Peace activists

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Early this morning, IDF Naval Forces intercepted six ships attempting to break the maritime closure of the Gaza Strip. This happened after numerous warnings from Israel and the Israeli Navy that were issued prior to the event.

The Israeli Navy requested the ships to redirect toward Ashdod where they would be able to unload their aid supplies which would then be transferred over to the Gaza Strip after undergoing security inspections.

Key Points

  • Israeli forces stormed a flotilla of activists’ boats attempting to  break the blockade of Gaza early this morning, resulting in at least 10 deaths among those on board.
  • Prior to the incident, Israel offered to transfer the aid carried by the protestors to the Gaza Strip via land borders under the activists’ observation, after security checks. Whilst committed to facilitating the flow of aid to Gaza, Israel is concerned not allow the Gaza coast to become a corridor for weapons transfers to Hamas.
  • There has been an angry reaction in particular from Turkey, the Palestinians, and Israeli Arabs. International organizations are demanding explanations from Israel.
  • Israeli ministers have expressed “sorrow” at the deaths but stressed that the protestors acted violently to the Israeli forces including with live fire. Israel has also highlighted that IHH, the Turkish group involved in the flotilla, is believed to have a history of  support for terrorism .

What happened?

  • Early on Monday 31 May, a flotilla of six activist’s boats headed towards the Gaza coast.
  • They were met by vessels from the Israeli Navy about 60km from the coast, apparently in international waters. The Israeli navy warned them that that Gaza is under naval blockade. The Israeli navy invited the boats to enter the Ashdod port, north of Gaza. Israel offered to transfer the humanitarian aid to Gaza under the observation of the activists, according to Israeli authority regulations. The flotilla continued to try and reach the Gaza coast.
  • A team of Israeli commandos from the elite naval Shayetet 13 commando unit boarded the protest boats at around 4am from helicopters. It appears that five of the boats were captured without violence, but that on the largest, the Turkish flagged Marmara, Israel soldiers were met with planned, violent resistance, which Israeli officials described as attempts to lynch the soldiers.
  • The IDF says they were attacked with “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs“. Turkish television footage shows Israeli soldiers landing on the decks of the boats and immediately being set upon by men with sticks and planks. In the ensuing struggle at least ten, and possibly as many as nineteen, activists were killed and ten Israeli soldiers were harmed, four seriously. One soldier was stabbed and two were shot with firearms taken from the soldiers .

Who was on the protest boats and what was their aim?

  • Some 700 activists are reported to be on the boats, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, European legislators and British activists. The Marmara is reported to be carrying more than 500 people.
  • The organizations involved in the movement include the ‘Free Gaza Movement’ alongside other European NGOs, and the Turkish Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) movement.
  • The IHH has been accused of being a militant Islamist movement with a record of supporting terrorism. (For a report on IHH by the Danish Institute for International Studies click here .)
  • Speaking to BBC World News, a spokeswoman for the flotilla, Audrey Bomse stressed that the primary mission of the flotilla was to make a political statement with regard to the human rights of the Palestinian in Gaza and to “break the siege”, as opposed to delivering the aid itself.
  • The groups involved refused requests from Israeli campaigners last week to deliver packages and letters to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip without any external contact since 2006.

What is Israel’s policy on access to the Gaza Strip?

  • Israel facilitates the daily passage of around one hundred trucks a day of aid to Gaza through its land border. There are no limits on the quantity of aid, but Israel restricts the types of goods it will allow in, because of the state of conflict that exists between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza.
  • Israel is concerned to avoid any action that will strengthen the Hamas government in Gaza, in the context of the divide between Hamas and the moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In contrast to Gaza, the West Bank has seen considerable improvement in movement and access in the last two years due to improved cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
  • Israel insists that all aid entering Gaza be checked to ensure it does not include weaponry. It seeks to maintain the naval blockade in order to prevent the coast of  Gaza becoming a corridor for the smuggling of arms to Hamas. Hamas has made considerable efforts to rearm and improve its arsenal with Iranian weapons smuggled under the Gaza-Egypt border.
  • Egypt, which considers Hamas to present a major threat to its own security, allows almost nothing to pass through its border with Gaza, but large quantities of goods enter the strip through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

What has been the reaction in Israel?

