israel or its armed forces, we do not expect any interference with our voyage by Israel’s authorities.

On Tuesday, December 30, an Israeli Navy vessel violently, and without warning, attacked our motor vessel Dignity, disabling the vessel and endangering the lives of the 16 civilians on board. This notice
serves as clear notification to you of our approach. Any attack on the motor vessel, Spirit of Humanity, will be premeditated and any harm inflicted on the 30 civilians on board will be considered the result
of a deliberate attack on unarmed civilians”.

This announcement can be seen on the Free Gaza website, here.