Mission aims to loosen illegal grip on world's largest open-air prison


A flotilla of ships, self-styled as Freedom Flotilla II, is gathering in the eastern Mediterranean, intending to converge on the coast of Gaza. Those on board the ships regard Israel’s blockade of Gaza as illegal and the main cause of substandard living conditions in Gaza.

The Israeli government maintains the blockade is legal and necessary to ensure weapons do not get to Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement which rules Gaza. Here, Independent TD Mick Wallace explains why he supports the flotilla, while Labour Party councillor Richard Humphreys tells why he does not.

Ordinary Palestinians are being deprived of freedom, health and food. Far too few voices are making this known, writes MICK WALLACE

THE IRISH-flagged MV Saoirseis part of the Freedom Flotilla, and it carries many decent and caring people. It is joining about nine other boats in the eastern Mediterranean this week, carrying passengers such as American writer Alice Walker and Hedy Epstein, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, toward the shores of Gaza.

The Saoirse, remember, is sovereign Irish territory. And the reason it is sailing in international waters toward Gaza is not to provoke another Israeli attack. It is to challenge the illegal and immoral grip that Israel continues to use to choke a territory it supposedly withdrew from in 2005.

Israel, which claims to no longer occupy Gaza, has no right to treat its people as inmates in what has become the world’s largest open-air prison. Palestinians, like everyone else, are entitled to unimpeded access to international waters and airspace, in conformity with international law and UN resolutions.

A UN report published in March 2011 said the Israeli blockade, which began in 2007, triggered “a protracted human dignity crisis”. Close to 80 per cent of the population rely on international aid to survive; 65 per cent live below the poverty line; 52 per cent are food insecure; nearly 40 per cent are unemployed; and about 70 per cent of nine-month-old babies are anaemic.

Nearly all of the drinking water is contaminated and unfit for consumption. Seriously ill patients cannot get access to specialist treatment. And children are suffering untreated post-traumatic stress as a result of Israel’s invasion in January 2009, which included the illegal use of white phosphorus shells. Since that invasion, which took up to 1,500 Palestinian lives, another 159 people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces, 19 of them minors.

Such suffering is a direct result of Israeli government policy designed, according to Israeli officials, to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse” (to quote from recent WikiLeaks documents).

The peaceful passengers on the Saoirse would never seek to justify the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. Neither would I. Violent behaviour is not acceptable from any person, organisation or state. But by inflicting collective punishment on the 1.5 million people who live crammed into Gaza, half of whom are under 16, Israel is flying in the face of law and morality.

Israel did loosen the blockade after the first Freedom Flotilla last year and, in the last few days, it has decided to let the UN bring in some much-needed building materials. Such actions in themselves prove the flotillas, and the publicity they bring, can be worthwhile. There is hope that the new Egyptian regime’s “opening” of Egypt’s border with Gaza – still incomplete, and very restrictive – will have some impact on Gazans’ suffering.

The UN report acknowledged that Israel had allowed Gazans greater access to a limited number of consumer goods, such as carbonated drinks and crisps. But again, the basic principle is simple: Israel has no right to decide what necessities may be conceded to or withheld from Gaza. A UN spokesman recently said: “The siege must be ended, not just eased. Otherwise Israel continues to be in breach of international law.”

Of course it would be better if international governments pressed Israel to change its policy on Gaza, so that civilians like those on the Freedom Flotilla would not have to put their lives at risk. Unfortunately, Israel is permitted to flout the law. And the hundreds of good people from around the world who are sailing towards Gaza are out at sea, facing Israel’s powerful military, without any real support from their governments.

I was pleased to see Eamon Gilmore urging Israel to exercise restraint if and when its forces intercept the flotilla in international waters. But it just shows the special treatment Israel gets from western governments when Gilmore’s statement, which also discouraged people from sailing on the flotilla, is considered one of the toughest Israel has had to face from any foreign minister. In reality, it was like a little lecture from the referee when a red card is what is required.

Over the years, the people of Ireland have shown great support for brave humanitarians like the passengers and crew on the MV Saoirse, as well as for the Palestinian people.

For almost 40 years, I have travelled much of the world and it was always with a sense of pride that I heard Ireland being described as a neutral and fair country, a neutral and fair people. This week it is crucial that our Government is seen to be fair, neutral and supportive of this worthy project.

Mick Wallace is an Independent TD for Wexford

Flotilla plots a course that ignores inequities and terrorism of Hamas

While peace is their proclaimed goal, the activists overlook the ongoing attacks that justify the blockade, writes RICHARD HUMPHREYS

THE HUMANITARIAN impulse of the Irish people is a strong one, based on our own long centuries of subordination to a more powerful neighbour, and our years of famine and population displacement. For that reason, I readily understand the humanitarian impulse of those participating in or supporting this flotilla – those who see civilian suffering in Gaza and seek to alleviate it by any means necessary.

But I would like to set out my own view – not my party’s position, but my personal reflections – as to why we should be slow to endorse this Gaza flotilla.

One thing we Irish above all other nations should understand from our own peace process is that to resolve a conflict you must address the causes of conflict. Peace is made between enemies, not between friends, and enemies must find a way to come to the political process armed only with their convictions and their arguments. They must find a way to live in secure communities side by side with their neighbours.

It is the strong view of US president Barack Obama’s administration and of the UN secretary general that this flotilla is unhelpful to the cause of peace. I fully support their unambiguous request to call it off.

A number of international lawyers have found the blockade of Gaza to be unjustified. On the other hand, jurists who support the legality of that blockade point to the fact that thousands of rocket attacks have been launched on Israel from Gaza – hundreds in 2011 alone – and that Israel therefore has a right of self-defence under the UN charter.

To me, the crucial issue is not the legality of the blockade in the abstract. It is the political question: why do the Israelis feel obliged to put that blockade in place?

They feel obliged to have a blockade because the Hamas regime in Gaza has used munitions and rockets smuggled into Gaza to launch attacks on Israeli civilians.

The flotilla is not really about bringing aid. The Israeli government is committed to assisting the bringing of aid to Gaza by land. Some of the ships, including the Irish one, are reported to be carrying little or no aid.

So what then is the flotilla about?

This flotilla is primarily designed to break the naval blockade. Many peace activists would consider that a worthy objective. But an end to the blockade could also mean free passage of arms and ammunition into Gaza. Sadly, one of the major beneficiaries of a sudden end to the blockade could be the terrorist groups who seek to kill or injure Israeli civilians in indiscriminate rocket attacks. Either way, it is the civilian population of Gaza and Israel who suffer.

What is urgently needed is a political process between the Palestinian regime and Israel, facilitated and supported by the international community, to address the underlying causes of conflict.

Here in Ireland we should recall that the political representatives of paramilitarism were not admitted into the talks process until there was a permanent ceasefire. We should be able to understand from experience that whether we support or deplore Israel’s tactics, it is simply not realistic to expect Israel to lift all of their security measures on Gaza without likewise having a ceasefire guarantee.

A political engagement between the parties, facilitated by the international community, is the only mechanism to bring about a lasting peace. In the short term, such a process could lead to the easing – and hopefully lifting – of the blockade, an alleviation of the situation in Gaza, an end to attacks on Israeli civilians and, ultimately, a process towards the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, at peace with Israel.

The Palestinian regime also needs to be asked hard questions about the level of human rights they are prepared to secure for their own people. Equality for women and rights for gays and lesbians do not conspicuously feature in the Sharia-style regime that Hamas has unleashed on its civilian population.

We must not be selective in our concern for rights. Those who are understandably active in the cause of protecting Gazan civilians need to ask the question as to how well the universal values of human rights are being protected by regimes both in Gaza and in the wider region. In Ireland we have just had a visit from the head of state of a country we took up arms against for many centuries. We know what it means to build relationships with our former adversaries. Building such relationships is not assisted by grandstanding, confrontational and provocative gestures such as the proposed flotilla.

Richard Humphreys SC is Labour Party councillor for Stillorgan. richardhumphreys.ie and richardhumphreys.blogspot.com

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