Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Flotilla, Gaza, and Humanitarian Aid: What Happened?

On May 30th, the "Free Gaza Flotilla" left the shores of Cyprus under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid, by sea, to the people of Gaza.

Some background: Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, in August, 2005 gave Gaza's Palestinian people the opportunity of self-goverance; they freely elected to be governed, not by the Palestinian Authority (the "PA"," the governing party of Palestinians in the West Bank who have been partnered with Israel in peace negotiation and policing since the mid-1990's); but by Hamas. While similarly Palestinian, Hamas has been and is categorized by The United States, Canada, The EU, and Israel as a terrorist regime, and have
 frozen funds to the Hamas government since 2006, recognizing it as a terror organization. Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with Hamas, as they launched upwards of 10,000 rockets from Gaza, bombing civiilian targets in Israel - very often with weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza via the sea.

Presently, Hamas is engaged in smuggling arms and military supplies into Gaza, by land and sea, in order to fortify its positions and continue its attacks. Under international law, Israel has the right to protect the lives of its civilians and has undertaken measures to defend itself, including the imposition of a maritime blockade to curb Hamas' rearmament. It is Israel's position that it cannot allow a sea-corridor to open to Gaza, which would allow weapons and terrorists to freely enter the Gaza Strip. 

Therefore, Israel has effected a maritiime blockade off of the coast of Gaza. Under international law, a maritime blockade is a legitimate and recognized measure that may be implemented as part of an armed conflict, including in international waters, so long as it does not bar access to the ports and coasts of neutral states. Under international maritime law, when a maritime blockade is in effect, no boats can enter the blockaded area - including both civilian and enemy vessels.

Having presented the basic underlying facts, many of us are still left with pressing questions, including: 
  • Is such a maritime blockade truly warranted? 
  • Why would Israel interfere with an attempted delivery of humanitarian aid? 
  • Were those who organized the flotilla, launched from Cyprus, aware of the maritime blockade
  • Who organized this flotilla? 
  • Were they offered an alternative means to deliver their humanitarian cargo? 
  • Did the humanitarian cargo make it off the boats at all? 
  • Does Israel even allow humanitarian aid into Gaza? 
  • If five of the six vessels chose instead to dock in Ashdod (a port city just north of Gaza), what happened on the sixth vessel? What was the nature of the violence on the sixth boat? 
  • Where do we go from here?
Is such a maritime blockade truly warranted? Even those of us who closely follow Israel might not recall the "Francop" cargo ship, also purportedly carrying humanitarian aid. On November 4, 2009, the Israeli Navy intercepted this vessel as part of the same maritime blockade described above, and discovered, hidden amongst the civilian cargo, 500 tons of weapons and weaponry of Iranian origin - bound, in this case, for Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Video of the entire event can be seen here!v=wXDCDPPeN_Q 
So it would seem that Israel has reason to be suspicious.

Why would Israel interfere with an attempted delivery of humanitarian aid? In the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
Our policy is simple. We say: any goods, any humanitarian aid to Gaza, can enter. What we want to prevent is their ability to bring in war materiel - missiles, rockets, the means for constructing casing for missiles and rockets. This has been our policy and yesterday we told the flotilla - which was not a simple, innocent flotilla - to bring their goods into Ashdod. We told them that we would examine their cargo and allow those goods that could not be used as weapons or shielding materials for Hamas into Gaza. Five of the six ships accepted these terms without violence.
Were those who organized the flotilla, launched from Cyprus, aware of the maritime blockade? Repeated requests were made to the flotilla's organizers as early as May 24, 2010. At this same link, or here, you can view such a statement made by Israeli's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Yigal Palmor.

Who organized this flotilla? Primarily the Free Gaza Movement and IHH. According to The Intelligence and Terrorism Information CenterIHH, which plays a central role in organizing the flotilla to the Gaza Strip, is a Turkish humanitarian relief fund with a radical Islamic anti-Western orientation. Besides its legitimate philanthropic activities, it supports radical Islamic networks, including Hamas, and at least in the past, even global jihad elements [including Al-Qaeda.] Furthermore,
“This is an Islamist charity, quite fundamentalist, quite close to Hamas,” said Henri J. Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. “They say they do charity work, but they’ve been accused of gunrunning and other things, and their rhetoric has been inflammatory against Israel and sometimes against Jews.” 
..... On Tuesday in a bustling neighborhood in Istanbul, the Turkish organization was celebrating a strange success. “We became famous,” said Omar Faruk, a board member of the group, Insani Yardim Vakfi, known by its Turkish initials, I.H.H. “We are very thankful to the Israeli authorities.”Five times the Free Gaza Movement sailed from Cyprus, where they are based, to Gaza. Israel ultimately came to believe that a threat was evolving, fearing that ships coming into port could transport weapons. Israeli officials said they feared the prospect of Hamas being as powerfully armed as Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Did the humanitarian cargo make it off the boats at all? Yes, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) unloaded the humanitarian cargo from the Gaza flotillaand transferred the aid into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

