UPDATED: The sixth Free Gaza expedition that set off last night on what it called a “mission of mercy” to Gaza from the port of Larnaca in Cyprus has been interdicted and attacked on the high seas this morning, the group says.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the ship was escorted back to Cypriot territorial waters, but it was later reported that the Israeli Navy only escorted the vessel out of Israeli waters — despite the Free Gaza denial that it had entered Israel’s maritime space in the first place.
It was not known during most of the day where the boat was, but at night it was reported to have entered the southern Lebanese port of Tyre. Damage to the front of the boat was visible from television shots.
“Let’s call it as it is. Our boat was rammed three times, twice in the front and once on the side,” according to Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Georgia, and the 2008 Green Party presidential candidate, who was on board the Free Gaza ship and intended to travel to Gaza to assess the ongoing conflict. She told the Associated Press (AP) that Israeli patrol boats “tracked us for about 30 minutes”.
And she told the Agence France Presse (AFP)that what had happened was “absolutely harrowing, but it pales in comparison to what the people in Gaza are experiencing right now.”
McKinney said that “All we want to do is deliver medical supplies… This is the first time that I am aware of that a vessel was attacked for no reason by Israelis.”
According to earlier information posted on the Free Gaza website, “The reports from the passengers and journalists on board is that she is taking on water and appears to have engine problems. When attacked, the Dignity was clearly in international waters, 90 miles off the coast of Gaza. The gunboats also fired their machine guns into the water in an attempt to stop the mercy ship from getting to Gaza. As the boat limps toward Lebanon, passengers have been in contact with the Lebanese government who have said the captain has permission to dock and are willing lend assistance if needed. Cyprus sea rescue has also been in touch, and has offered assistance as well … On board the boat are doctors traveling to this impoverished slice of the Mediterranean to provide badly-needed relief at the hospitals there. The crew and passengers were also hoping to take wounded out for treatment, since the hospitals are not coping. In addition, the Dignity was carrying 3 tons of medical supplies at the request of the doctors in Gaza … Israel thumbs its nose in the face of maritime law by attacking a human rights boat in international waters and has put all of these human rights observers at risk. At no time was the Dignity ever close to Israeli waters. They clearly identified themselves and the Israeli attack was willful and criminal”.
A source in Cyprus said that Tuesday morning that the Free Gaza ship was being escorted by Israeli Naval vessels — “and I do not think they will let the ship sink”, he added.
At the time of the interdiction, the Free Gaza ship, the SS Dignity, was reportedly somewhere offshore Haifa, the older and most northern of Israel’s two major port facilities, near Lebanon, according to other news broadcasts.
[Israel’s other major port is Ashdod, in the south of the country, not far from Gaza. One Israeli was killed on Monday in Ashdod, by a missile fired by Palestinians in Gaza, which is some 23 miles away. Ashdod was hit for the first time ever by a missile strike on Sunday.]
AFP later reported that Paul Larudee, one of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, said the Dignity had been ‘surrounded’ in international waters about 70 kilometers (45 miles) off the Israeli coast.
The Free Gaza website said that “The Dignity has been surrounded by at least half-a-dozen Israeli warships. They are firing live ammunition around the Dignity, and one of the warships has rammed the civilian craft causing an unknown amount of damage. Contrary to international maritime law, the Israelis are actively preventing the Dignity from approaching Gaza or finding safe haven in either Egypt or Lebanon. Instead, the Israeli navy is demanding that the Dignity return to Cyprus – despite the fact that the ship does not carry enough fuel to do so”.
The ship is registered in Gibraltar, and was thus sailing under the British flag.
Intriguingly, Haaretz has just posted a report by correspondent Barak Ravid, stating that Britain is working with France on “forcing a cease-fire on Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip”. The report added that “A senior government source in Jerusalem said the initiative would be presented at a emergency session of the European Union’s foreign ministers in Paris. [n.b. — but it does not say when.] By going through the EU, a possible U.S. objection in the United Nations Security Council could be avoided — but this report says that U.S. Condoleezza Rice has been consulted, and has expressed support”.
In a report aired on CNN, according to the Free Gaza group, the Israeli Navy initially claimed “they thought it was a terrorist boat” — despite all the publicity that the Free Gaza organization gives to its activities, and despite its own advance communications to various Israeli governmental authorities about each expedition.
A Reuters story published on the Haaretz website that “[Yigal] Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the boat failed to respond to Israeli naval radio contact, and that an Israeli vessel ‘clashed with the ship’. Free Gaza Movement told Reuters their boat, carrying 3.5 tons of medical aid with 16 people aboard, was rammed and shot at while in international waters about 70-80 miles off Gaza by Israeli naval vessel. Palmor denied there had been any shooting although the two ships made ‘physical contact’. He said no one had been hurt and that the Israeli ship escorted the aid boat back to Cypriot territorial waters”.
According to the AFP report, however, “the boat’s captain, Briton Denis Healey, 54, said on arriving in Tyre that the Israeli Navy had made ‘no contact’ with the Dignity. ‘Two Israeli gunboats were on our port side distracting us with their bright lights when another Israeli gunboat with its lights turned off rammed us from the front. I think they were distracting us from the port side … “The boat initially took in a lot of water,” added Healey … The Israeli spokesman accused the international activists of “seeking provocation more than ever.”
