Israel gets away with piracy

Alana Smith reports on how the Israeli Navy hijacked a boat carrying aid to Gaza.

Irish activists Derek Graham and Mairead Maguire after their deportation from Israel (Free Gaza Movement)Irish activists Derek Graham and Mairead Maguire after their deportation from Israel (Free Gaza Movement)

THE ISRAELI government moved to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching Palestinians in Gaza by illegally seizing a boat carrying international activists attempting to deliver supplies--and then deporting the activists days later.

The activists aboard the Spirit of Humanity included 21 men and women from 11 countries, including Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire and former U.S. congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

The trip was organized by the Free Gaza organization, with the aim of breaking Israel's blockade to deliver three tons of medical supplies, children's toys and crayons, and rehabilitation kits to Gaza--which was devastated by Israel's 22-day military onslaught in December and January.

Activists also carried a symbolic bag of cement--one of the reconstruction items need to rebuild destroyed homes that Israel bans from being delivered to Gaza, along with glass and iron.

The Spirit of Humanity was searched and granted security clearance by Cypriot Port Authorities before it departed June 29. The boat was 23 miles off the coast of Gaza on June 30 when the Israeli Navy first threatened to open fire, and then boarded the ship when it refused to turn around.

What you can do

The organization Viva Palestina U.S. is leading a convoy to Gaza this summer; it will leave on July 4. See the Viva Palestina Web site for information, or telephone 773-226-2742.

International law states that a country may only claim waters 12 miles from its coastline as its own. Yet despite the fact that there is no question the boat was in international waters, Israel illegally intercepted it.

As Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, said in a statement from Geneva, the seizure of the boat was unlawful, and the Israeli blockade of Gaza constitutes a "continuing crime against humanity."

In fact, according to a recent Amnesty International report, Gaza is in desperate need of $4.5 billion in aid that has been pledged internationally, which Israel is currently preventing with its blockade.

Yet in spite of this illegal act of aggression, the U.S. mainstream media and the State Department were all but silent in the days following the attack--before finally reporting on the fact that McKinney and Maguire were among those detained by the Israeli government. (All of the activists had reportedly been deported from Israel as of July 6.)

When State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly was asked by the press about the condition of the people who had been on board the ship, he replied, "I don't know the answer, actually. I think I have to refer you to the government of Israel."

Angry and concerned, many activists pointed out that if Iran had taken the same action as Israel--hijacking a ship with a former U.S. Congresswoman and a Nobel Prize winner on board, confiscating all of their supplies and imprisoning them--it would be considered an act of war.

In contrast to the U.S. government response, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin demanded the immediate release of the two detained Irish nationals, and called on Israel to ensure that the humanitarian supplies from the Spirit of Humanity be made available to Palestinian authorities for distribution as soon as possible.

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AS THEY were waiting to be deported by Israeli authorities, some Spirit of Humanity activists reportedly suffered harsh treatment. According to the Irish Times, Maguire, for example, was denied thyroid and cholesterol medications for several days.

Detainees were also asked to sign documents written in Hebrew that stated they had confessed to trespassing on Israeli territory. But the activists refused to sign anything they couldn't read and argued that they were forcibly transported to Israel against their will. They also demanded that the journalists with the group have their film and other recorded material returned to them.

Maguire spoke with Democracy Now! from inside Giv'on prison, explaining, "We were literally hijacked, taken at gunpoint by the Israeli military. And now we are here in prison, and they are threatening to deport us. We were brought here against our will. We didn't come here by choice, and we are not here by choice."

In a statement, Cynthia McKinney noted, "President Obama just told Israel to let in humanitarian and reconstruction supplies, and that's exactly what we tried to do."

An emergency demonstration organized by Al-Awda New York was held outside the Israeli Mission in New York City on July 1, which drew a crowd of almost 100 people on short notice. Speakers included Councilman Charles Barron; Brenda Stokely, the regional coordinator of the Million Worker March and member of the NYC Coalition for Katrina/Rita Survivors; members of the New Black Panthers; a former Israeli pilot; and the daughter of Kathy Sheetz, one of the detained American passengers.

Many people at the protest drew connections between the U.S. government charges of "piracy" against poor Somali fisherman in ramshackle boats defending their own coastlines, and the inability to recognize real piracy when it is committed by a U.S. ally with a fully armed navy.

Two days later, on July 3, more than 300 people filled a church in Brooklyn in support of the kickoff of the Viva Palestina aid convoy--a humanitarian convoy organized by British Member of Parliament George Galloway that is currently traveling through Egypt before crossing into Gaza to deliver medical supplies and crayons and letters to Palestinian children, among other aid.

McKinney recorded a message while in Israeli prison that was played at the event. The disturbing sound of the screams of other women in the segregated prison could be heard in the background as McKinney spoke. She said she had met women from Ethiopia, Sudan and many other places who had come through the UN, but Israeli police had told them, "There is no UN in Israel."

As one member of the Muslim American Federation noted at the event, "Our government delivers the instruments of death, destruction, and despair. We the people deliver the instruments of life and of hope."

The Spirit of Humanity mission and the Viva Palestina convoy speak to a growing recognition of the humanitarian catastrophe facing Palestinians, and the brutality of Israel's collective punishment--and a willingness to take action against it.

As Brenda Stokely put it in her rousing address to the Viva Palestina kickoff, "We have to show Obama and those around him that they need to be on the side of the people, not on the side of imperialism and oppression. If they're not on our side, they'll soon find out they're on nobody's side."