The absence of news about what is going on with this sixth Free Gaza expedition is very curious, very curious indeed.
Apparently, the expedition encountered rough seas soon after setting out from Larnaca on Monday afternoon, then returned to port a few hours later. Then, it was explained that there had been some damage to the ship’s generator.
The ship being used for this expedition, Spirit of Humanity, would set sail for Gaza again Tuesday, it was reported —if repairs could be made — despite the continuation into the 18th day of the Israeli Defence Force’s Operation Cast Iron, during which Israel imposed a formal naval blockade on Gaza’s territorial waters (delineated as a “fishing zone”, then as a “zone of economic activity”, in the Oslo accords). See our previous posts here.
The Free Gaza movement website has absolutely no notice about the supposed damage, the return to Cyprus, or the possible second departure on Tuesday — no update at all. Some of the phone contacts listed for information do not answer. Others are unusually close-mouthed.
Only a very few media outlets are reporting anything at all — China’s Xinhua News Agency, and a Taiwan website picked up an AP story from Cyprus about the supposed damage and return to Larnaca for repair. One Cypriot website, and one in Greece, have provided some details. Another one in the United Arab Emirates — www.7days.ae — seems to have the most recent news, from a Dubai-based doctor on board.
The Cypriot website reported that “Coordinator of the mission and Free Gaza Movement representative Vangelis Pissias said that the effort to travel to the Gaza Strip comes after the attack [in the high seas, according to the Free Gaza movement, at the end of December, a few days into the IDF military operation against Gaza] against the movement’s vessel Dignity and after the destructive operation of the Israelis against the people of Gaza. He said that we cannot remain indifferent, adding that their message is that human beings have to help other people when they suffer and they are in pain … [He also] noted that there have been threats against the mission, adding that they have received a note which defines the area which Israel has declared as war zone, approximately 20 nautical miles south of Gaza. Responding to a question, he said that they will try to enter Gaza through the normal way and will not provoke anybody”. This website report added that “Member of Greek opposition PASOK party (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) Sofia Sakorafa said that activists know about the diplomatic note which the Republic of Cyprus has received from Israel to prevent the sailing of the ship and added that the mission was informed by the Cyprus government about the issue“. This report can be read in full here.
The UAE website, 7DAYS, reported that: “Dr Ali Dabbagh was speaking on the phone to 7DAYS when news came through from the Israeli embassy in Cyprus that the navy would use all possible methods to stop the boat from reaching Gaza. Dr Dabbagh, a 52-year-old Dubai-based eye specialist, was standing onboard a Greek-registered ship laden with medical supplies when the Israeli response was announced. He lifted up his mobile phone as the ship’s captain asked if anyone wanted to turn back. ‘They answer is unanimous. Nobody is going to turn back’, he told 7DAYS … Dabbagh rushed to the Cypriot port of Larnaca last week after hearing that the US-based group ‘Free Gaza Movement’ was attempting a second emergency relief mission after it was previously rammed by the Israeli navy. Dr Dabbagh said last night that the group had faxed the Israelis a full list of all passengers and supplies on board “right down to the nitty gritty” … Dr Dabbagh’s wife, Sana, said the Free Gaza Movement ship, The Spirit of Humanity, would likely be reinforced with extra exterior protection before it tries to make it through the Israeli blockade. She said she was deeply worried for her husband but ‘understood completely’ why he wanted to carry out the mission. ‘He is not trying to be a hero. People must understand that. He is just doing the right thing under the circumstances and bring supplies to the people of Gaza’, she said … If Dr Dabbagh reaches Gaza, it will be the first time he will have been there since the 1950s. His Palestinian father was forced to flee the territory with his family after the creation of Israel in 1948″. This report on 7DAYS can be read in full here.
A Cypriot source told me just now that the ship was supposed to sail around 4 or 5 pm on Tuesday, but there is no confirmation about whether or not they actually did. “They didn’t let us know”, he said.
He also said he was informed that the number of persons on board the Spirit of Humanity — if it is sailing tonight — is indeed now fewer than the 34 who set sail yesterday.