An article published earlier in the day on YNet, written by Roni Sofer, called what happened an “incident” and reported that “The foreign ship was notified that it was crossing into a closed military zone and ordered to retreat, but the captain did not stop and collided with the Israeli missile ship … Early Tuesday morning navy ships were called to stop a ship belonging to the International Solidarity Movement, which is recognized in Israel as a pro-Palestinian organization. The Israelis contacted the ship’s captain through the radio and ordered the ship to turn back. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the captain of the aid boat carrying several journalists attempted to evade one of the Israeli missile ships. The Israeli ship stopped, but a collision could not be avoided. Immediately after the incident the aid ship turned back. The Israeli naval ship offered to assist the passengers of the aid ship, who declined the offer. Israel then escorted the damaged ship until it exited the State’s territorial waters”.
The YNet report added that “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said, ‘While it was just another one of the kind of ships that we have already seen, the situation in Gaza is different now. The area was declared a closed military zone. The fact that the ship was carrying journalists, including a CNN crew that has already broadcasted live three times, proves that this was a provocation on the part of the media. The ship’s passengers gave a different version of the story. Angela Goldfried of the Free Gaza Movement, who was in contact with passengers of the boat told Ynet, ‘Our ship was circled by 11 navy ships that fired at it and collided with it in international waters. We contacted the navy. They said the ship violated the Israeli border, but they cannot claim it’s the Israeli border when it’s not. According to Goldfried, the passengers on board the ship included Al-Jazeera and CNN journalists …” This article can be read in full on YNet here.
It was reported that the Cypriot authorities had been very reluctant to allow the Free Gaza boat — or any ship — to sail in the direction of Israel or Gaza while the IDF attacks on Gaza are continuing, but the expedition’s departure was eventually allowed.
Then, according to the Free Gaza movement: “At approximately 5am (UST – this should be about 8am in Jerusalem), well out in international waters, Israeli warships began surrounding the Dignity, threatening the ship. At 6:45am (UST) we were able to establish brief contact with the crew and were told that the ship had been rammed by the Israeli Navy in international waters, and that the Israelis were preventing the ship from finding safe harbor. We heard heavy gunfire in the background before all contact was lost with the Dignity”.
The Free Gaza group also reported that “The Dignity departed from Larnaca Port in Cyprus at 7pm (UST) on Monday 29 December, bound for war-devastated Gaza with a cargo of over 3 tons of desperately needed medical supplies donated by the people of Cyprus. At our request, the ship was searched by Cypriot Port authorities prior to departure, to certify that there was nothing “threatening” aboard – only emergency medical supplies.”
Also among the expedition’s 15 civilian passengers is Dr. Elena Theoharous, who is both is a surgeon and a Member of the Cypriot Parliament, and who was reportedly “traveling to Gaza to assess the ongoing conflict, assist with humanitarian relief efforts, and volunteer in hospitals”, according to information on the Free Gaza website website (www.freegaza.org).
Three Al-Jazeera journalists are also on board the Dignity.
A group of Israeli-based foreign journalists also explored the possibility of sailing in their own chartered boat to get into Gaza to report on the situation there, particularly since Israel launched the present major attack on Saturday — especially as the IDF has kept the Erez Crossing closed to journalists for much of the past two months.
But, this group did not want to join the Free Gaza expedition, one of the journalists told me yesterday — as some of them were said to have had objections to joining the Free Gaza expedition, apparently for political and ideological reasons, and also apparently to preserve what they considered journalistic integrity.
[The Israel-based journalists exploring an alternative option were trying to get in to report on the situation inside Gaza, and were apparently not primarily interested in the Free Gaza experience. It would not, or should not, however, be considered either illegitimate or unprofessional for Al-Jazeera journalists on board to report on what is happening during the expedition, which is a part of this overall news story.]
The Foreign Press Association in Israel is reporting this morning in an email message to its membership that “The Erez Crossing remains closed to journalists today. Members are reminded of the FPA petition to the High Court which will be heard at 9.30 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday)”. The FPA is asking Israel’s Supreme Court to order that foreign journalists be allowed to enter Gaza immediately in order to perform their journalistic functions and duties, and carry out their work.
In an open letter published on December 29th, the FPA wrote that “In an unprecedented restriction of press freedom The Gaza Strip has been closed to the foreign press. As a result the world´s media is unable to accurately report on events inside Gaza at this critical time. Despite our protests the Israelis authorities have refused to let journalists in. Our organization has over 400 members representing the world´s leading newspapers, tv and radio stations. It has been defending the interests of press freedom in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for over 50 years. Never before have journalists been prevented from doing their work in this way. We believe it is vital that journalists be allowed to find out for themselves what is going on in Gaza. Israel controls access to Gaza. Israel must allow professional journalists access to this important story”.
Israeli journalist Amira Hass, a long-time correspondent of Haaretz who lived in Gaza for three years, before moving to Ramallah in 1997, was a passenger on board the third Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus — becoming the first Israeli journalist who was able to enter the Gaza Strip in over two years. She said she had intended to remain in Gaza until the end of January, but was deported from Gaza by order of Hamas security, on the grounds that there were security threats to her life. She was escorted to the Erez land border crossing with Israel, where she was promptly arrested and jailed for violating the Israeli ban on Israelis entering Gaza, and she still faces a court hearing on the charge against her.
The IDF spokesperson reported Tuesday morning that “Israeli air and naval forces attacked dozens of Hamas targets throughout the Gaza Strip during the early morning hours on Tuesday. The targets included three buildings in the Hamas government complex in the Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood, Hamas training camps and outposts, stations held by the Islamist group’s naval force, a vehicle transporting a stockpile of Grad missiles, rocket launchers, a weaponry manufacturing facility and sites used as headquarters by terror cells”.
With naval attacks now added to the air attacks by Israel on Gaza, it is hard to see how the sixth Free Gaza expedition could have made it into Gaza port, in any case. The port, small and undeveloped as it is, used mainly by Gazan fisherman, was hit from the air during the first Israeli strikes on Saturday.