Does Israel even allow humanitarian aid into Gaza? Yes. Over the last eighteen months, over one million tons of humanitarian aid, from NGOs and governments including Israel herself, entered Gaza from Israel. (That's almost one ton for every resident of Gaza, roughly 1.4 to 1.5 million.) Some specifics: More than 738,000 tons of food and supplies entered Gaza in 2009. Furthermore:
In the first quarter of 2010 (January-March), 94,500 tons of supplies were transferred in 3,676 trucks to the Strip: 48,000 tons of food products; 40,000 tons of wheat; 2,760 tons of rice; 1,987 tons of clothes and footwear; 553 tons of milk powder and baby food. 
[During] the week of May 18, 2010 there were more than 100 truckloads of animal food, 65 trucks of fruit and vegetables; 22 truckloads of sugar, some 27 truckloads of meat, poultry and fish; and 40 trucks of dairy products. At holiday times, Israel increases transfers. During the Muslim holy days of Ramadhan and Eid al-Adha, Israel shipped some 11,000 heads of cattle into the Gaza Strip.
Already in the first quarter of 2010, 23 tons of iron and 25 tons of cement were transferred to the Gaza Strip.... On 13 May 2010, Israel allowed approximately 39 tons of building material into Gaza to help rebuild a damaged hospital. 
... On 24 May 2010 Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing to 97 trucks loaded with aid and goods, including six trucks holding 250 tons of cement and one truck loaded with five tons of iron for projects executed and operated by UNRWA.  
According to the UN report of May 2010, 120 megawatts (over 70%) of the [Gaza] Strip's electricity supply comes from the Israeli electric grid, while 17 MWs come from Egypt and 30 MWs are produced by the Gaza city power station.
If five of the six vessels chose instead to dock in Ashdod (a port city just north of Gaza), what happened on the sixth vessel? What was the nature of the violence on the sixth boat? Sadly, Israeli Naval personnel were met with violence and there was loss of life. Militants onboard the Mavi Marmara [the sixth vessel] attacked Israeli naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including guns, knives and clubs. Numerous Israeli soldiers were injured as a result of the extremely violent ambush, Two of them seriously while three are in moderate condition. The final number of militant fatalities has yet to be released, but initial reports place it at nine. Once again, those vessels that reacted peacefully to the operation were escorted unharmed to Israel, as had happened with previous vessels that tried to violate the maritime blockade. Unfortunately, it seems that the attack on the Israeli soldiers was premeditated. The weapons used had been prepared in advance. 
Huwaida Arraf, a flotilla organizer, foreshadowed the violence with her statement that: "They [the Israelis] are going to have to forcefully stop us." Bulent Yildirim, the leader of the IHH, one of the primary organizers of the flotilla, announced just prior to boarding: “We are going to resist and resistance will win." The militants whipped up the boarding crowd by chanting "Intifada, intifada, intifada!"
Where do we go from here? Where can we go from here? We might give ear to the words of two contemporary, Israeli thinkers and authors, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Ph.D., of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Amos Oz, the author and lecturer. 

Rabbi Hartman writes:
It is time for all those of decency to declare, "Enough." It is time to begin a new conversation, one in which legitimate acts of self defense on Israel's part are no longer labeled automatically as acts of aggression and war crimes. Nor should attempts to better the plight of Palestinians, including those affiliated with Hamas, be labeled by definition as anti-Israeli and political....

People of decency can disagree. Decent people can make mistakes. It is only, however, if we recognize that decency can be found on both sides that a different future will become possible. 
Amos Oz writes:
Even if Israel seizes 100 more ships on their way to Gaza, even if Israel sends in troops to occupy the Gaza Strip 100 more times, no matter how often Israel deploys its military, police and covert power, force cannot solve the problem that we are not alone in this land, and the Palestinians are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem and the Palestinians are not alone in Jerusalem. Until Israelis and Palestinians recognize the logical consequences of this simple fact, we will all live in a permanent state of siege — Gaza under an Israeli siege, Israel under an international and Arab siege. 

...I do not discount the importance of force. Woe to the country that discounts the efficacy of force. Without it Israel would not be able to survive a single day. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget for even a moment that force is effective only as a preventative — to prevent the destruction and conquest of Israel, to protect our lives and freedom.
And I write:
Injury and suffering ought to be prevented, and loss of life is tragic, particularly when unnecessary, and that is always the highest price, regardless of the stakes. 
This entire incident reminds me of that math problem from 5th grade: If train A is traveling west, and train B is traveling east.... does it really matter how fast they're going? Would it help if either train warned the other, if neither chose to alter their set course?
The two trains will meet. But trains don't just "meet." They collide.
They always collide.

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