Group challenges Israeli blockade of Gaza

The flotilla of ships that was stormed by Israeli commandos early Monday was the latest attempt by the Free Gaza Movement to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.
Israeli forces approach one of six ships bound for Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea on May 31, 2010. Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza on Monday and 10 pro-Palestinian activists were killed, setting off a diplomatic crisis. (Uriel Sinai/Reuters)

The flotilla of ships stormed by Israeli commandos early Monday was the latest attempt by the Free Gaza Movement to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. 

The organization began sending ships to the Gaza Strip in 2008, and the conflicts became more dramatic over time. 

The Free Gaza Movement  is a coalition of pro-Palestinian activists and groups with the stated mission "to break the siege of Gaza."

In August 2008 the group became the first foreign effort to break the blockade. Israel had suggested it would prevent the vessels from landing in Gaza but decided to let them unload their symbolic shipment of hearing aids and balloons.

Palestinians hang Palestinian flags on a fishing boat before heading out to sea to greet two boats led by the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement, which left Cyprus on August 22, 2008 on their way to the Gaza Strip. (Hatem Moussa/Associated Press)

Two ships sailed from Cyprus, the Free Gaza and Liberty, with 46 activists aboard.  One of the celebrities who disembarked in Gaza was Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British PM and Mideast envoy Tony Blair. Booth was refused permission to leave Gaza via both Israel and Egypt for four weeks.

In October, Free Gaza sent another ship, Dignity, with 26 activists and medical supplies aboard. Israel announced it would stop Dignity but at the last minute allowed it to dock in Gaza.

The blockade and the Gaza War

Two other trips by Dignity followed in December before the Gaza War broke out on Dec. 27. 

Until that time the missions had taken place during a formal lull between Israel and Hamas that Egypt had helped broker. Israel favoured renewing the lull but Hamas refused, claiming that Israel had not lived up to the agreement to relax the blockade.

The blockade in more or less its current form dates from Hamas taking complete control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2007. 

The UN Fact-Finding Mission into the Gaza War, led by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, reported that the blockade "was an intent to subject the Gaza population to conditions such that they would be induced into withdrawing their support from Hamas." 

The mission went on to say that the "intention to inflict collective punishment" is "a violation of the provisions of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention" and possibly a crime against humanity.

Ships fail to reach Gaza

During the 22-day war, the Free Gaza Movement twice tried but failed to get ships to Gaza.

On Dec. 29, Dignity set sail from Cyprus again with medical supplies, and with cable news networks CNN, Al Jazeera and celebrities aboard. This time the Israeli navy clashed with the ship. The CBC reported that the "vessel was rammed by the naval ship when it did not respond to radio contact while about 130 kilometres off the Gaza coast, said Israel's Foreign Ministry."

In January 2009 Free Gaza sent another ship, Arion, to Gaza but abandoned the mission after Israeli warships warned them to leave the region.

Israelis board Free Gaza ships

Religious figures and activists wave Palestinian and Lebanese flags aboard the Tali with 50 tonnes of medicine, food, toys, books and stationery as they prepare to sail to the Gaza Strip, from the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon on February 3, 2009. (Associated Press)

The first mission after the war, in February 2009, was ended when Israeli forces boarded the vessel, a Togo-registered cargo ship named Tali. Shots were fired at the vessel, according to journalists on board; the Israeli military described them as warning shots.

Tali was supposed to dock at the port of El'Arish in Egypt but when the Israelis thought the ship was trying to slip past the navy into Gaza waters, those shots were fired and the Israelis boarded and captured the ship

"They are pointing guns against us; they are kicking us and beating us. They are threatening our lives," Al-Jazeera's Salam Khoder reported from aboard Tali. The ship was then escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

On June 29 the Arion (rechristened Spirit of Humanity) left Cyprus with three tonnes of medical supplies and some construction materials for Gaza. Once again the Israeli navy boarded the ship and escorted it to Ashdod. Israeli officials said the humanitarian supplies would be delivered overland. 

The 21 activists who were part of this mission included former U.S. congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney and Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, who won the 1976 Peace Prize for her efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict.  Both women are reported to also be part of the tenth mission in May 2010. (The MV Rachel Corrie, with Corrigan on board, was delayed and therefore was not with the flotilla.)

By now the script was becoming familiar to the actors in this drama.

Script not followed

Last week the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that "Israel Defense Forces expects that the ships will refuse to retreat and there will be a confrontation at sea with the navy."

According to Haaretz, a forum of seven senior ministers decided the "Freedom Flotilla" would be blocked. Only cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser supported allowing the ship to dock in Gaza.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak spoke of a suggestion that would have added to the drama. The proposal was that when the ships were escorted to Ashdod they be greeted by female Israeli soldiers dressed in white, who would give the activists letters destined for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since 2006. Then the ships would be allowed to sail to Gaza.

Another minister suggested props: rockets that had been fired into Israel from Gaza be displayed in Ashdod for the activists and accompanying journalists.

The Mavi Marmara ship, the lead boat of a flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip which was stormed by Israeli naval commandos in a predawn confrontation, sails into the port of Ashdod, Israel, May 31, 2010. (Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)

The latest mission was by far the biggest that the Free Gaza Movement has mounted. They said the flotilla of six vessels carried about 600 activists from at least 10 countries, and once again celebrities and journalists were included. This mission had major support from Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in Turkey and most of the passengers were believed to be from there.

According to Haaretz the Israeli ministerial forum decided to allow foreign journalists on the Israeli ships during the operation "in a bid to produce more favourable coverage abroad."

Social media a tool in confrontation

From the beginning both sides have been using social media to publicize their side of the story. The activists have been sending tweets from the beginning of their mission and IHH had video from the flotilla on Livestream and other video websites.

The IDF has videos of their own. One posted on YouTube has an Israeli naval radio operator giving a warning to the main ship, the Marvi Marmara.  As with the last few missions, he "invites" the ships to Ashdod and says the humanitarian supplies will be delivered by land.

The Free Gaza Movement had to expect the Israelis to board their ships, as they had done in the two previous missions. Both sides have their video of the seizure online but since the Israelis seized control of the ships, the activists have apparently been unable to get their video out.

Those directing the actors in both roles will be trying to figure out why the script was not followed this time.