A “Freedom Flotilla” is planning to sail for Gaza by the end of the month.
It will be the ninth expedition to try to reach Gaza by sea. According to the Free Gaza movement, this time it will be bigger and better than ever.
This time, there will be Turkish involvement.
This raises the stakes.
The Free Gaza movement is calling it “the biggest internationally coordinated effort to directly challenge Israeli’s ongoing occupation, aggression, and violence against the Palestinian people”.
The organizers apparently believe that, even if they don’t succeed in reaching their destination in Gaza, the publicity value alone, highlighting the blockade of Gaza, sufficiently justifies this attempt.
The last attempt to reach Gaza by sea was in June 2009 — then, Free Gaza ships were intercepted by the Israeli Navy off Gaza, and forced to proceed to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, where the cargo was impounded (some of it was later transferred by land to Israeli crossings and sent into Gaza). The activists aboard were jailed before deportation.
The Government of Bahrain, which does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, sent a delegation to receive its arrested activists.
Now, a Turkish relief organization, IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, or Insani Yardim Vakfi), is making major preparations to participate in the coming “Freedom Flotilla”. The aim is to reach Gaza’s fishermens’ wharf by late May.
According to the organizers’ plans, the Freedom Flotilla will include as many as 9 boats, including several cargo ships, and perhaps five passenger ships with up to 600 high-profile international personalities, activists, and journalists aboard.
Some of the ships will reportedly be flying the Turkish flag.
This means that any Israeli attack on those ships would be considered tantamount to an attack upon Turkey.
Another one of the cargo ships, refurbished and outfitted in Ireland, has been re-named the MV Rachel Corrie, after the American solidarity activist who died, crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer — the IDF said the driver could not see her — while she was trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in southern Gaza.
The MV Rachel Corrie is Free Gaza ‘s first cargo ship (earlier vessels were rented), and plans to set sail in the coming days, after picking up its aid cargo in Cork. It will then to meet up with the other Freedom Flotilla ship vessels somewhere in the Mediterranean, before they all travel in convoy together to Gaza to deliver some 5,000 tons of humanitarian aid (including cement for reconstruction, which was removed from the cargo list of the last Free Gaza expedition in June 2009). See this Youtube video here.
Free Gaza organizer Mary Hughes Thompson said, “Although we were happy with the first trips, it was bitter-sweet, knowing that our small boats and symbolic amounts of relief paled in comparison to what was really needed in Gaza. Now, we finally feel we are helping to organize a powerful action, one with the potential to translate into a sustained campaign of much more effective challenges to Israel’s brutal siege.”
Israeli activist Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) said that “It seems like it’s a bigger expedition, with more people … and part of the idea is to keep trying … to rachet it up, in a PR sense”. Halper was on the first Free Gaza expedition into Gaza. He said in an interview with this reporter shortly after his return that he was received very warmly, and that many Gazans came up and spoke to him in Hebrew — a result of their long years of working in Israel, where they can no longer go, due to Israel’s policy of near-complete closure of the densely-populated Gaza Strip. Halper was arrested upon his return to Israel via the Erez border crossing from Gaza, but was freed on bail, and has not been summoned to court. (Israel has since declared that no visitors can exit Gaza from Erez if they entered Gaza from Rafah…)
Last year, just before the June 2009 Free Gaza expedition that was intercepted at sea and forced to proceed to Ashdod, Halper told me that he had heard that “UN forces” were a second level of interdiction operating in the Mediterranean Sea. It was impossible to find any clear information about this. Today, he said, “I’m not sure where all that is”.
Halper also said he will not be going this month with the Freedom Flotilla, either. “I was told that ‘We know you, we love you, but it’s still a little too soon for Israelis to come to Gaza’ “– too soon, that is, after Operation Cast Lead.
The Free Gaza website says that “The Freedom Flotilla Coalition is comprised of: Free Gaza Movement (FG), European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza (ECESG), Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), Ship to Gaza Greece, Ship to Gaza Sweden, and the International Committee to Lift the Siege on Gaza, with hundreds of groups and organizations around the world supporting the effort”.
The formation of this coalition was announced in early April in Istanbul.
IHH, the Turkish NGO, was founded in 1995, and has worked in Bosnia, Chechenya, Haiti. It is also, apparently, functioning in the West Bank. It was reportedly very supportive of the efforts to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza via Egypt’s Rafah crossing at the beginning of this year.
