“Untouchable” Israel continues to cripple Gaza with its sea blockade

Marianne - Gaza flotilla

UK governments should support brave humanitarian voyagers

By Stuart Littlewood

Welcome to the latest chapter in a long tale of unspeakable cruelty.

Israel’s military thugs are once more raiding mercy ships on the high seas in an effort to prevent humanitarian aid reaching the 1.8 million souls in shattered Gaza.

The Jerusalem Post reports that the Swedish boat Marianne with 18 passengers has been “interdicted” by Israeli commandos 85 miles from the Gaza coast and towed to Ashdod. The three other vessels in the flotilla turned back and another big-hearted mission ended “with a whimper”.

Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon called his operation to deprive desperate, poverty stricken Gazans a “success”. The Marianne’s passengers would be be deported. “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” he added.

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said: “This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting Hamas and ignores all of the horrors in our region.” He added that a panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon determined that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is lawful.

“Israel is a democracy that defends itself in accordance with international law,” Netanyahu said. He stressed there was no “siege” of Gaza.

There’s no siege of Gaza, no humanitarian crisis? Anyone who’s been there knows Netanyahu and Ya’alon are damned liars.

The Freedom Flotilla Coalition said on 27 June that at around 2:00am the Marianne reported that she was surrounded by three Israel navy boats in international waters, some 100 nautical miles from the Gaza coast. Radio contact was then lost. In a statement they said:

We have no reason to believe that Marianne’s capture was ‘uneventful’, because the last time the IDF [Israel Defence Forces – the Wehrmacht] said something like that, in 2012, the people on board the Estelle were badly tasered and beaten with clubs. Back in 2010, 10 passengers of Mavi Marmara were murdered by the IDF during a similar operation in international waters.

“Reckless to travel to Gaza”

Britain has form when it comes to disregarding international law and keeping the Israeli blockade going. Back in July 2009, I received a letter from the office of Britain’s then foreign secretary, David Miliband, in reply to questions about Israel’s hijacking of the mercy ship, Spirit of Humanity, on the high seas and the outrageous treatment of six peace-loving British citizens, including the skipper. They were en route to Gaza, not Israel, had their gear stolen or damaged and were thrown into Israeli jails. The letter said: “All those on board, including six British nationals, were handed over to Israeli immigration officials. British consular officials had good access to the British detainees and established that they were treated well.”

That’s not the story the peaceful seafarers told. They were assaulted, put in fear for their lives and deprived of their liberty for a full week – a long time in a stinking Israeli jail – for committing no offence whatsoever.

The letter continued:

The foreign secretary said in the House of Commons on 30 June that it was “vital that all states respect international law, including the law of the sea”… We regularly remind the Israeli government of its obligations under international law on a variety of issues, including with respect to humanitarian access to Gaza as well as Israel’s control of Gazan waters…

Our travel advice makes clear that we advise against all travel to Gaza, including its offshore waters; that it is reckless to travel to Gaza at this time…

So, instead of keeping the seaways open, it seems the British government was colluding with Israel to keep part of the Holy Land off-limits to British pilgrims, humanitarians and businesspeople, and implicating itself in the collective punishment inflicted by the Israeli regime on the citizens of Gaza.

A year later the Mavi Marmara was the target for armed assault on the high seas by Israeli commandos, who left nine passengers dead and dozens injured. The vessel was part of the Free Gaza flotilla. When reports were coming in that Israeli gunboats had “intercepted” the flotilla 90 miles out to sea and threatened humanitarian workers that they would be boarded and towed to an Israeli port, I emailed Britain’s then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg: “Where is the Royal Navy when it’s needed to protect life and limb of the 30-odd British nationals?”

Ministers had themselves received advanced warning of Israel’s intention to stop the flotilla “by any means”, and the British people wanted their government to do them proud and provide real protection for those brave souls in their peaceful mission to bring relief to Palestinians whose lives were made a living hell by the bully-boys of the Middle East.

They were, after all, only doing the right thing… doing what the West’s cowardly leaders wet their pants at the very thought of doing.

Blockade “unacceptable and unsustainable”. So why is it still in place nine years later?

A few months earlier, in the run-up to the general election, Clegg had written in the Guardian:

…And what has the British government and the international community done to lift the blockade? Next to nothing. Tough-sounding declarations are issued at regular intervals but little real pressure is applied. It is a scandal that the international community has sat on its hands in the face of this unfolding crisis.

But Clegg, once in power and able to act, was as wimpish as every senior minister before him when put to the test:

The government was very clear in its disapproval of the Israeli actions which ended in such heavy and tragic loss of life.

