In an attempt to break the crippling maritime blockade imposed by Israel, the Palestinian Freedom Flotilla- II, carrying the sick and wounded sailed from Gaza towards Cyprus on July 10. The humanitarian flotilla was intercepted 6 miles from the shore by the Israeli navy, and the 7 passengers, along with the boats, were taken into the custody. Except for the captain and his assistant, the others were released later.
Organiser Raed Abu Dair said the passengers “with specific needs are prevented from travelling, receiving care and finishing their studies. We are determined to break the blockade.”
This is the second flotilla that has attempted to breach the 11-year naval blockade. In an earlier attempt, a big boat, accompanied by a number of smaller fishing vessels had sailed a few kilometres away from shore on May 29th when it was intercepted by the Israeli navy. All those aboard were arrested.
The naval blockade, along with the siege on land and air, has made Gaza into a virtual cage. The siege, which was imposed after Hamas formed the government in Gaza in 2007, has pushed the city to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. Due to the siege, vital supplies like medicines and fuel are in short supply and essential amenities such as water supply and sewage treatment plants have been crippled. With the lack of electricity and medical supplies, hospital in Gaza are overwhelmed by the rising number of casualties from Israeli military actions.
The siege has also adversely affected the economic life of the people in Gaza, resulting in very high levels of unemployment.The United Nations has repeatedly warned that the effects of this crippling siege could make Gaza “uninhabitable” in the next few years.
Tuesday’s flotilla carried a number of patients who were injured by Israeli snipers at the Great Return March at the Gaza border with Israel. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 131 were killed and more than 14,000 people injured as Israel unleashed massive force against unarmed civilians during the march.
Israel had earlier announced that it had started work on a huge fortified breakwater in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent “infiltration” from the Gaza Strip. The “new and impenetrable” barrier is planned to be built on Zikim beach, a few kilometres north of Gaza. Israel also plans to revamp and extend its border fence with the Gaza Strip, including a massive new underground barrier meant to neutralise the threat of tunnels.
Meanwhile, another freedom flotilla ship, named Alawda (The Return), along with other vessels, has been making stops at many European ports over the last two months before proceeding to Gaza by the end of July in an attempt to challenge the illegal Israeli-Egyptian blockade. The ship arrived at the port of Ajacio in Corsica, France on July 5, where it stayed till July 8.
The flotilla’s voyage is being organized by the Just Future for Palestine’s Freedom Flotilla coalition and those on board come from a variety of countries, including Malaysia, Sweden, Spain, USA, Norway, Gaza and Israel, among others.
In 2010, another such flotilla met with heavy violence from Israel. Commandos killed 10 Turkish activists onboard the ship Mavi Marmara that was part of the freedom flotilla which was sailing in international waters at the time. The ship was on its way to Gaza to deliver 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid, including building materials, school supplies and electricity generators.
Israel’s actions were widely condemned in the international community and a UN Human Rights Council report in September 2010 said that Israel’s action were in gross violation of international laws. A UN panel in September 2011 concluded in a repeatedly-delayed report that the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli troops was “unacceptable”.
“Israel’s decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable,” it said.
In a related development, Israel on Monday also decided to close the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing, which is likely to further worsen the ongoing humanitarian crisis since it is the only goods crossing between Israel and Gaza. There are only two other crossings for use by Gaza’s civilian population – the Erez crossing, which is exclusively for people, and the Rafah crossing, which is on the border with Egypt and opens from time to time to allow the supply of goods and construction materials.
The UN Middle East Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov slammed the decision in a statement issued on Tuesday, saying “I am concerned by the consequences of Israel’s decision to temporarily suspend imports and exports with the exception of basic humanitarian supplies through the Kerem Shalom crossing. Humanitarian assistance is no substitute for commerce and trade. I urge the authorities to reverse this decision.”