IHH says its basic objective is to assist those who are “distressed, victimized by war, disaster, etc, wounded, disabled, homeless and subjected to famine, oppressed”, and “to deliver humanitarian aid to all people and take necessary steps to prevent any violations against their basic rights and liberties”. See their website here.
IHH is calling this attempt “Noah’s Ark”.
What they are up against is a formally-declared Israeli naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space (as defined in the map attached to the Oslo Accords, which is posted on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, here):
The Israeli naval blockade was announced on 3-4 January 2009, as Israel began the ground offensive phase of its unprecedented military operation, Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009).
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, whether in Gaza or in Lebanon.
On the 8th of January, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1860 (with a U.S. abstention) that
welcomed “initiatives aimed at creating and opening humanitarian corridors [n.b. at the time, in the middle of Operation Cast Lead, this meant inside the Gaza Strip] and other mechanisms for the sustained delivery of humanitarian aid” — but it also called upon UN Member States “to intensify efforts to provide arrangements and guarantees in Gaza in order to sustain a durable ceasefire and calm, including to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition and to ensure the sustained re?opening of the crossing points on the basis of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between the Palestinian Authority and Israel…” etc.
There has been no announcement that the Israeli naval blockade has been cancelled.
Attempts today to seek clarification from Israeli Ministry of Defense spokespersons went unanswered.
A European diplomat says that the Israeli naval blockade is still fully in place.
The Freedom Flotilla organizers say that “In the wake of ongoing inaction by our governments to make Israel abide by international law, we – the citizens of the world – are taking action to stand up for justice”.
They report that they have received support from John Ging, Director of UNRWA operations in the Gaza Strip, who said: “We believe that Israel will not intercept these vessels because the sea is open, and human rights organizations have been successful in similar previous operations proving that breaking the siege of Gaza is possible.”
One international commented: “Everyone — certainly everyone in the UN — says that the blockade against Gaza is illegal collective punishment”.
Nevertheless, Ging’s comment that “the sea is open” is puzzling, in light of the declared Israeli naval blockade.
“There’s more to this than meets the eye”, said the international.
The Free Gaza organizers issued a statement quoting Denis Halliday, former United Nations Assistant Secretary General who resigned from a position in Iraq to protest the effects of UN Security Council sanctions on the Iraqi population, as saying: “We welcome Mr. Ging’s statement, which recognizes the responsibility of the international community to oppose the illegal blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza”.
Denis Halliday is also, apparently, planning to be a participant in the Freedom Flotilla.
“There is a dire humanitarian situation in Gaza”, explains UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness, “and the blockade is disrupting education for thousands of five- and six-year olds in Gaza, while UNRWA has been forced to turn away 39,000 students”.
He said, however, that the UN “doesn’t currently have plans to use the sea route” to try to get supplies into Gaza.
The first Free Gaza expedition was in August 2008, and did arrive safely in Gaza — much to the chagrin of the Israeli military, who were ordered not to provide the activists with a “propaganda victory”. Then, Israel used progressively tougher tactics, ramming one ship which had to limp into a Lebanese port for repairs, and forcefully discouraging other Free Gaza expeditions.
Five Free Gaza expeditions sailed before the launch of Israel’s massive military operation, Operation Cast Lead. A boat in the sixth Free Gaza expedition was rammed by Israeli naval vessels — organizers say it was nearly sunk. The next two expeditions were also prevented from reaching Gaza.
Last June, it was nearly a fiasco. Cypriot authorities tried hard to discourage the Free Gaza organizers from setting sail, in light of the formal Israeli naval blockade, and Israeli warnings conveyed to the Free Gaza participants via various channels. One of the participants in that last Free Gaza expedition, American congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, posted a Twitter message on 25 June (http://twitter.com/cynthiamckinney) saying that “The Cyprus Port Authority has just noticed us [sic] that they will destroy the boats (for our safety, of course) to prevent us from sailing”. A Cypriot diplomat warned at the time that if the Free Gaza expedition tried to trick the Cypriot authorities about their destination (“then change once they’re at sea and head toward Gaza”), they would lose their base of support in Cyprus.
All previous Free Gaza expeditions took off from, and returned to, Cyprus.
Given the current division of Cyprus, the massive Turkish participation adds another diplomatic complication for is the upcoming “Freedom Flotilla”.
The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, a monitoring organization, has posted a map that it says it got from the IHH website, showing a planned boat route from Turkey to Cyprus — and the map seems to suggest that a landing was planned in Cyprus — perhaps in the northern (Turkish-occupied) part of the island:
A Cypriot diplomat in the region said today that “They wanted to stop at Famagusta, but we said no”.