We have underlined the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into the events… Israel’s announcement of an inquiry headed by former Supreme Court judge Yaakov Tirkel is an important step forward…

These events… arose from the unacceptable and unsustainable blockade of Gaza… It has long been the view of the government that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted – a view confirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 1860, which called for the sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and called on states to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation persisting there.

It is essential that there is unfettered access – not only to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza, but to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and permit trade to take place.

It was then – and still is now – pointless calling for the blockade to be lifted. Israel’s repeated promises to “ease it” are purely cosmetic. In 2010 incoming goods to Gaza rose by a miserable 7 or 8 per cent while the block on exports remained. That’s all the West’s feeble hand-wringing achieved.

UN Security Council Resolution 1860 (America abstained on Israel’s orders, according to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) called for the reopening of crossing points on the basis of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. To this day there is no sign of Israeli compliance.

The following year, 2011, MP Caroline Lucas quizzed Foreign Secretary William Hague in the Commons, as recorded by Hansard (29 June):

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion): Earlier today, Palestine solidarity groups, politicians, teachers and others marked the anniversary of the attacks on the Free Gaza flotilla last year by sailing down the river outside Parliament and marking the launch of a new Free Gaza flotilla. As the foreign secretary has previously said that the situation in Gaza is unacceptable and unsustainable, will he tell us what further action he is taking to help get the siege lifted, and will he do everything that he can to get guarantees that this new flotilla will be safe from attack?

Mr Hague: We have continued to take the action that I set out in the House last year. We have urged Israel greatly to improve access to Gaza. It has taken some steps, but those steps have not been as fruitful as we had hoped when they were set out. Egypt has now opened an important crossing into Gaza, which may also provide some relief. The answer relies on the general lifting of a blockade of Gaza and on a negotiated two-state solution in the Middle East. However, embarking on new flotillas is not the way in which to bring that about. We advise against all travel to Gaza by British nationals, which includes people who may be thinking of boarding a flotilla to go there. We hope that Israel will make only a proportionate response to any such flotilla, but it is, nonetheless, not the way in which to sort out the problems of the Middle East. Such problems require negotiations in good faith by the parties concerned.

Hague’s answer might have been written by Israeli speechwriters. He insisted that flotillas were “not the way”. Well, what is? The proper way to break a siege, which the UN itself calls “illegal and contrary to Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention”, is surely for the UN to apply sanctions. Failing that, the right thing would be for UN warships to break the siege, or for international civil society to do it escorted by UN warships or by warships belonging to the nation(s) of the flagged humanitarian vessels threatened with piratical aggression.

The proper way for Israel to avoid trouble would be to end its illegal blockade of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the rest of Palestine, and not interfere with humanitarians going about their lawful business.

As for “negotiations in good faith”, when did they ever happen?

A year after Israel’s murderous assault on the Mavi Marmara Hague was making more daft remarks in the House of Commons:

  • Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza.” Music to Israel’s ears, of course, as Hague helped to legitimise the illegal sea blockade.
  • ”Their welfare [meaning the British nationals on board] is our top priority.” Hague knew of Israel’s intention to go to any lengths, including the use of lethal force, to stop the mercy ships but took no precautionary action.
  • He referred to “individuals who are allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding”, but failed to grasp that the violence was committed by Israeli storm-troopers dropping from helicopters with guns blazing under cover of darkness in international waters.
  • ”Restrictions on Gaza should be lifted – a view confirmed in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860.” Bravo, he gets that bit right. But Resolution 1860 goes much further and calls for the sustained reopening of crossing points on the basis of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which provides for
    • the reduction of obstacles to movement within the West Bank
    • bus and truck convoys between the West Bank and Gaza
    • the building of a new seaport in Gaza
    • reopening of the airport in Gaza

When did we see any of that happen?

Hague was challenged by Sir Gerald Kaufman, the straight-talking Jewish MP, who pointed out that any one of the 37 UK citizens might have been killed when the Israelis “committed a war crime of piracy in international waters, kidnapping and murder – and all in pursuit of upholding an illegal blockade on Gaza that amounts to collective punishment…” He asked Mr Hague for his assurance that further steps would be taken if the Israelis failed to comply with the modest request that had been made.

But Hague sidestepped, saying: “It is our strong advice to British nationals, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, not to travel to Gaza – let me make that absolutely clear – as they would be going into a dangerous situation, but it is absolutely wrong to maintain the blockade.”

MP Jeremy Corbyn asked if it wasn’t time for sanctions such as revoking the European Union-Israel trade agreement. Hague replied that he did not think imposing sanctions was the right policy either – but gave no reason.

MP Frank Dobson suggested that Britain and the other European members of NATO should give naval protection if another flotilla were to set off for Gaza, with the Royal Navy reverting to its traditional role of protecting the freedom of the seas. Hague dismissed this too.

