Photo: Nidal Elkhairy
GAZA—On the evening of May 30, 2010, I awoke to a text message from a Gaza-based international activist saying that the Freedom Flotilla was being instructed by the Israeli Navy to halt its course to the Gaza Strip. The vessels were more than 70 miles from Gaza’s coast.
I wasn’t surprised. In every one of the nine Free Gaza trips from Cyprus to Gaza, the Israeli Navy commanded boats in international or Palestinian waters to turn around. Five voyages succeeded in ignoring the Israeli Navy’s threats and sailing on through international waters into Palestine.
Earlier that day, Gaza had been preparing for the arrival of the flotilla. A sea demonstration had ventured a couple of kilometres out; an Israeli gunboat patrolled another kilometre or so out and had been shooting on some poor fishing trawler.
In the morning of May 31, 2010, I awoke to text messages saying the boat had been attacked by the Israeli Navy. I wasn’t surprised. In December, 2008, as Israel pounded Gaza from the air, land and sea in a 23-day assault, Israeli gunboats rammed a Free Gaza vessel.
“The gunboats gave us no warning… They rammed us three times, hitting the side of the boat hard. We began taking on water and, for a few minutes, we all feared for our lives,” said Free Gaza co-ordinator Caoimhe Butterly, who was on board during the 2008 attack.
Images of the latest attack on the Freedom Flotilla showed Israeli commandos dropping from military helicopters and firing on the passengers. Scenes of shocked faces carrying the dead and the injured emerged from the chaos.
“The attack on the Mavi Marmara [vessel] came in an instant: they attacked it with 12 or 13 attack boats and also with commandos from helicopters. We heard the gunshots over our portable radio handsets, which we used to communicate with the Mavi Marmara, because our ship communication system was disrupted. There were three or four helicopters also used in the attack. We were told by [the] Mavi Marmara their crew and civilians were being shot at and windows and doors were being broken by Israelis,” said Kutlu Tiryaki, captain of another vessel in the flotilla, as reported by The Guardian.
This latest brutality, in which elite Israeli commandos opened fire on peace and justice activists on at least two of vessels and according to some estimates killed 19 and injured up to 60, was criminal but not shocking. That the Israeli commandos did so in international waters, far from Israel’s coastline and jurisdiction, was also not shocking.
Utmost respect for the killed and injured aside, I am not surprised.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, said the flotilla was carefully inspected before departure: “I want to say to the world, to the heads of state and the governments, that these boats that left from Turkey and other countries were checked in a strict way under the framework of the rules of international navigation and were only loaded with humanitarian aid.”
There was no-one on board “other than civilian volunteers” he said.
Given that Israeli commandos boarded the vessels in international waters, and if, as the activists on board allege, the soldiers fired first with live ammunition—not rubber-coated bullets or tear gas—Israel’s self-defence spin is simply not credible.
Having borne witness to Israeli attacks on clearly-marked medics (16 emergency workers killed by Israeli soldiers) and civilians (nearly 1500 Palestinians killed, the vast majority of whom were non-combatants) during the War on Gaza in December 2008, as well as the variety of war crimes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, little surprises me now.
Having watched an Israeli soldier target an unarmed youth in his femoral artery because the young man protested the Israeli-imposed no-go zone, I’m not surprised by any Israeli action. Ahmed Deeb, 21, bled to death when the bullet exploded in his thigh.
On a daily basis, Israeli soldiers shell and fire on unarmed Palestinian civilians. Accompanying fishermen and farmers, I have seen and experienced this first-hand. I’m no longer surprised, although at first it was unimaginable: they are firing live ammunition on visibly unarmed people, I said. There are children here, older men and women. What threat do these people pose, I wondered.
The United Nations (UN) reports that two fishermen have been killed and 12 injured since January, 2009 alone, and these are only the reported cases.
In the border regions, unarmed farmers, workers and residents face daily attacks from Israeli soldiers enforcing a brutal no-go zone well beyond the 300 metres Israeli authorities say is off-limits. Tens have been killed and injured by these Israeli attacks.
But attacks are not limited to Palestinians working on Gaza’s waters and border region lands. Under a siege imposed shortly after Hamas was elected in 2006 and tightened brutally since mid-2007, all of Gaza’s 1.5 million suffer. The health sector has been decimated: the Israeli war on Gaza destroyed or damaged more than half of Gaza’s hospitals while the Israeli-Egyptian-international siege prevents 141 vital medicines from entering, and has led to more than 360 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.
Gaza’s sewage and sanitation systems are collapsing; their alarming state has been well-documented by the UN, World Health Organization (WHO) and other international organizations.
Ninety-eight per cent of industry has been shut down, contributing to unemployment levels of roughly 50 per cent and an increase in the number of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, as well as the number of desperate Gazans willing to work in them.
Without the siege on Gaza, the more than 1,000 tunnels would have no market for the goods they bring in daily. The more than 150 workers killed in the tunnels (by Israeli bombing, tunnel collapses, electrocution, Egyptian gassing and bombing) would have had alternative employment options.
Malnutrition is rife, particularly among children, with anaemia and growth stunting on the rise at a drastic rate.
Israeli officials claim that there is no “humanitarian crisis” as they admit more than enough food aid for each person. However, this aid is largely in the form of carbohydrates, leaving families deficient in protein and vitamins. The caloric requirements Israel authorizes per Palestinian in Gaza perpetuate the sentiment of Israeli governmental adviser Dov Weisglass who sought to “put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
The farmers and fishermen targeted by Israeli soldiers are providers of produce and protein not permitted through Israel’s borders. Their harvest would enable Palestinians in Gaza to stave off slow starvation. Roughly one-third of Gaza’s agricultural land lies in the region Israel unilaterally deems and mortally enforces as off-limits.
When I sailed to Gaza in November 2008 with the third Free Gaza voyage, I knew there was an element of risk: either we wouldn’t reach Gaza or we would be abducted by the Israeli navy. It was a risk worth taking but above all it was a small risk compared to the dangers Palestinians are exposed to every day.
Participants of the Freedom Flotilla, comprising nine vessels and nearly 700 people from over 20 countries, knew there was a significant risk the Israeli navy would attack or halt their boats.
And while the Freedom Flotilla carried needed construction supplies as well as toys, sweets and books for children, the significance of sailing to Gaza to break through the isolation and penetrate the siege cannot be overemphasized.
The siege, as crippling and cruel as it is, is about more than an engineered humanitarian, social and economic catastrophe. It is about the right to self-determination, the right to open borders and to freedom of movement.
The world should question not only the killing of non-threatening civilians in international waters, but also the validity of Israel’s jurisdiction in the whole matter. Does Israel occupy Gaza, or not? If so, why are malnutrition and poverty levels rising in the Gaza Strip?
Huwaida Arraf, abducted from international waters, said previously that “[w]hen states and the international bodies responsible for taking action to stop such atrocities chose to be impotent, then we—the citizens of the world—must act. Our common humanity demands nothing less.”