On the international aid flotilla now approaching Gaza

Some days ago, a flotilla of nine ships left a port in Turkey bound for the Gaza enclave, laden with medical and building supplies and carrying some 800 peace activists from a range of countries. It marks a major international attempt to deliver 10,000 tons of much-needed medical and building supplies to the 1.5 million Palestinian population currently penned up in the territory. The passengers include some 350 Turkish nationals, 35 parliamentarians mostly from European countries and the Arab world, and a group of Israeli Arabs.

The potential for confrontation had at first seemed quite high. The aid convoy was initially described by the Israelis as an ‘unnecessary provocation” and the Israeli Defence Forces had expressed their willingness to intercept the flotilla, take over the ships by force and ensure that no-one managed to break the Gaza siege. These tensions increased when the aid flotilla refused to participate in stunts that, at one point, included a suggestion by Ehud Barak to assemble a group of Israeli women soldiers dressed in white to meet the convoy, and offer them an aid package for the Israeli prisoner Gideon Shalit. However, the Israelis have now decided that the ships can be received at the port of Ashdod, where they will be searched and the aid supplies forwarded via the UN to Gaza. Ironically – given the situation in Gaza – the peace activists will be penned in a special compound, and then deported. Needless to say, a lot could still go wrong between now and the weekend.

Ireland has urged both sides to avoid confrontation, and to show restraint. Turkey, from the outset, has said that it would treat seriously any attack on a convoy that will be flying the Turkish flag. Reportedly. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed his full support for the flotilla, saying that breaking the “oppressive” siege of Gaza “is at the top of Turkey’s list of priorities”.
At the heart of the issue is the treatment of the population of Gaza by an Israeli blockade that has allowed only an inadequate level of supplies into the territory, thus compounding the suffering caused by the Israeli military offensive last January. Yesterday, Amnesty International released a report accusing the U.S. and members of the European Union of obstructing international justice by using their positions on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from accountability for war crimes allegedly committed during that Gaza war last year . As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz says:

The rights group also accused Israel of continually violating human rights in the Gaza Strip. It cited Israel’s ongoing economic blockade as violating international law, leaving Gaza residents without adequate food or water supplies

In its report, Amnesty lauded a United Nations commissioned report released last year by South African justice Richard Goldstone for highlighting Israeli violations during the war in Gaza. Goldstone’s findings found both Israel and Hamas guilty of war crimes during the conflict…”Among other things, [Israeli Defence Forces] carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilians, targeted and killed medical staff, used Palestinian civilians as ‘human shields’, and indiscriminately fired white phosphorus over densely populated residential areas,” it added. “More than 1,380 Palestinians, including over 330 children and hundreds of other civilians, were killed.”

“In a display of counter political bias, the UN Human Rights Council, initially resolved to investigate only alleged Israeli violations,” said the report. “To his credit, Judge Richard Goldstone, subsequently appointed to lead that investigation, insisted that the UN Fact-Finding Mission should examine alleged violations by both Israel and Hamas.”

Reportedly, the situation in Gaza is not improving. Last Sunday the UN Development Programme issued a report that about three-quarters of the damage inflicted by Israel’s war on Gaza more than a year ago had not been repaired. Moreover, as this Gulf News news report says:

In early May, John Ging, director of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, threw his support behind the flotilla, calling on the international community to break the siege on the Gaza Strip by sending ships loaded with desperately needed supplies to the strip….The flotilla is expected to arrive in Gaza only days after the World Health Organisation demanded that Israel end the siege on the strip “immediately”, saying that it was causing a shortage of medicines.

One may wonder if the Irish leader can publicly urge both sides to show restraint, why Prime Minister John Key – a recent visitor to Turkey for the Gallipoli commemorations, and erstwhile leader of a trade mission to the region – has been so far silent on this ‘hot button’ issue in the Middle East, and the related human rights violations that inspired the aid flotilla to set sail. And how can such a aid convoy have set sail without Keith Locke on board?
The devastating impact of the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza – as a collective punishment of the Gaza population, the blockade arguably constitutes a war crime under international law – can be found in this news article about the contents of last week’s World Health Organisation Report. Some of the WHO report findings have also been reported by Juan Cole on his Informed Comment site.

The outcomes of the Israeli siege of Gaza include :

“In Gaza, Israel’s blockade is debilitating the healthcare system, limiting medical supplies and the training of medical personnel and preventing serious medical cases from travelling outside the Strip for specialized treatment.”

“Israel’s 2008-2009 military operation damaged 15 of the Strip’s 27 hospitals and damaged or destroyed 43 of its 110 primary health care facilities, none of which have been repaired or rebuilt because of the construction materials ban.”

“Some 15-20 percent of essential medicines are commonly out of stock and there are shortages of essential spare parts for many items of medical equipment . . . ”

In Late 2008, nearly 1 in 5 Palestinians lived in “extreme poverty.” Over half lived below the poverty line.

“In the second half of 2008, one third of West Bank households and 71 percent of Gaza households received food assistance, with food accounting for roughly half total household expenditures – making families highly vulnerable to food price fluctuations.”

“In May 2008, 56 percent of Gazans and 25 percent of West Bank residents were deemed food insecure by the UN.”

“Chronic malnutrition has risen in Gaza over the past few years to reach 10.2 percent.” [This is especially true among children in Gaza).

Collective punishment of an entire population is – to repeat – a war crime. Nor has the punishment inflicted on Gaza been proportionate – as international law also requires – to any threat to the Israeli population that has been emanating from Gaza. Given the scale of the suffering that is being perpetuated, it is not too late for John Key to throw New Zealand’s support behind the aid flotilla, and to join with Turkey in treating the lifting of the Gaza siege as a human rights priority, and a pre-condition for any lasting peace in the region.


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