Can Turkish involvement help Free Gaza – Freedom Flotilla challenge Israel's naval blockade of Gaza?

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.

Continue reading Can Turkish involvement help Free Gaza – Freedom Flotilla challenge Israel's naval blockade of Gaza?

Israeli warships to Free Gaza boat: "You will not be allowed to proceed to Gaza"

The Free Gaza expedition that left Cyprus by sea Monday morning must now be near Gaza’s maritime space, which has been under a formal Israeli naval blockade since the start of its ground offensive in Gaza on 3-4 January.

Or maybe not — can the careful wording of some of the Israeli communications suggest that the formal naval blockade might have ended when Israel put its own unilateral cease-fire into effect on 18 January???

For the past 8 hours, the one Free Gaza boat now at sea has been travelling with intermittent contact with accompanying Israeli naval warships.

This Free Gaza boat, The Spirit of Humanity, is sailing under a Greek flag.

A journalist and cameraman from Al-Jazeera television are onboard, according to the group’s
latest passenger list, published yesterday.

The Free Gaza movement had been warned by multiple sources not to try to undertake this expedition, but they felt they had to stand up to what they called Israeli “intimidation”. When the Free Gaza movement began its expeditions from Cyprus to Gaza by sea last August, they declared their intention to break the siege of Gaza.

At that time, the Israeli government let them pass, saying they did not want to give the Free Gaza movement a propaganda victory.

In an email message this morning, Free Gaza supporters said “We’re a little concerned that the Israelis may be following the same protocol they did when they boarded the Lebanese ship back in February & arrested everyone. If they are following the same protocol, then we could expect an attack as early as 10-11am our time, 8-9am GMT. UPDATES: here.

Here are the latest updates, via Twitter:

Spirit is about 60 miles off Gaza, just received a HELP message

ALL WE WANT IS TO REACH GAZA. WE DO NOT SEEK A CONFRONTATION, Surrounded by 5 Israeli warships. Told to turn back. Still going forward

2 hours ago
Keep the pressure up. Someone turned the GPS and SPOT back on [navigation equipment restored]. We hear every ten minutes. Passengers/crew are fine. Soon to turn to Gaza

4 hours ago
“You will not be allowed to proceed to Gaza, and the boat that should return to Larnaca.” Message from Israeli gunboats. Spirit continues.

7 hours ago
Passengers are fine, but everything is jammed. Heading west to avoid Israeli waters and remain in International waters

Pondering Israel's naval blockade of Gaza

Israel has asserted its security control over Gaza’s maritime space, but it does not have title to these Mediterranean waters — nor has Israel ever asserted a territorial claim on them.
Continue reading Pondering Israel's naval blockade of Gaza

"We had no choice" – Free Gaza expedition turns around after confrontation with Israeli Navy

In a phone call with a Free Gaza spokeswoman in Cyprus just now, I learned that the sixth Free Gaza expedition, on board the Spirit of Humanity ship, has turned around and is heading back to Cyprus, after a confrontation with the Israeli Navy just before dawn this morning that apparently did take place on the high seas, in international waters.

The Spirit of Humanity was “surrounded by Israeli gunboats, which were crossing back and forth in front of our ship in a very dangerous way, and ordered to turn around,” said spokeswoman Mary Hughes. “We had no choice”.

The Free Gaza movement says the naval officers threatened to shoot, but the IDF has denied this.

A Cypriot source said that the Israeli Navy challenge happened 70 miles away from Gaza.

Israel formally announced, for the first time, a naval blockade of Gaza’s territorial waters to a distance of 20 nautical miles out from shore — the distance specified as Gaza’s “fishing” space, or “economic activity” space, according to maps agreed in 1995 and 1995 as part of the Oslo Accords. The naval blockade was announced just after the IDF began its ground operation in Gaza on 3 January, and was unchallenged.

The Cypriot source added that “We were worried that they would hit the ship again, as they did the last time. But the Free Gaza people were not hurt at all — although the Israeli Navy did use very strong lights against them, to blind them”.

The ship should arrive back in Cyprus around 8pm tonight, the source said.

The Free Gaza website lists this trip as the seventh expedition, and the passenger list on its website shows that 21 passengers and crew were on board, down from the 34 passengers and crew that were on board when the Spirit of Humanity set out the first time, earlier this week week — before the Israeli government made it clear that it intended to use “all available means” to block this effort.

Meanwhile, it seems that Israel’s formal naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space has more than one purpose. Reuters news agency reported today that “Israeli officials said Israel was seeking an agreement with Washington on regional and international security guarantees that would bolster Egyptian efforts to ensure Hamas could not replenish its arsenal. The United States and European powers, the officials said, would commit themselves to providing Egypt with advisers and new technology to combat smuggling tunnels. Israel also was seeking an international maritime monitoring effort to prevent rocket smuggling by sea through Egyptian ports to block the shipments before they reach the border, the officials said”. This report can be read in full here.

