By Stuart Littlewood – London
On Tuesday the Israeli navy, in a blatant act of piracy on the high seas, assaulted the vessel ‘Spirit of Humanity’ and abducted six British nationals who were taking part in a voyage of mercy. The tiny unarmed ship was bringing a humanitarian cargo of medicines, children’s toys and reconstruction materials to the devastated people of Gaza.
Israel’s murderous 22-day offensive last December/January left more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches damaged or destroyed. The International Committee of the Red Cross says the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza are "trapped in despair", unable to rebuild their lives because Israel, having wantonly wrecked their civil society and infrastructure, is blocking efforts to bring in the necessary repair materials. Those on board the ‘Spirit of Humanity’ were acting in accord with donors’ pledges of $4.5 billion for reconstruction and rehabilitation and US President Obama’s request to Israel to let those supplies pass.
The mercy ship sailed from Larnaca, Cyprus, with a crew of 21 human rights activists, humanitarian workers and journalists from 11 different countries, including Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and former US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. In the early hours of Tuesday morning Israeli warships surrounded it and threatened to open fire if the crew didn’t turn back. When they refused to be intimidated, the Israelis jammed their instrumentation and blocked their GPS, radar, and navigation systems, putting all lives at risk.
The ship had been searched and given security clearance by the Port Authorities in Cyprus before sailing, and posed no threat.
Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, says the seizing of the ‘Spirit of Humanity’ is unlawful and the continuing blockade of Gaza a crime against humanity. Yes, yes, Mr. Falk. But the question as always is, what is your paralytic, useless organization doing about it? Or is hand-wringing all it’s good for?
Many here, including myself, immediately wrote to David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, about the outrage. Two days later I called the Palestine desk at the Foreign Office in London. The person I spoke to sounded uncomfortable having to trot out the same old gobbledigook about "working hard to resolve the problem" and "doing all we can". He said the six Brits were in Israeli custody and nobody was sure where exactly the incident took place. However, the vessel was fitted with a SPOT GPS tracker, so the system should have a record of their position when attacked.
The real problem, as I suggested, is that Israel dares to kidnap Brits on the high seas and doesn’t fear the consequences – no doubt confident there won’t be any. I was reminded that Israel had issued warnings (and so had the Foreign Office) not to travel in that area. What area? Mustn’t one travel in international waters?
The spokesman assured me that progress was being made. There was "movement" on getting humanitarian supplies into Gaza, but I pointed out that nobody had seen any evidence of Israel conforming with international law and Geneva Conventions. He claimed there was also "movement" on halting settlements on occupied territory, although I observed that the Israelis had just OK’d more illegal building.
I also reminded him about the ramming of the MV ‘Dignity’ on a similar mission by an Israeli gunboat on 30 December, 53 miles from shore, and how people here were still hopping mad that nothing had been done about it. The vessel, with 16 on board, was badly damaged and had to limp to a safe Lebanese port. As far as I know, there was never an offer of compensation and no demand from London. As usual, somebody else had to pick up the tab for Israel’s unbridled destruction.
The ‘Dignity’ had a cargo of 3.5 tonnes of medical supplies, the majority donated by the Cyprus government, and a British skipper and a Greek mate. It carried fourteen passengers, one of whom was Cynthia McKinney. There were also two surgeons and a Palestinian physician. A friend of mine was among them and wrote this chilling account of the attack:
"At 04.55 hrs EMT on 30 December, searchlights appeared astern. There were two Israeli gunboats. They came abreast, circled and stayed with us. These boats can do over 45 knots, carry ten tonnes of fuel and have sophisticated weapon systems including Hellfire missiles. Tracer bullets were fired skywards, forming ellipses, and flares put up. At 05.30 hrs approximately, one gunboat was playing its searchlight on the port side of ‘Dignity’. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash at the bow, and then another almost simultaneously, and another on the port beam… The bow dipped and it seemed the boat was breaking up. It was dark, the wind force was 4 to 5 and there was a 10ft sea. The master shouted ‘we have been rammed’. It was feared the boat would sink. He broadcast a Mayday distress signal; there was no response.
