Image Credit: Guillermo Munro/©Gulf News

It never ceases to astonish how a sliver of a country that has been illegally occupying another people's land for 44 years succeeds in leading the international community by the nose. The efforts by several countries to block the Freedom Flotilla II from setting sail to Gaza for the purpose of breaking the Israeli blockade is a shameful example of governments' machinations.

Israel has been twisting the arms of its allies to prevent an embarrassing repeat performance of last year when Israeli commandos attacked the Turkish vessel the Mavi Marmara — owned by the Turkish humanitarian relief fund IHH — on the high seas, killing nine.

Turkish-Israeli relations were close to freezing when the enraged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked Israel to apologise and demanded compensation to no avail. On the contrary, Israeli officials made it clear that Israel would do the same again.

Amid Turkish government muscle-flexing, the Mavi Marmara was rendered ship-shape to join 10 other ships that make up Freedom Flotilla II. The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a democratic country like his own could not stop its citizens from challenging ‘an illegal blockade'.

Then, last month, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote to his Turkish counterpart expressing his hope that Turkish-Israeli friendship would be renewed. At the same time, Washington which has been pressurising Ankara to put an end to the feud, is brokering secret talks between the two sides. The Mavi Marmara was suddenly withdrawn from the flotilla because the Turkish government refused necessary permissions.

Regardless of Turkey's non-participation, Freedom Flotilla II's organisers resolved to press ahead. After all, they have international law on their side. The UN Human Rights Committee that investigated Israel's assault on the Mavi Marmara found the Israeli blockade of Gaza to be unlawful.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, "International humanitarian law prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of warfare" and "it is also prohibited to impose collective punishment on civilians."

Moreover, according to former UK ambassador Craig Murray, a maritime law expert, Israel is using the San Remo Manual of International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea as a cover for its embargo, which is not applicable as it deems any blockade on an entire population ‘illegal'.

If we accept that the Israeli blockade contravenes international law, it's hard to fathom why so many normally law-abiding countries either back it, turn a blind eye or avoid launching either a legal or physical challenge.

On Saturday, the Middle East Quartet — the US, the EU, the UN and Russia — displayed its disapproval of Flotilla II in a despicable statement that read "The Quartet recognises that Israel has legitimate security concerns that must continue to be safeguarded."

What right does the Quartet have to put the security concerns of a nuclear-armed country with one of the world's most powerful militaries over those of people trying to win freedom with stones and home-made rockets?

Violation of press freedom

Instead, the struggle is left to good-hearted folk from all over the world, such as 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and Robert Naiman, Policy Director of the think-tank Just Foreign Policy, who are ready to put their lives on the line to help 1.5 million encaged Palestinians.

Israeli officials have termed Flotilla II as "an anti-Israeli publicity stunt" and warned journalists not to board, else risk being banned from entering Israel for 10 years, which was swiftly rescinded as a violation of press freedom.

Israeli military sources ramped up the propaganda saying passengers on the flotilla planned to kill Israeli soldiers using ‘chemical substances'. Not so, countered the organisers who maintain the flotilla is peaceful and all ships will be checked for weapons prior to sailing.

Irish activists have accused Israel of sabotaging their ship by damaging the propeller and passengers on board a Swedish vessel say their ship had been sabotaged while it was docked in the Greek port of Piraeus.

The Israeli Law Centre published ads in the Israel press referring to the US vessel, Audacity of Hope as being unseaworthy and warned American passengers that they could be in violation of US criminal law. The centre has also alerted Athens that it could be charged with abetting terrorism by allowing Flotilla II vessels to depart.

Incredibly, Athens has now prohibited ships headed for Gaza from leaving its shores citing Israel's declaration to use violence and a UN appeal to its Mediterranean member states "to use their influence to discourage" the flotilla's mission. When the Audacity of Hope tried to make a break for the open seas on Friday, it was turned back by Greek coastguard officials.

Even worse, at the time of writing, Greece is holding the ships hostage by refusing permissions for their departure to friendlier Mediterranean ports. Personally, I'm disappointed that Erdogan has lacked the courage of his convictions, appalled that Athens has chosen to roll-over and disgusted at the Quartet's obvious pro-Israel bias as well as the UN's double-speak. I can see Netanyahu now, sitting back in his chair, lighting up his cigar… and having a good old laugh at the lily-livered lot.


Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com.