Game Not Yet Over: Flotilla Considers Next Moves

By Richard Lightbown

In order to set the context I would like to begin by stating a few facts about Gaza:

– The UNRWA annual report for 2010 found that the unemployment rate in Gaza is 45.2 per cent, which is believed to be the highest in the world.

– For those in work the purchasing power of average monthly wages fell by 7.9 per cent during the last half of 2010. Purchasing power of workers has declined by 34.5 per cent since 2006.

– It is estimated by OCHA that 300,000 Gazans live in abject poverty, subsisting on less than $1 per day.

– Ninety-five per cent of the water supply is considered unsafe for human consumption.

– In June 2011 the Deputy Health Minister of Gaza reported a major crisis in the health service of the territory which was receiving only one third of the required medicines and medical supplies. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that 178 types of medication including many necessary antibiotics have run out and that 123 types of necessary medical supplies were unavailable to various departments. On 13 June 2011 it reported that the Gaza Strip had not been supplied with medications and medical needs since the previous February. A Norwegian study in that month found that 100 out of 260 cancer patients were unable to receive treatment because the necessary drugs were unavailable.

– Electricity supply is insufficient for the territory, resulting in frequent blackouts. OCHA reported in mid-2010 that less than half of the primary health centres were equipped with back-up generators: three of which were out of commission and while a further eight centres were frequently out of fuel. This left a total of 15 centres out of 57 with back-up electricity supply. This situation is particularly dangerous for dialysis patients who have to be urgently disconnected from treatment during power cuts in order to avoid the formation of blood clots.

– On 23 June 2011 the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that “The easing of the closure in June 2010 has had little impact on the daily lives of the residents in Gaza who continue to face many challenges as a result of the collapse of previously prosperous branches of the economy.”

This extreme situation has been brought about by the Israeli closure policy on the Gaza Strip, to which the response of the international community has been woefully inadequate. On 2 July for example the Middle East Quartet merely described the desperate humanitarian crisis in Gaza as “unsustainable conditions facing the civilian population”. The statement went on to note the “improved conditions over the last year, including a marked increase in the range and scope of goods and materials moving into Gaza, an increase in international project activity, and the facilitation of some exports.”

“Some exports” indeed! The Gisha organization reported on 29 June that not a single truckload of export goods had left Gaza since 12 May. This is despite Israel being a signatory to the 2005 Crossings Agreement providing for up to 400 truckloads of Gazan exports per day to be processed through the Karni Crossing by the end of 2006. In other words, the Crossings Agreement had anticipated that Gaza would have been able to export up to 19,000 truckloads of produce (amounting  perhaps to in excess of 250,000 tons) during this recent 48 day period during which no exports have in fact been permitted.

Meanwhile the total amount of goods passing into Gaza via Kerom Shalom Crossing has been the equivalent of about 2.6 kilograms per person per day for the twelve months since restrictions were eased in August 2010. Not only is this “unsustainable“, but it is totally insufficient for the maintenance of a healthy economy, which has been the intention of the Israeli Government all along of course.

This is the reality, denied by world political leaders who know the facts better than anyone, that has led to the formation of yet another flotilla for Gaza. The response to this initiative has been both nefarious yet predictable. Israeli Government spokespersons have described the Gaza-bound flotilla aid ships as being intended to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself, and a violation of Israeli law. Victoria Nuland from the US State Department called the organizer’s actions “irresponsible and provocative”. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called the flotilla “provocative” in a parliamentary reply on 29 June. The Middle East Quartet and the UN Secretary-General suggested that assistance and goods for Gaza should be channelled through “legitimate crossings” and “established channels“.

But to what end would they do this Mr Ban? It would appear that all the construction materials from the last flotilla, amounting to more than half of the 10,000 ton cargo, has never arrived in Gaza. Some of the cargo from that flotilla was reported to have been sent to landfill in the Negev Desert. It would also appear that the sewage pipes which the MV ‘Spirit of Rachel Corrie’ tried to deliver to Gaza are lying in a warehouse in Egypt instead . Meanwhile spare parts legally purchased by Palestinian utilities for the electricity, sewage and water systems in Gaza are deliberately delayed by Israeli bureaucrats at these “legitimate crossings“, while insult is added to injury by charging for the storage of the same items in Israeli warehouses. Where is the “legitimacy” of any of this?

And why do the Quartet and EU Foreign Affairs Representative Baroness Ashdown insist on linking the Gaza flotilla to appeals for the release of Gilad Shalit? The Israeli prisoner of war has indeed been deprived of his human rights for a very long time now. Mr Shalit however is not a child, neither has there ever been any suggestion that he has been tortured or sexually abused. In October 2010 the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoner’s Affairs reported that 6,700 Palestinians were held in Israeli custody, of whom 283 were children and 35 were women. A total of 192 were imprisoned without charge, while 820 were serving life sentences. A long catalogue of institutional abuse reported by DCI/Palestine includes sexual abuse and electric shock treatment used against Palestinian children in Israeli custody. (On 29 June 2011 at a meeting in the British House of Commons, Lord Alf Dubs was heckled by a journalist from Israel Radio when he described personally seeing two teenage boys, one of them bewildered and crying, in leg shackles, without legal representation or family support, being brought before a high security military court in the West Bank.) Where is the reference to any of this in international diplomatic comment on the Gaza flotilla?