UPDATE: Matthew Lee reports from the United Nations on his Inner City Press blog today that “On UN computers, the website of the Free Gaza Movement is blocked. Inner City Press asked about its attempts to deliver aid to Gaza by ship at the UN’s noon briefing on Tuesday… Later in the day, alerted by a UN staff member that the web site had been blocked, Inner City Press typed it in: www.freegaza.org. This results in a message from the ‘ICT Security Unit’ that ‘you have been redirected to this page because the site you are attempting to access is blocked according to the policy as detailed in ST/SGB/2004/15’. This Secretary-General’s Bulletin allows staff ‘limited personal use of ICT resources’ unless these involve ‘pornography or engaging in gambling’ or would ‘compromise the interests or the reputation of the Organization’.”
Matthew Lee adds as a footnote to this post that “At 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday Inner City Press learned that the UN General Assembly will hold its postponed special session on Gaza this Thursday at 10 am. During Tuesday morning’s closed door consultations in the Security Council, France’s Jean-Maurice Ripert said that the General Assembly should be careful to remain consistent with the Council. Why?” This post can be read in full here.
Meanwhile, Iranian radio has reported that an Iranian ship carrying aid to Gaza was turned back by the Israeli navy on Tuesday. Ma’an News Agency in Bethlehem says that the radio reported that “An Iranian ship that was carrying foodstuff and medicine was stopped by the Zionist regime’s navy 20 miles off the coast of Gaza”, and added that “the ship had left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas 13 days earlier, according to Reuters. On Monday night Iran’s foreign minster said the ship had passed through the Egypt’s Port Said and was en route to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip”. Ma’an added that “In a statement on Tuesday morning Israel said its Navy ‘assisted in enforcing the marine closure on the Gaza Strip in preventing the entering of boats that might arrive in the area’.” This report by Ma’an News Agency can be read in full here.
But, Reuters has reported that “Iranian state radio said an Iranian ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip was stopped by Israel’s navy off the coast of the Palestinian territory. An Israeli military spokesman said he had no report of any such encounter”. This Reuters report can be read in full here .
UPDATE: An IDF spokesperson confirmed Wednesday — after earlier dissemination and denial — that the Israel Navy late Tuesday night DID turn away an Iranian ship that was attempting to dock in Gaza, according to Haaretz, which also reported that “After being turned back by the Israel Navy, the ship then tried to unload the supplies in the nearby Egyptian port of el-Arish, but was prevented from doing so by the Egyptian Navy”. This report can be read in full here.
Later, Yaakov Katz — who has excellent sources in Israel’s Defense Ministry — reported more details in the Jerusalem Post: “The Navy intercepted an Iranian ship loaded with medicine, food and clothing destined for Gaza, the IDF said Wednesday. On Tuesday, the boat docked in Port Said, Egypt, but the Egyptians refused to allow it to unload its cargo. Nevertheless, at midnight Tuesday, the boat left ort Sa id and tried to go to Gaza. A Navy Sa’ar 4.5 class ship intercepted the Iranian boat and transmitted a clear message on Channel 16 – the international communication line for ships – that it would not allow it to enter the waters around Gaza. On Wednesday morning, when it was 30 miles off the Gaza coast, the Iranian boat again tried to move towards the Strip, and the Navy again intercepted it, the army said. It then returned to El-Arish, in 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 has been closely tracked by the Israeli navy. Israel has been coordinating all activity regarding the Iranian boat with the Egyptians. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that Iran would do what it can to get the ship to Gaza, state television reported. The head of the humanitarian aid group sponsoring the ship, Ahmad Navabi, said in comments aired on television Wednesday that the Israeli navy approached the cargo ship, Shahed, just 20 miles off the coast of Gaza at dawn and ordered it to turn back.
“An Israeli warship approached our cargo ship and warned us not to approach Gaza. We could see the lights at Gaza coast. We were forced to change route toward an Egyptian port,” Navabi said.
