The Free Gaza movement has been warned not to try to sail to Gaza — its latest expedition of two ships was supposed to leave Cyprus yesterday but did not, after Cypriot authorities required additional detailed inspections — but the international activists say they “will not back down from Israel’s threats and intimidation”
According to their latest update, maybe only one ship will go, but they will not be taking cement. They say they have a plan.
The activists said last night that “our ships were not given permission to leave today [Thursday] due to concerns about our welfare and safety. Our friends in Cyprus tell us that the voyage to Gaza is too dangerous, and they are worried we will be harmed at sea”.
In response, the group says, they intend to deliver a waiver “signed by all going to Gaza, that we absolve Cyprus of all responsibility for our safety” — and will set sail anyway today, Friday.
If it actually departs, this would be the eighth Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus to Gaza — and it might be the last.
The two boats in this expedition were supposed to be carrying “3 tons of medical supplies, and 15 tons of badly needed concrete and reconstruction supplies”, according to the Free Gaza movement, which began sea expeditions to Gaza last August with the express intention of breaking the seige — which Israel has since elevated into a formal naval blockade of Gaza.
In its latest statement issued Thursday night, the Free Gaza expedition spokespersons said that “The purpose of nonviolent direct action and civil resistance is to take risks – to put ourselves ‘in the way’ of injustice. We take these risks well aware of what the possible consequences may be. We do so because the consequences of doing nothing are so much worse. Anytime we allow ourselves to be bullied, every time we pass by an evil and ignore it – we lower our standards and allow our world to be made that much harsher and unjust for us all”.
They added that “The journey to Gaza is dangerous. The Israeli navy rammed our flagship, the Dignity, when we attempted to deliver medical supplies to Gaza during their vicious assault in December/January. Israel has previously threatened to open fire on our unarmed ships, rather than allow us to deliver humanitarian and reconstruction supplies to the people of Gaza. The risks we take on these trips are tiny compared to the risks imposed every day upon the people of Gaza”.
On Friday afternoon, the group indicated it was buying childrens’ toys to take with them to Gaza (in place of the cement, which Israel bans). But actually, childrens’ toys are banned as well — as the Israeli military-administered sanctions are said to be designed to allow in only the most basic supplies needed, a *humanitarian minimum”.
The Free Gaza statement says that “the American consulate in Nicosia warned us not to go to Gaza, stating that: ‘…[T]he Israeli Foreign Ministry informed U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv that Israel still considers Gaza an area of conflict and that any Free Gaza boats attempting to sail to the Gaza Strip will “not be permitted” to reach its destination’. Former U.S. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney [who is on the passenger list] responded to this warning by pointing out that, ‘The White House says that cement and medical supplies should get into Gaza and that’s exactly what we are attempting to take to Gaza. Instead of quoting Israel policy to us … the U.S. should send a message to Israel reiterating the reported White House position that the blockade of Gaza should be eased, that medical supplies and building materials, including cement, should be allowed in. The Free Gaza boats should be allowed to reach their destination, traveling from Cyprus territorial waters, through international waters, and straight into Gaza territorial waters. The State Department has chosen to advise us to take the Israeli notification seriously. Our question is, Can we take President Obama seriously? Will he stand by his own words and allow us to provide relief for Gaza or will he back down?’.”
Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire is also on the passenger list, which is posted here .
There do not appear to be any journalists on board — and there has been precious little media interest in this saga.
The groups’ statement added that “Cyprus has been a wonderful home for the Free Gaza Movement over these last 10 months. Cypriots know first-hand the terrible consequences of occupation. They too know what it is to suffer from violence, injustice, and exile. Since our first voyage to break through the siege of Gaza, the Cypriot authorities have been extremely helpful and understanding of our goals and intentions”.
Nevertheless, the Free Gaza movement is indicating it plays to defy the Cypriot authorities on this matter.
A Cypriot diplomat in the region says that there is no physical way the Cypriot authorities will try to stop this Free Gaza expedition from leaving port, if they intend to do so. But it would be a violation of Cypriot law or regulations, he indicated, because there is no “port” at the Free Gaza expedition’s destination in Gaza.