As usual, no consequences for Israel’s crimes were contemplated. And the government chicken coop happily clucked its approval as Hague handed the Israelis total victory. Today, five years on, Israel is making the same threats and committing the same acts of piracy against the latest flotilla.

Legal or not?

Israel’s naval blockade is illegal and so was Israel’s interception of the Mavi Marmara and other Gaza-bound vessels in international waters in May 2010. So said the United Nations fact-finding mission set up by the Human Rights Council.

The mission’s team, chaired by Karl T. Hudson-Phillips, QC, a retired judge of the International Criminal Court, reported they were

satisfied that the blockade was inflicting disproportionate damage upon the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and that as such the interception could not be justified and therefore has to be considered illegal…

The mission considers that one of the principal motives behind the imposition of the blockade was a desire to punish the people of the Gaza Strip for having elected Hamas. The combination of this motive and the effect of the restrictions on the Gaza Strip leave no doubt that Israel’s actions and policies amount to collective punishment as defined by international law… No case can be made for the legality of the interception and the mission therefore finds that the interception was illegal.

That wasn’t all. The naval blockade was implemented in support of the overall closure regime.

As such it was part of a single disproportionate measure of armed conflict and as such cannot itself be found proportionate. Furthermore, the closure regime is considered by the mission to constitute collective punishment of the people living in the Gaza Strip and thus to be illegal and contrary to Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Intercepting the Mavi Marmara on the high seas was “clearly unlawful” and could not be justified even under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations [the right of self-defence].

The Centre for Constitutional Rights also concluded that the Israeli blockade was illegal under international law.

Due both to the legal nature of Israel’s relationship to Gaza – that of occupier – and the impact of the blockade on the civilian population, amounting to “collective punishment”, the blockade cannot be reconciled with the principles of international law, including international humanitarian law. It is recalled that the international community, speaking through both the United Nations and individual states, has repeatedly and emphatically called for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The flotilla did not seek to travel to Israel, let alone “attack” Israel. Furthermore, the flotilla did not constitute an act which required an “urgent” response, such that Israel had to launch a middle-of-the-night armed boarding… Israel could also have diplomatically engaged Turkey, arranged for a third party to verify there were no weapons onboard and then peacefully guided the vessel to Gaza.

Craig Murray was Head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and responsible for giving political and legal clearance to Royal Navy boarding operations in the Persian Gulf following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in enforcement of the UN-authorised blockade against Iraqi weapons shipments. He is therefore an internationally recognised authority on these matters. Referring to the participation of an American boat, he said:

Right of free passage is guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, to which the United States is a full party. Any incident which takes place upon a US flagged ship on the high seas is subject to United States legal jurisdiction. A ship is entitled to look to its flag state for protection from attack on the High Seas

Israel has declared a blockade on Gaza and justified previous fatal attacks on neutral civilian vessels on the high seas in terms of enforcing that embargo, under the legal cover given by the San Remo Manual of International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea. There are however fundamental flaws in this line of argument. It falls completely on one fact alone. San Remo only applies to blockade in times of armed conflict. Israel is not currently engaged in an armed conflict, and presumably does not wish to be. San Remo does not confer any right to impose a permanent blockade outwith times of armed conflict, and in fact specifically excludes as illegal a general blockade on an entire population.

Sporadic attacks from Gaza did not come close to reaching the bar of armed conflict that would trigger the right to impose a naval blockade, he said. When the UK suffered continued terrorist attack from the IRA (Irish Republican Army), sustaining many more deaths than anything Israel has suffered in recent years from Gaza, it would have been ridiculous to argue that the UK had a right to mount a general naval blockade of the Republic of Ireland.

The EU Commission declared that “all those wishing to deliver goods to Gaza should do so through established channels”. The “established channel” for delivering goods to Gaza is of course the time-honoured route by sea, which is protected by maritime and international law. Flotilla organisers have offered their cargoes for inspection and verification by a trusted third party to allay Israel’s fears about weapon supplies. They should not have to deal direct with the belligerent regime that’s cruelly turning the screws on civilians with an illegal blockade. Anyone suggesting they must hand over their cargo to the aggressor seeks to legitimise the blockade, which we all know to be illegal and a crime against humanity.

Quite simply, an attack on civilian ships carrying humanitarian assistance to Gaza cannot be justified by the existence of a blockade that violates international law. So, Israel doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Nor does the cowardly British government. Nor do the 80 per cent of Conservative MPs and MEPs who, for whatever dark reasons, love and adore the abhorrent Israeli regime and the war criminals who run it. Therefore “all good men and true” should rally to support those brave humanitarian voyagers and ensure their governments back their play in future.

Print Friendly