Iranian state television broadcast what they said was a radio exchange between the Israeli navy and the Iranian ship in which the Israelis said: ‘Gaza is closed. Leave the area immediately’. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday Iran has stepped up diplomatic efforts to push for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza, state television reported. ‘In short term, the most important measures are to end (Israeli) assault on Gaza, end the Gaza blockade and recognize the rights of the Gaza people’, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying. Navabi said his group may try to send the humanitarian aid to Gaza through Egypt to Gaza … Iran has already sent a cargo plane filled with 50 tons of aid to Egypt to be sent on to Gaza. This is the first Iranian boat to try to reach Gaza during the siege”. This report can be read in full here.
A Qatari ship and a Libyan ship carrying supplies for Gaza were both turned around by the Israeli Navy, both before the current Israeli military operation in Gaza.
Concern about the situation inside Gaza is mounting to new heights.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) issued the following statement in Ramallah: “The Palestinian leadership has decided to consider Gaza strip as a region of national disaster… where all the efforts and all the capabilities of the Palestinian Authority inside the Palestinian territories and all the efforts and capabilities of the Palestinian people outside the occupied territories will be directed toward the support of our people in Gaza Strip. All projects will be frozen for the sake of supporting our people in Gaza”. This is aimed at addressing the feelings of deep despair among Palestinians evident here in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.
However, the PLO statement then goes on to take a position that favors the itself (as currently composed) and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), at the expense of Hamas: “We believe that all Palestinian forces at this moment should stress on one main issue – their unity on the ground and at the same time, the support of the Egyptian Initiative for putting an end to the Israeli aggression reaching a ceasefire. This will help in moving towards other issues – mainly lifting the siege, opening all the crossings and the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from they occupy in the Gaza Strip”.
The UN Humanitarian Coordinator reported in its daily 17h00 briefing on Tuesday that “The humanitarian crisis is intensifying and the number of Palestinian civilian casualties is increasing. Israeli bombardment is causing extensive destruction to homes and to public infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip and is jeopardizing water, sanitation and medical services. Increasing numbers of Palestinians are fleeing their homes as Israeli forces penetrate deeper into the Gaza Strip. Hospitals are overstretched as medical staff attempt to cope with the high number of casualties, many of whom have multiple injuries. Of particular concern are children, who make up 56 percent of the Gaza population. On 13 January, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its deep concern ‘at the devastating effects that the current military engagement in Gaza is having on children’ … WHO reports that the emergency room of Dorah Paediatric Hospital was directly hit on 12 January … Palestinian Ministry of Health (MoH) figures as of 1600 hours 13 January are 971 Palestinians dead, of whom 311 are children and 76 are women. The number of injured stands at 4,418, of whom 1,549 are children and 652 are women. The MoH reported on 12 January that the number of children fatalities has tripled since the beginning of the ground operation on 3 January (compared to the number of child fatalities from 27 December to 3 January). The danger to medical staff and the difficulty of extracting the injured from collapsed buildings makes proper evacuation and estimation of casualties difficult …
“In response to allegations of the looting of food aid, the humanitarian agencies (UN and partners) involved in the delivery and distribution of food supplies affirm that there has been no reported theft or misuse of these supplies. They emphasize that careful mechanisms for monitoring aid flows are in place, although the ongoing conflict makes such monitoring difficult … Since 3 January, there have been numerous media reports about the alleged use of white phosphorous (WP). Human Rights Watch has stated that while the Israeli army appears to be employing WP as an ‘obscurant’ to hide military operations, ‘WP also has a significant, incidental, incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire. The potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza’s high population density, among the highest in the world.’ The Israeli army has informed Human Rights Watch and reporters that it is not using WP in Gaza …
“The number of people who have fled their homes in Gaza remains unknown, but is estimated in the tens of thousands …
“As of this morning, 60 percent of Gazans are not receiving any power. The rest receive electricity intermittently … On the morning of 13 January, GEDCO [the Gaza electricity company] discovered that its warehouse in Gaza City was hit. It estimates financial losses of at least $400,000, including desperately needed spare parts for the electricity network…
“Many water wells and sewage pumps are still not functioning due to the lack of electricity, diminished fuel supplies to operate back-up generators and lack of spare parts — and the danger in reaching affected areas … 500,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip still do not have access to running water. Even before the current military operation, 80 percent of drinking water in Gaza was not safe for human consumption, according to WHO guidelines. 29,952 bottles of drinking water (1.5 litres each) from UNICEF entered Gaza on 12 January and were provided to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society for distribution [to 1.5 million people]… Sewage continues to flow in the streets in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya. UNRWA was unable to deliver fuel to the Beit Lahia Wastewater Treatment Plant to alleviate pressure on the banks of the sewage lake containing three million cubic metres of raw and partially treated wastewater due to the precarious situation. The sewage lake is in danger of overflowing placing up to 15,000 at risk. CMWU needs urgent approval from the Israeli authorities to assess the impact of wastewater leakage from the Gaza City Wastewater Treatment Plant…
And, the visiting President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jacob Kellenberger, who was in the Gaza Strip today, said that “Both parties must ensure that all victims are cared for rapidly, at all times of day. In particular, the wounded must be evacuated and receive treatment … Injured people cannot wait for days, or even for hours, before being treated. The work of medical personnel must be respected – and this is not negotiable.” Kellenberger said that what he saw in Gaza today “was shocking”. He added: “It is unacceptable to see so many wounded people. Their lives must be spared and the security of those who care for them guaranteed.”