  • In a press conference, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak expressed his “sorrow” at the events, but stressed the responsibility lay with the organisers of the flotilla. He asserted that the Israeli forces involved were well trained, and acted only to defend themselves. He further emphasised that there was a well established procedure to send aid to Gaza and that it was unacceptable to allow the boats to reach Gaza without security checks, which would open up a precedent for a smuggling corridor.
  • Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said, “Israel regrets any loss of life and did everything it could to avoid this outcome,” but stressed, that on the part of the protestors, “Their intent was violence, their methods were violence, and the outcome was violence.
  • Israeli Arab leaders and parliamentarians have reacted angrily, strongly condemning the Israeli actions, and there have been calls for protests among Israeli Arabs.
  • Israeli media commentators are raising questions about how this operation was planned and executed. Concerns are being expressed about the impact on Israel’s international image and the possible reaction from Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

What has been the international reaction?

  • Foreign Secretary William Hague said in statement, “I deplore the loss of life during the interception of the Gaza Flotilla.” He added, “We have consistently advised against attempting to access Gaza in this way, because of the risks involved. But at the same time, there is a clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations.
  • There has been a very angry reaction from the government of Turkey, the flag state of the largest ship, who have recalled their ambassador. The Turkish Prime Minister has returned early from an overseas trip. Protestors attempted to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul.
  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the incident as a “massacre” and has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
  • European Foreign Affairs representative Baroness Ashton has called for an inquiry and for crossings into Gaza to be opened.
  • Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency have expressed shock in a statement and sought explanations from Israel.

What will happen now?

  • The situation at sea is still unclear and Israeli authorities report that the incident is still being brought under control.
  • Israel has said it will unload and check the aid at the Ashdod port and transfer the aid that is permitted to enter the Gaza Strip via the usual land crossings on the Israel-Gaza border. The protestors will be handled by Israeli immigration authorities.
  • Another boat of the ‘Free Gaza’ movement is heading towards the Gaza Strip and activists have expressed determination to continue their efforts to break the blockade.

Navy Warns Flotilla

Israel Navy: “Mavi Marmara, you are approaching an area of hostilities which is under a naval blockade. The Gaza area coastal region and Gaza harbor are closed to all maritime traffic. The Israeli government supports delivery of humanitarian supplies to the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and invites you to enter the Ashdod port. Delivery of supplies in accordance with the authorities’ regulations will be through the formal land crossings and under your observation, after which you can return to your home ports on the vessels on which you have arrived.”

Close-Up Footage of Mavi Marmara Passengers Attacking IDF Soldiers

Video taken by IDF naval boat shows the passengers of the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the ‘Free Gaza’ Flotilla, violently attacking IDF soldiers who were trying to board the ship after having sent repeated requests for the boat to change course.

Large groups of passengers surrounded soldiers and beat them with metal poles and chairs, and threw one soldier over the side of the ship. Some passengers grabbed pistols from the IDF soldiers and opened fire. As a result of the attacks, seven IDF soldiers were injured, and nine of the passengers were killed.

The ‘Free Gaza’ Flotilla had publicly insisted on their non-violent intentions, however their violent attack on the IDF soldiers was clearly premeditated. They had knives, metal rods, firebombs and other items ready to use.

Israeli Navy Commander Briefs Forces Set to Intercept Gaza Flotilla

Vice Admiral Marom, head of the Israeli Navy, instructs the troops intercepting the Gaza flotilla. He specifies how the troops must conduct themselves during their mission and how they are not to be dragged into provocations with the passengers of the ship. He states that humanitarian aid is imported into Gaza on a daily basis. In addition, the shipment of goods that the flotilla is attempting to deliver will be imported to Gaza through Israeli crossings following a security inspection.

Sources: BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, IDF website

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