(Jeff Halper said this was “a huge issue”, and now thinks there will now be no stops anywhere in Cyprus — the ships will try to sail directly from Turkey to Gaza.)
The Cypriot diplomat added that “We didn’t stop them, but we don’t encourage them to go — because of what happened last time. We don’t want to see people killed…”
The preparations for the Freedom Flotilla are, of course, being closely tracked in Israel. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel is reporting here that “In the Gaza Strip, the Hamas administration prepares to receive the international flotilla, including deepening and cleaning the local fishing port. The works are carried out jointly by the Hamas administration Labor Ministry and elements in Turkey. The first phase is now nearing completion and works have begun on the second phase (savegaza.eu, the ECESG website, April 28)”.
According to a bulletin issued in early April, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said, here, that “the possibility that Israel will try to prevent the arrival of the flotilla has been taken into account. In response, numerous actions have been planned in order to make it difficult for Israel…It appears that the parties involved in the flotilla (‘the ship intifada’, as Jamal al-Khudari said) are taking into consideration the possibility of confrontations with the Israeli navy, creating a provocation that will be used by Hamas and its partners for propaganda and political gains”.
The bulletin added: “We believe that Hamas thinks that the presence of Turkish ships and activists will thwart Israel’s attempts to prevent the arrival of the flotilla, and can be used to (further) compromise Israel-Turkey relations”.
The Turkish government’s regional cooperation with Israel has come under severe strain as a result of the Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. There was a public row over the Israeli military operation in early 2009 at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Earlier this year, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon arranged media recording of petty humiliations he arranged when he summoned the Turkish Ambassador to Israel for a rebuke.
And, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center bulletin noted, the Turkish relief organization IHH “is banned in Israel”. It also said, without further detail, that “When some IHH activists landed in Ben Gurion Airport, they were denied entry”.
Meanwhile, blogs are reporting here that “Israeli authorities have taken Izzet Sahin, the representative and founder of IHH’s Office in West Bank, into custody on the 27th of April. Izzet Sahin has been taken into custody by the Israeli military while he was passing through the checkpoint in Bethlehem. Sahin was transferred to Ashkelon prison following his stay in the detention center of Israel Security Agency (ISA). Nobody has heard from him since the day he was arrested. No reason has been declared by the Israeli officials for Sahin’s arrest, who has been studying Hebrew in the Hebrew University … Israeli police raided Sahin’s home after the arrest and took some of his personal belongings including his computer”.
IHH reports on its website that “Bulent Yildirim, President of IHH, stated that the reason behind Izzet Sahin’s arrest might be to stop the flotilla campaign to Gaza in the end of May. Yildirim said ‘If Israel wants us to give up on the campaign by doing things like this, they are wrong. We will be taking the humanitarian aid to the people of Palestine by the end of May. We are not doing anything out of legal boundaries’. He went on to say, “Israel has been keeping our friend in custody for 8 days. He is now being interrogated. Israel’s previous actions make us concerned. There are people who lost their lives under Israeli custody, there are those who were subject to torture. The first two days we were not informed of our friend’s location. Apparently, Sahin had two receipts of aid with him when he got arrested, one from IHH, one from another aid organization in Palestine. He supposedly had videos of Sheikh Raed Salah’s [a leader of the Islamic movement in northern Israel] in his house. Israel declares these as their evidence for the crime … It is claimed that Sahin is harmful for Israel’s security. How come a person who studies at Hebrew University and coordinates aid work over there is thought to harm Israel’s security? How could this be the truth? …
Yildirim also mentioned that the Foundation wanted to send 3 lawyers to defend Izzet Sahin, however no response has been received from the Israeli side, ‘This is an insult to Turkey. Turkish state is now obliged to solve this by sending out a diplomatic warning of the highest degree’ he continued. Visa applications have been launched for the lawyers”. This is posted here.
Sahin’s first appearance in an Israel court is expected in the coming days.
Israel unilaterally “disengaged”, withdrawing some 8,000 Jewish settlers and the Israeli troops protecting them. from the Gaza Strip in September 2005. Since then, the Israeli government has argued that its occupation there has ended, and that it has no further responsibility for the people in Gaza. But, international legal experts argue that Israel’s continuing control of Gaza’s maritime and air space, and its ability to act militarily at will on the ground inside Gaza, contradict the Israeli position.