Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

"Flotilla of Freedom" or an "Armada of Hatred"

Adelina Marini, June 1, 2010

Is there anything in common between security and a humanitarian blockade, which bans the import of toys and chocolate? The answer to this question could shed some light to the search of an explanation why Israeli commandos stormed a humanitarian flotilla, caused the death of civilians and the indignation of the international community. This tragedy is a good occasion to again ask why for so many years now Israelis and Palestinians cannot live peacefully side by side? And not to recognize their very existence.

Three years ago the Palestinians have elected during legal parliamentary elections Hamas to rule them - a military group with a long combat length of service (some would say length of service in terrorism, others - in liberation movement). No matter that the elections have been recognised as legitimate, fair and just by all international observers, Israel felt threatened (because Hamas does not recognise it as a state) and has decided to impose the most severe blockade in the Gaza strip for decades.

Humanitarian organisations' activities are almost impossible - everyone is being suspected in smuggling weapons and double usage goods together with food, clothing and books.

Most media and governments (the so called international community) either because of the length of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (lasting for generations), or because of its complexity, focus there attention mainly on the peace negotiations (which are practically stalled) and on picturesque assaults. The reactions are often reduced to the usual body count, to calls for a return on the negotiations table, for restraint, etc.

And all this until Monday. When in the early and dark hours of the day, in international waters, Israeli commandos stormed a humanitarian flotilla, headed toward Gaza to deliver tonnes of humanitarian aid. According to the Israeli authorities more than 10 people were killed, but according to humanitarian organisations the victims were no less than 19 during the assault. Israel also claims that the commandos resorted to violence because they were attacked by the passengers aboard. Besides, according to Israeli foreign ministry, weapons had been recovered aboard, preliminary prepared for transport to the Gaza strip.

Aboard one of the ships in the convoy two Bulgarian journalists were traveling from the bTV television - the reporter Svetoslav Ivanov and the cameraman Valentin Vassilev. Both are unharmed and are awaiting transportation to Europe with a civil flight, the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced after consultations in the Ministry with the Israeli ambassador in Sofia.

According to the BBC the passengers in the convoy were around 500 people, mainly Turkish and Greek citizens. There were also citizens of other countries, many of which European. The Israeli deputy minister of foreign affairs Danny Ayalon blamed the states which were quick to condemn Israeli actions, that they had acted hastily without awaiting the official investigation of the incident. He added that those countries reacted to the TV footage which, he said, clearly showed that the assault was inspired by the passengers aboard.

Later Israel admitted that the commandos stormed the ships in international waters, which is a violation of all international laws. The explanation is that the Israeli services had suspected explosives and other types of weapons were being carried aboard. Danny Ayalon expressed his state's regret for the victims but described the convoy, called "Freedom Flotilla" as an "armada of hatred".

And while diplomatic tension was rising, the BBC quoted a document, casting for the first time light on the way Israel is maintaining the Gaza blockade. The document had been submitted to an Israeli Court after an Israeli humanitarian organisation was attempting for a year to receive official information about how the Israeli authorities assess what kinds of goods could be imported in Gaza. The document confirms estimates were made of how many calories a million and a half of Gazans need.

So far there has been no official list of the goods banned for import in Gaza and the one with the goods allowed is being constantly changed. For example, the director of the Gisha organisation Sari Bashi explained for the BBC that children were prevented from receiving toys and producers - raw materials. "I don't see how that's responsive to Israeli security needs" she said and added: "I certainly don't understand why cinnamon is permitted, but coriander is forbidden. Is there something more dangerous about coriander? Is coriander more critical to Gaza's economy than cinnamon? This is a policy that appears to make no sense".

Among the large range of goods currently forbidden are jam, chocolate, wood for furniture, fruit juice, textiles, and plastic toys. As the BBC commented, the document does set the context for the blockade: in what Israel considers to be its existential conflict with Hamas. But it will not satisfy those calling for Israel to be more open about one of its most contentious policies.

Against the background of a serious tension of Israeli diplomatic ties with a large part of the world, the decision of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his visit to Washington today raises serious concerns. He was on an official visit to Canada on Monday but announced that he would return to Tel Aviv. He expressed his full support for the army's actions. On their part the US expressed regret for the death of civilians but added that they were attempting to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.

According to a report of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs the convoy had been organised by a Turkish non-governmental organisation. The flotilla included 6 small vessels, loaded with some 10,000 tonnes of aid, mainly medication, food and raw materials, accompanied by around 600 human rights activists and supporters of Palestinian NGOs, mainly from Turkey and some European countries.

The Ministry also reports that the Israeli authorities intercepted the ships and requested a change of course to an Israeli port to check the cargo. After the flotilla refused to comply with the order, the Israeli assault had been initiated. Moscow considers the incident as a crude violation of international law and says that the case confirms the need of a quick removal of the Gaza blockade by Israel.

Most European Institutions have reacted to the incident, the first among them were several groups in the European Parliament. The leader of ALDE (Alliance of the Liberals and Democrats in Europe) Guy Verhofstadt expressed shock by the death of humanitarian activists: "The circumstances of the incident aboard the ship bound for Gaza which led to the tragic loss of life remains unclear but the facts are undeniable - that a number of people were killed. A full and independent inquiry into the events that led up to the incident is vital to establish the truth and prevent further recrimination or retaliation".

The former Belgian Prime Minister added that the root of the issue was the on-going human tragedy on the ground in Gaza, currently exacerbated by the blockade of goods and aid to the needy. This policy helped no-one and was counterproductive.

The group of the Greens/European Free Alliance condemned Israeli army actions. The co-presidents of the group Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit expressed their shock with the "brutality" of the assault. A little later on Monday they sent an open letter to the High Representative for External Affairs of the Eu baroness Catherine Ashton, who had not reacted by the time. In their letter both presidents want the EU to call for an immediate and transparent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.

They also want the Union to give full support and assistance to all those present on the boats, including human rights and peace activists. This includes ensuring that all these people are treated according to international human rights standards. Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit insist the EU to take measures for a complete and unconditional lift of the current blockade against the Gaza population.

The Left in the European Parliament also condemned the death of civilians. "The use of lethal force against civilians on these ships is unacceptable. Israel has crossed a line in the military action shown on our television screens today. We now demand safeguards for the people who have been taken into captivity by Israeli forces", Martin Schultz, president of the group of Socialists and Democrats stated.

In the meantime Turkey (a NATO member) announced a package of extreme measures in its relations with Israel in response to the tragedy with the "Freedom Flotilla". Furthermore, Turkish officials, quoted by the Novosti agency, had also announced that the relations with Israel were changing and "would never be the same as before". The government in Ankara had decided to call its ambassador in Israel, the three military exercises with the Israeli army were called off, as well as the friendly football games between the young teams of Turkey and Israel. Besides, Turkey asked to treat the wounded on its soil.