Float On : Gaza and the Estelle Flotilla

Patrick O. Strickland*

RAMALLAHOn Saturday morning the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) boarded the Estelle, an activist flotilla delivering aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip. The boat was in international waters when it was intercepted and then towed to the port of Ashdod and transferred to the Israeli police.

The Estelle was organized by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition. Among the activists on board the ship were five members of various European parliaments and former Canadian MP Jim Manly. The supplies they planned on delivering included…

The Estelle joins the ranks of over a dozen ships that have attempted to break Israel’s maritime blockade, and it attempts to bring attention to Israel’s siege on Gaza, where past conditions have scarcely been worse than now.

The economic effects of Israel’s siege on Gaza

Gaza’s 1.6 million inhabitants, already impoverished from dispossession and almost 40 years of direct military occupation, are suffocating under the airtight Israeli siege. Over 1.1 million registered refugees live in eight camps across the 365 square kilometer strip. These civilians are regularly subjected to Israeli saturation bombing campaigns that occasionally span weeks without a break.

Israel justifies its massive bombing campaigns by arguing that it is targeting militants who hide in densely-populated civilian areas.

A United Nations report released in August concluded that Gaza will be “unlivable” by 2020: unemployment hovers around 45 percent; the population is expected to increase by half a million in the next eight years; the government operates on 80 percent aid dependency; and over 90 percent of water is unsafe for consumption. Furthermore, the report projects a 60 percent increase in water needs. According the CIA World Fact Book, Gaza’s fertility rate is the highest in Middle East and North Africa and the 29 highest in the world (out of 229 countries).

Hamas has done little to ease these crushing burdens, but Israel is undeniably the immediate source of this astounding poverty.

Last week, Israel’s horrifying policy of calorie counting was made public. Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization, conducted a three and a half year legal struggle that resulted in the Israeli government having to release a document in which it planned in diligent detail how many calories each Gazan needed to float just above malnutrition. A total of 2,279 calories, Israel decided, was enough for the average person. From this total, the number of truck deliveries per aid was calculated, after which an additional nearly ten percent was deducted for “culture and experience.”

While Israeli statesmen boldly proclaim that the only thanks they received for disengaging from the narrow coastal strip was rockets, the institutions of occupation in fact continued to control almost every aspect of Palestinian life in Gaza-from preventing innumerable hospital visits to blocking Gazans from studying in the occupied West Bank; from deciding who can travel in Gaza’s waters to limiting how much food each person can consume.

The Mavi Marmara flotilla: setting a precedence of violence

Israel imposed the naval blockade in 2009, arguing that it would prevent the flow of weapons to and from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In 2010, a six ship convoy led by the Turkish flotilla Mavi Marmara. A scuffle broke out after Israeli commandos boarded the ship, and nine Turkish activists were killed.

Israel’s official claim that the soldiers who boarded the Mavi Marmara convoy were threatened with pipes and knives flirts with the absurd. Indeed, a unit of professionally-trained commandoes armed with automatic weapons boarded the flotillas in international waters and endangered a group of civilians.

An initial United Nations panel decided that Israel’s actions did not breach international law, but over the summer a coalition of fifty international aid groups and United Nations agencies issued a joint-call for Israel to end the suffocating siege. Groups such as Amnesty International and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights deemed the blockade illegal and demanded that Israel cease violating the basic human rights of 1.6 million people and “end the blockade now.” In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon joined in and called on Israel to lift the siege.

Those these belated criticisms acknowledge the brutality of Israel’s siege, none of them even attempt to approach the application of justice, which would necessarily entail holding Israel accountable for the murder of the nine activists on the Mavi Marmara as well as its ironfisted and inhumane Gaza policy in its entirety.

“Israel’s attack on us all”

In an article published at Straight.com before Israel seized the Estelle flotilla last Saturday, former Canadian PM James Manly’s wife stated that her husband was “on the Estelle to bring attention to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Undoubtedly the purpose of the numerous flotillas has always been to refocus international eyes on the ever worsening situation in Gaza. But many popular pundits and polemicists have instead translated attempts to break the blockade as explicit and malicious attacks on Israel’s security. Of course, it remains unclear how supplies such as food and medicine threaten Israel’s existence.

In 2010, Israel-based journalist Jonathon Cook rightly described the attack on the Mavi Marmara as an “attack on us all.”

Just weeks after the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize, a handful of its statesmen were being physically abused by Israeli intelligence for sailing on the Estelle. “My fellow activists from abroad… are still imprisoned under harsh conditions and undergo interrogations by the Shabbak Security Services, among them parliament members from several European countries,” said Israeli activist Elik Elhanan, who was released from police custody on Tuesday.

The Shabbak used an excessive amount of unprovoked force, he said, including repeated taser shock as well as beating a Greek PM.

Isareli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu issued a statement on Saturday praising the military’s handling of the Estelle. “The people who were on the ship also know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and they aim only to provoke and blacken Israel’s name,” it read. “If human rights were truly important to these activists, they would sail to Syria. We shall continue to defend our borders.”

But Israel’s weekly bombing campaigns, strict micromanaging of foreign aid, and recent threats to renew the occupation constitute a very dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, especially when coupled alongside the emaciated economic conditions. These are not isolated events: Israel’s seizure of the Estelle and ongoing siege of Gaza are nothing short of “an attack on us all.”

*Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance American journalist and Israel-Palestine correspondent for BikyaMasr.com. His work has been published by CounterPunch, Palestine Chronicle, Fair Observer, Socialistworker.org, and elsewhere. (MEMO/MINA).

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