The flotilla is in fact being demonised and harassed by an orchestrated campaign from Israel that is seriously worried that the bad publicity of last year will be repeated this time around. Then, in a psychopathic attack on the last flotilla the Israeli government managed to do what the Free Gaza Movement had failed to do for two years, by publicising the attempts to break the illegal siege of Gaza across the front pages of the world’s media. Attempts to stop the current flotilla have been more subtle, and so far more successful. Techniques used on the ‘Rachel Corrie’ to disable the propeller have again been used against the ships from Ireland and Sweden. Lies have been put about by Israeli diplomats and others, asserting that there are links between the flotilla and terrorism, that the flotilla is unnecessary, that Israel is the victim in all this and is only doing what any reasonable state would do in the same circumstances. The bigger the lie the better of course.  Thus the Consul General in New York for example declared to Amy Goodman that the entire southern region of Israel has been paralysed by 45,000 rockets that have been fired at it since 2005. At the same time he responded to several questions by saying that he did not have details of events happening in the Mediterranean, and cut short the interview to conveniently go to another appointment.

This time around there has also been more subtle harassment, although an attempt to frighten off journalists by threatening them with a ten-year expulsion from Israel was quickly retracted as a counterproductive measure. More insidious however has been the activities of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center which is being backed by the Christian Zionist leader John Hagee (who on his own account has sent letters to Americans travelling to Gaza to tell them their voyage could be in violation of US criminal law). Shurat HaDin claims to be a civil rights organization and a world leader in combating terrorist organizations, although Israeli state terror does not seem to one of its targeted activities. Instead the centre has targeted maritime insurance companies, informing them that they could be legally liable for any future terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas. It also submitted a claim to the Greek Coast Guard suggesting that seven of the ships might have been lacking insurance or were improperly registered. (One French company is understood to have declined to insure a boat that was due to join the flotilla from Marseilles, as a result of this mischief.) The global satellite company INMARSAT was also told that is might be liable to massive damages and criminal prosecution if it were to provide “communication services to ships used by suspected terror organizations in the Gaza flotilla”.

But the biggest difficulties faced so far by the ships has been the activities of the Greek and Turkish governments along with those of the Republic of Cyprus. Or as Foreign Minister Lieberman put it “the Quartet, the governments of Greece and Cyprus object to the flotilla, understand the needs of Israel, and are acting effectively.“ Exactly what manoeuvres have occurred behind the scenes can only be speculated on. In the case of Turkey the charity IHH withdrew its support and its ships in June citing more urgent concerns in Syria resulting from the unrest there. Political input has almost certainly been involved here although rumours that the ruling AKP party has been bribed by American inducements to support Turkey as mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks sound far-fetched. Reports in Debkafile that Turkey may be considering an invasion of western Syria in order to set up refugee camps there and prevent the influx of more than 100,000 refugees fleeing persecution in Syria sound more credible. There are already in the region of 30,000 people in Turkey who have fled Syria and creating a safe haven for them in their own country would be an easier proposition for Turkey to deal with. However invading the sovereign territory of another country would need the support of powerful friends, particularly that of the United States, and this would inevitably come at a price. So it would seem possible that the sudden withdrawal of the Mavi Marmara from the flotilla did indeed have some connection with events in Syria and humanitarian concerns for the people there.

The behaviour of Greece has been easier to decipher. The economic problems besetting the country mean that the government there is unlikely to want to fall foul of Israel or its friends in North America and Europe. Natural antipathy between Turkey and Greece have also meant that as Turkish relations with Israel have cooled in the last two years, diplomatic opportunities for Greece have improved. In response the government of Mr Netanyahu has been making overtures to European leaders asking them to provide financial aid to their new ally. As a result Mr Netanyahu was able to learn on Thursday that the Greek government would be imposing a ban the following day preventing the flotilla from sailing to Gaza from its ports. The threatened use of Greek commandos against the rebellion of the US ship ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and the mistreatment of her master John Klusmer, who is reported to be held in shocking conditions in jail while being denied food and water and a visit from the US embassy, indicate that the Greek government is serious in applying this ban.

The compromise offer to ship the cargos in Greek ships to a port in either Israel or Egypt for shipment to Gaza under UN supervision is not an attractive one. While warmly embraced by the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem it does not address the siege of Gaza and would merely let Israel off the hook. It is unlikely to be accepted, and a better alternative may yet be available possibly through a legal challenge. Professor Richard Falk, the specialist in international law has declared "Greece has no right to detain foreign-flagged ships in its ports other than for purposes of assuring seaworthiness via timely inspection. And they cannot interfere with ‘innocent passage’ through their territorial waters, and this passage is definitely innocent."

With ships threatening to run for the high seas (possibly aided by sympathetic harbour masters),the possibility of a legal challenge, and one French boat already on the high seas, destination Gaza, the game of chess may not yet be over. Mr Netanyahu may have won the first round, but his government faces determined opponents who are not only convinced of the righteousness of their cause, but also backed by an increasing body of public opinion that is likely to favour the courageous underdog. The spectre of an Israeli public relations disaster may not yet be over, and the hope still remains that the bureaucrats in the US and Europe may be shown that power of the people can still be a match for immoral political expediency.

– Richard Lightbown is a researcher and writer. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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