(n.b. There is a little fishing port in Gaza City, but not a real seaport. The Agreement on Movement and Access [to Gaza] that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to become involved with negotiating — staying up all night on her birthday, 15 November 2005 — stated that “Construction of a seaport can commence. The GoI [Government of Israel] will undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with operation of the port”. But, so far, there has been no movement at all on the construction of a seaport in Gaza.)
While this technicality (the lack of a “port” in Gaza) was not invoked by Cypriot authorities during the earlier Free Gaza expeditions, there has been a powerful international effort in recent months to close all the loopholes.
And, the Cypriot diplomat added, “we cannot stop them, if they tell us they’re going to Crete, or someplace else, then change once they’re at sea and head toward Gaza”.
But, he added, if they do so, they will lose their base of support in Cyprus.
Israel allowed the first expeditions to pass, explaining that they did not want to give the Free Gaza activists a propaganda victory. But, toward the end of the year, Israel took an increasingly tough stance. During the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead (27 December – 18 January), Israel announced its formal naval blockade on 3-4 January, the day that the Israeli Army began its ground invasion. And, a day or two before the Israeli government finally agreed to international calls for a cease-fire, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Condoleezza Rice, signed a formal agreement with Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — the consequences of which were not all fully and immediately public — to participate in naval activities as part of a global interdiction of arms shipments that might be used by Israel’s enemies, either in Gaza or by one of Israel’s main nemesis, Hizballah, in Lebanon.
Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), who sailed with the first Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus to Gaza last August — and when he left Gaza by land via Israel’s Erez “border” terminal to return to his home in Jerusalem, he was arrested and jailed for his trouble. He was freed on a modest bail, and charges against him are still pending.
He told me recently that he was thinking of participating in this Free Gaza expedition — but that he had heard that “UN forces” were a second level of interdiction operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and might also try to intercept the next expedition. I asked the UN spokespersons in Jerusalem and at UNHQ/NY if they knew anything about this, but they all expressed astonishment.
UNIFIL is the first UN peacekeeping operation ever to have a maritime component. It was deployed after Israel’s most recent war against Lebanon in the summer of 2006. According to a UNIFIL press release, “an Interim Maritime Task Force was deployed until 15 October 2006, when the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force led by Germany took over. On 29 February 2008, Germany handed over command of UNIFIL Maritime Task Force to the European Maritime Force (EUROMARFOR) led by Italy. Under this arrangement it was for the first time that EUROMARFOR – a Maritime Multinational Force formed in 1995 by France, Italy, Portugal and Spain to carry out naval, air and amphibious operations – operated under a United Nations mandate. The EUROMARFOR held command of UNIFIL MTF for one year, first under Italy’s lead (29 February – 31 August 2008) and then under France (1 September 2008 – 28 February 2009). On 1 March 2009, France/EUROMARFOR handed over the command of MTF to Belgium“… This press release is posted on the UNIFIL UN website here.
The European Union’s Maritime force, EUROMARFOR, which has participated in various naval interdiction missions, actually took over command of the maritime component of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and operated under a United Nations mandate for one year — from 29 February 2008 until 28 February 2009.
I then corresponded with a spokesperson of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) at UNHQ/NY, to ask if there were anything to this story.
Specifically, I asked, “Did either EUROMARFOR alone or EUROMARFOR-MTF intervene in any way with any of the Free Gaza expeditions (including the one that was interrupted by a forceful Israeli naval interdiction, after which the ship made its way to Lebanon for repair)? During this period that it commanded the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force (MTF), was EUROMARFOR involved in any maritime interdiction activity in the Mediterranean off Gaza?”
But the answer I received was this: “On the interdiction question, I daresay there would not be anything of the sort outside of Lebanon’s coastal waters, in line with Security Council resolution 1701 which defines the mandate of UNIFIL and its MTF. I’ve also cc’ed colleagues at UNIFIL who may have suggestions/thoughts/insight on this”.
However, there was no further information forthcoming, either from DPKO in New York, or from the colleagues at UNIFIL.
Jeff Halper is not on the list of those aboard the two Free Gaza ships that were supposed to leave Cyprus Thursday. He did not return a phone call Friday afternoon