On Wednesday (14 January), the ICRC says, *Mr Kellenberger will visit Sderot in southern Israel, where civilians are enduring rocket attacks from Gaza, and meet with Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue teams. He will also hold talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and President Mahmud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority”.
Thanks to Sam Bahour for pointing to this: One personal testimony from Gaza, broadcast today in The Story, a radio program produced at North Carolina Public Radio (WUNC). and hosted by Dick Gordon. It is co-produced and distributed by American Public Media. This program can be heard by clicking here.
The speaker is Maha Mehanna, a freelance Arabic-English translator based in Al-Rimal — an area that used to be a very nice area of Gaza City:
“Since the start of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, Israeli warplanes have been bombing and shelling several locations in the area near our house, very near our house. With each bombardment, we felt our house shake like an earthquake and windows break, not to mention our utter fear and horror. We have not had any electricity for 17 days now, but this was something we got used to, since, before the Israeli aggression, for nearly 18 months, we lived with only 4-6 hours of electricity a day, many times only having it after 3:00AM.
“We have 13 young children at home, and all of my family, including my brothers and their families, are staying with us in one crowded room at our home downstairs, in the dark and the cold, to seek shelter. We prefer to die all together if a missile would strike. My younger nephews and nieces are very scared all of the time and don’t sleep well. They refuse to go to the toilet on their own, we take turns accompanying them. The bombings continue, day and night, and we don’t stop feeling scared. We hardly get any sleep …
“As if the bombings were not enough, we also receive daily recorded phone calls from the IDF to intimidate and terrorize us. In these recorded calls, the IDF asks us to follow their instructions and obey their orders for our own safety. They also say that they don’t target us, but that they target Hamas militants only. The IDF also asks us to stay away from Hamas elements and to avoid dealing with them or helping them and the caller warns us not to allow them use our homes or residential areas. The IDF also said in one of the recorded calls that “this is not a nightmare, this is the hell the Hamas leadership brought to you,” which made us not know if we are being targeted or not. In their latest recorded call this evening, the caller said that they will escalate their military operations in Gaza and that we should prepare ourselves for the next stage and keep following their instructions and obeying their orders. How does one prepare to be a victim of a war crime?
“We also receive calls from the Israeli intelligence, in good Arabic, pretending to be sympathetic Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Algerians, Sudanese or Libyans. After expressing horror at the Israeli war and asking about the safety of our family, the callers ask us about local conditions, whether the family supports Hamas and if there are fighters in the building or the neighborhood.
“To add insult to injury, the warplanes also drop leaflets in Arabic all over the Gaza Strip to intimidate and terrorize Gazans even more. In one of the leaflets, the IDF orders people to leave their areas immediately because they claim they have been forced to respond immediately and operate in their residential area due to the terrorist activity that terrorist elements are carrying out from those areas. The irony is that the warplanes are dropping such leaflets everywhere in Gaza, and anyone who reads them thinks that their areas are targeted. This has created mass hysteria. And even if they felt terrorized and intimidated and decided to follow the IDF orders and evacuate their areas, where can they go? Nowhere is safe in Gaza…”