And, the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz reported today that “The Navy is closely tracking an Iranian ship that has attempted several times to breach the naval blockade imposed on Gaza and transport humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. On Tuesday, the boat docked in Port Said, Egypt, but the Egyptians refused to allow it to unload its cargo and at midnight Wednesday the boat tried sailing into Gaza … On Wednesday morning, when it was 30 miles off the Gaza coast, the Iranian boat again tried to move toward the Strip, and the Navy again intercepted it. It then returned to el-Arish, Egypt, and two Egyptian boats prevented it from docking there. Since that time, the boat has been sitting 30 miles off the coast of Gaza and is being closely tracked by the Israeli navy. Israel and the Egyptians have been coordinating all activity regarding the Iranian boat”. This updated report is posted here.

Israeli Navy tells Free Gaza ship they will shoot – and will use "any means" to stop the ship going to Gaza

An hour and a half ago, the Free Gaza movement sent out a message reporting that “At roughly 3am UST (1am GMT), in international waters 100 miles off the coast of Gaza, at least five Israeli gunboats surrounded the SPIRIT OF HUMANITY and began recklessly cutting in front of the slow-moving civilian craft. The Israeli warships radioed the SPIRIT, demanding that the ship turn around or they would open fire and “shoot.” When asked if the Israeli navy was acknowledging that they intended to commit a war crime by deliberately firing on unarmed civilians, the warships replied that they were prepared to use “any means” to stop the ship

The message also states that “Israel’s reckless and shocking threats against an unarmed ship on a mission of mercy are a violation of both international maritime law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that ‘the high seas should be reserved for peaceful purposes’.”

It noted that “The Free Gaza Movement ship, SPIRIT OF HUMANITY, left Cyprus Wednesday morning carrying doctors, journalists, human rights workers, and parliamentarians. The ship also carried over a ton of desperately needed medicines donated by the European Campaign to Break the Siege, and intended for overwhelmed hospitals in the Gaza Strip. At the request of the ship’s organizers the passenger list and manifest were publicly released, and Cypriot authorities searched the boat prior to its departure in order to certify that it only carried humanitarian items. The organizers also sent an official notification to the Israeli government of their intent to break through the blockade of Gaza”.

This message can be viewed in full on the Free Gaza website here.

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”.

Free Gaza boat sails from Cyprus toward Israeli naval blockade of Gaza

The Free Gaza movement has just sent information by email indicating that a sixth expedition has set sail from Larnaca in Cyprus, headed toward Gaza, where the Israeli Defense Force is pursuing Operation Cast Lead against Gaza targets in order to improve the security situation in Israel’s south.

On the passenger list, there are a large number of journalists, including for Al-Jazeera, Sky TV, CNN, France 2 TV, BBC, AP, RTL Radio, Mega TV, Sunday Herald, El Mundo, and Ethnos.

What is different this time is that Israel has formally declared a naval blockade — extending to 20 nautical miles from the coast — of Gaza’s territorial waters. The announcement of the naval blockade was made just after the start of the ground invasion of Gaza on 3 January.

Israel announces naval blockade of Gaza

The IDF spokesperson has announced a naval blockade of Gaza.

This announcement says that “In accordance with the decision of the Defense Minister and current security assessments, as of Saturday January 3rd, 2009, the IDF has begun enforcing a naval blockade for 20 nautical miles from the Gaza Strip. The length of Gaza’s shore is used by the Hamas terror organization, and the presence of its operatives on the shoreline and in the open sea constitutes a threat against the citizens of southern Israel”.

This announcement will apparently have legal consequences — but it basically encodes a situation that existed previously — and for rather a long time.  Only some five Free Gaza expeditions of international activists have actually managed to pass into and out of Gaza’s maritime space.  And Gaza’s fishermen have been forced to operate, for years, in far less than their alloted, allocated and agreed, fishing territory.

The 20-mile designation is interesting also — it is the limit of a “fishing” (and “economic”) zone allocated to Gaza in the Oslo Accords.

Gaza's maritime space as delimited by Oslo Accords - Israeli MFA website

One of the main aims may be to try to reinforce the Israeli claim that Gaza is not occupied — because Israel is not “controlling” Gaza’s maritime space (which would be one of the tests for a situation of occupation- Rather, the IDF announcement is saying, Israel has “begun enforcing a naval blockade” — which is an act of war, and/or a sign of an actual state of war.

This move also puts pressure on BG negotiators, who have re-opened discussions at Israel’s insistence after freezing them just over a year ago, on the development of the Gaza Gas wells located precisely within this Gaza maritime space … And one of the reasons (though not the main one) why the discussions on this gas deal have not been concluded already is precisely the questions posed about its status with Hamas in power in Gaza…