“Cynthia McKinney and Caoimhe Butterly could not swim; the life jackets were rapidly deployed to all. The hull was taking water but bilge pumps were working. The first words from a commander of one of the gun boats came over the radio. First there was the accusation that the ship’s company was involved with terrorists and that it was subversive. Then there came the threat to shoot. The master was forbidden from making for Gaza or further south to El Arish in Egypt. He was ordered to return to Larnaca – about 160 miles, even though the boat was badly damaged and the Israeli did not know whether there was sufficient fuel, which there was not. He set a northerly course and the boat stayed buoyant in a moderating sea. A crew member arranged with the Lebanese authorities for a safe harbour in Sour (Tyre) where jubilant crowds thronged the quays. A UNIFIL ship came out to escort us and the Israeli gunboats, which were following, fell back.
"Was there lethal intent? A gunboat came out of the black of night with no lights showing whilst a searchlight from the other gun boat displayed our port hull as its target. It would have approached at about 30 degrees to the Dignity’s port and at speed. The intention to sink the Dignity and thus to drown its company was clear. If the hull had been GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) it would have shattered and the boat would have sunk like a stone 53 nautical miles off Haifa. Fortunately, the hull was constructed of marine ply with timber ribs and survived…. The ship’s company were repatriated except for a resolute Scot, Theresa McDermott. She was imprisoned in Ramleh gaol. When the British Consulate in Israel was contacted for assistance in finding Teresa, staff refused to help locate her saying they couldn’t provide assistance to a UK citizen unless she personally requested it. Teresa was released after six days, her ‘crime’ probably being a member of the International Solidarity Campaign like Rachel Corrie before her."
My written question to Mr Miliband was simply this: "Why isn’t Her Majesty’s Government providing the mercy ship ‘Spirit of Humanity’ with an escort to protect against the unlawful, piratical interference and threat to life by the Israeli navy? There have been repeated incidents of harassment, damage, theft and armed aggression on the high seas or in Palestinian waters by the Israeli regime against unarmed vessels".
The British government has loudly pledged Royal Navy help to stop the "smuggling" of arms to the Gaza resistance but won’t protect Gaza’s fishermen from being fired on by Israeli marauders while trying to earn their living. And evidently the government can’t be bothered to protect our own people going about their lawful business.
But, sure enough, they kicked up an almighty fuss when Iran nabbed 15 British sailors two years ago for allegedly straying into Iranian waters.
For our sins we are saddled with a foreign secretary who calls for Israeli tank crewman Gilad Shalit’s release but not the release of 11,000 Palestinian civilians – some of them women and children – rotting in Israeli jails. On 25 June Miliband said: ‘Today is the third anniversary of the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. Both British Ministers and the British Ambassador in Israel have had repeated contact with Gilad’s family and emphasized our support for Gilad’s immediate release. Last September, the Ambassador helped to deliver over 2,000 Jewish New Year cards for Gilad to the ICRC as part of a campaign organized by the UK Jewish community. I repeat the UK’s call to Hamas for his immediate, unconditional, and safe release. We share the Shalit family’s dismay at Hamas’s refusal to allow the ICRC access to Gilad.
It’s shameful that his dismay doesn’t extend to the 11,000 Palestinian families.
British people are waking up to the truth about Israel’s lawlessness. In the absence of firm action from the British government they are taking reprisals of their own, in the form of boycotts, which has driven Mr. Miliband to complain that “the Government is dismayed that motions calling for boycotts of Israel are being discussed at trade union congresses and conferences this summer”. He insists that boycotts “obstruct opportunities for co-operation and dialogue and serve only to polarize debate further. Boycotts would only make it harder to achieve the peace that both Palestinians and Israelis deserve and desire”.
Mr. Miliband hasn’t learned the lesson of the last 61 years. And our prime minister-in-waiting, David Cameron (a Zionist and, like Brown and Blair, a patron of the Jewish National Fund), is no different. He says: "I think there’s something else we need to do, which is to say to our academics in this country that boycotts of Israel are completely unacceptable, and I think we also need to say that to the trade unions."
Nowadays you have to carefully to pick your way through a veritable obstacle-course of pro-Zionists, Chosen Ones and Israeli stooges that inhabit every nook and cranny in the corridors of power and dominate Britain’s key defense bodies. These Israeli flag-wavers seem only too happy for the Israelis to insult us – and the rest of the world – while rewarding them with more and more trade and scientific co-operation.
– Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk.