Israel's Gaza siege: a crime against humanity

Israel announced on June 17 that it would “liberalise” its three-year siege of Gaza, allowing more categories of goods to enter the blockaded territory. Non-essential items such as tomato sauce, snacks, mayonnaise and cosmetics will now be allowed in. However, building materials such as cement, pipes and iron — essential for the reconstruction of housing, much of which was destroyed by Israel’s 22-day bombing campaign in 2008-09 — will remain prohibited.

According to the June 21 Tel Aviv Haaretz newspaper, Israel will retain the “right” to ban “dual-use” construction materials that it claims could be used by the Palestinian resistance to rebuild military facilities and manufacture weapons. Gisha, an Israeli human rights organisation that deals specifically with legal issues related to freedom of movement within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, noted in a statement on June 17 that the “liberalisation” advocated by the Israeli Security Cabinet enacted little more than “cosmetic changes” and did little to change the situation for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

Gisha said that Israel’s siege of Gaza has little to do with security and instead is part of a policy of “economic warfare” designed supposedly to weaken support for Hamas. Gisha went on to state: “In the context of that policy, Israel deliberately prevents Gaza residents from receiving raw materials, exporting finished products and travelling into and out of Gaza”. Rather than introducing cosmetic changes to the blockade, Gisha called on Israel to adopt “a policy that recognises the rights of Palestinian residents of Gaza not just to consume but also to produce [goods] and to travel”.

Planned murder

The announcement of the “liberalisation” of the siege came in the wake of international outrage at Israel’s murder of nine human rights activists and wounding of up to 30 others, aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters on May 31. The nine-boat flotilla, carrying more than 650 human rights activists, doctors, parliamentarians and journalists, was organised jointly by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish human rights organisation Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). The flotilla sought to break Israel’s illegal three-year siege of the Gaza Strip and deliver more than 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid. The nine were killed when Israeli commandos boarded and attacked with live ammunition the largest of the boats, the Turkish passenger ship Mavi Marmara.

The Israeli government, along with the Israeli and international media, has attempted to portray the deadly commando attack as a “bungled raid”. However, before the attack, Israeli media carried a number of stories in both English and Hebrew outlining the Israeli government’s intention to use violence against the flotilla and its unarmed passengers. Awarding-winning US Jewish freelance journalist Max Blumenthal wrote in a June 6 article on his blog that statements by senior Israeli military commanders prior to the departure of the flotilla towards Gaza revealed that “the raid was planned over a week in advance by the Israeli military and was personally approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak”. On May 28, three days before the attack on the boats, Israel’s Maariv newspaper carried an article in Hebrew entitled, “Head to Head in the Heart of the Sea”, which outlined the intention of the Israeli military to use brutal force.

According to Blumenthal’s English translation of the Maariv article, the Israeli operation against the boats would be led by Lieutenant Colonel Eliezer Maron, who told Maariv, “If the people aboard the boats will not agree to turn around, the operation will transfer to the stage of force”. According to Maron, the operational plan included approval for using “live fire” if the commandos deemed it necessary. The article also outlined that, once the commandos boarded the boats, they would “inspect them looking for sabotage materials and fighting tools”. As Blumenthal notes, “The plan to search for ‘sabotage materials’ also foreshadowed the [Israeli military’s] post-raid propaganda campaign”.

Despite Israeli military illegally attempting to confiscate all photographic and film footage from the activists in an attempt ensure that Israel’s version of events dominated media coverage of the attack, the Israeli government’s torrent of justification was repeatedly challenged by a range of independent journalists, both inside Israel and internationally. As a result, the Israeli government and military were forced to retreat from a number of claims they had made, including that 40 flotilla participants were “al Qaeda mercenaries”. The Israeli military was also forced to admit that it had doctored the audio on footage it released of the assault on the Mavi Marmara.

With the release of the hundreds of human rights activists from Israeli detention, photographs and video footage that activists were able to retain were released. They revealed that far from attempting to “lynch” the attacking commandos, as Israel claimed, the activists were attacked and attempted to defend themselves. The footage also revealed that activists had sought to give medical aid to injured soldiers.

BDS campaign strengthened

The outrage at the murder of the nine activists has put Israel under increased international pressure to end its illegal siege and has increased support for the Palestinian-initiated boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. On June 2, the UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly (32 to 2) to strongly condemn Israel’s actions against the humanitarian flotilla and call for an end to the siege of Gaza. On May 31, the day of the massacre, Professor Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, told Dubai’s Gulf News: “It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behaviour, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts … The worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is now a moral and political imperative, and needs to be supported and strengthened everywhere”.

Turkey, South Africa and Nicaragua recalled their ambassadors from Israel and/or suspended diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. The Turkish parliament, in reaction to nine of its nationals being murdered, voted unanimously to “revise the political, military and economic relations with Israel” and to “seek justice against Israel through national and international legal authorities”. On June 14, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) demanded Israel immediately lift its Gaza blockade. “The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law”, the ICRC stated. Under such law, collective punishment of a whole population is a crime against humanity.

On June 1, the Palestinian BDS National Committee issued a statement condemning the murders and calling on the international community to intensify its support for BDS. In reaction to its call for transport and dock workers and unions around the world to refuse to load or offload Israeli ships and airplanes, the Swedish Port Workers Union voted to implement a blockade of Israeli ships and cargo to and from Israel from June 15 to 29. The South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union, which pioneered the boycott against Israeli maritime trade in February 2009 by refusing to offload a ship in Durban, also heeded the Palestinian appeal, advocating “an escalation of the boycott of Israeli goods”, calling upon its members “not to allow any Israeli ship to dock or unload” and calling upon fellow trade unionists not to handle them. On June 20, more than 700 protesters were able to stop the unloading of an Israeli cargo ship at the port of Oakland in San Francisco Bay.

In Australia, 11 unions and state labour councils have now publicly announced support for the BDS campaign. The Western Australia branch of the Maritime Union of Australia was the first to support the campaign, joining in January 2009. It was joined just prior to the attack on the flotilla by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Queensland branch of the Electrical Trades Union.

In the wake of the attack, the Australian Services Union NSW and ACT branches, the Health and Community Services Union Victoria, Australian Education Union, Geelong Trades Hall Council, South Coast Labour Council (NSW) and Newcastle Trades Hall Council all announced support for BDS and called for the lifting of the siege of Gaza. The national secretary of the MUA, along with the Australian Nurses Federation, NSW Teachers Federation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), while not announcing support for the BDS campaign, issued statements condemning Israel’s attack on the flotilla and calling for the end of the siege.