Israel accused after humanitarian ship is boarded and Britons detained

July 14, 2009 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment


by Tony Grew

Labour MP Emily Thornberry has said Israel is conducting a virtual blockade of Gaza that endangers the lives of Palestinian people.

Ms Thornberry raised the case of a ship that was boarded by Israeli forces last month.

“The Spirit of Humanity sailed from Larnaca, Cyprus at the end of June, attempting to get to Gaza seaport and sailing under a Greek flag,” she told MPs during an adjournment debate last night.

“There were 21 passengers and crew on board, from 11 different countries, including six British people. One of the latter was my constituent, Miss Alex Harrison, who lives on the Marquess estate.

“In the early hours of 30 June, while they were still in international waters, they were surrounded by Israeli gunboats and threatened with being fired on.

“Their radar and communications systems were jammed and they were warned hourly that they must change course because, “You are headed for a blockaded area. All force necessary will be used.”

“Lights were flashed at them throughout the night and, when they were 24 miles from Gaza, Zodiac boats appeared and then left again.

“About four miles into Gaza’s waters, the boats reappeared—six boats with 12 soldiers in each, wearing full-face balaclavas. They boarded the boat and all the passengers lay on the floor.

“My constituent, as a member of the crew, was still standing and was pushed to the floor at gunpoint.

“It took seven hours for the boat to get into the port of Ashdod, where those on board were greeted by hundreds of jeering Israeli soldiers.

“The crew and passengers were held for between one and seven days, charged with illegally entering Israel and deported.

“That was ironic, because Israel was the last place they wanted to be. They wanted to go to Gaza—and Gaza as part of a Palestinian state.

“They were trying to publicise what has been happening in Gaza recently, and I shall outline some of those events.

“As hon. Members know, Gaza is a small coastal strip, cut off from the outside world.

“Even before the latest hostilities, drastic restrictions on the movement of people and goods were imposed by the Israeli authorities, especially since October 2007.

“Those have led to worsening poverty, rising unemployment and deteriorating public services such as health care, water and sanitation.

“When the eyes of the world were on Gaza, in the immediate aftermath of the military action by Israel, it was hoped that the tunnels would be closed and the crossings would be opened, and that Gaza might have a chance.

“However, six months later, after the hostilities had finished and the eyes of the world had looked away, restrictions on imports continued.

“It is impossible for Gazans to rebuild their lives. The quantities of goods now entering Gaza fall well short of what is required to meet the population’s needs.

“According to the International Red Cross, in May 2009, only 2,662 truckloads of goods entered Gaza from Israel, a decrease of almost 80 per cent. compared with the 11,392 truckloads allowed in during April 2007 before Hamas took over the territory.”

Labour MP Lynne Jones said the Israeli Government claims “that receipt of humanitarian supplies, in some cases, has led to a surplus of humanitarian aid.”

Ms Thornberry replied that according to the Red Cross “water and sanitation services could collapse at any moment” in Gaza, which “raises the spectre of a major public health crisis.”

“Terrible stories are coming out about health care,” she said.

“One of the people suffering as a result of the restrictions is a woman whose case is highlighted by the ICRC, who has a pancreatic tumour.

“She is only 26, her name is Do’aa, and she has been waiting since January 2009 for permission to travel through Israel to get to Jordan for an operation. She has so far been refused, and she is likely to die.

“Those who wish to get out of Gaza in order to get health care, because there is not sufficient and adequate health care in Gaza for those who have terrible conditions, find themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze.”

Ms Thornberry called for an end to the “virtual blockade” of Gaza.

“The crossing points must be opened and the legitimate security concerns of the Israelis have to be balanced with the right of Palestinians to live normal and dignified lives.

“Re-establishing humanitarian aid is really only the international community pleading to be allowed to put sticking plasters on to Gaza. What the people of the region need, more than anything else, is political courage.

“They need a political solution that will give peace and security to the people of Israel and Palestine.”

Sir Gerald Kaufman said “that her constituent and mine, who were on board “The Spirit of Humanity”, were trying to alleviate that inhumanity but were the victims first of piracy by the Israeli navy and then kidnapping by the Israeli army.”

For the government Ivan Lewis, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that helping Gaza remains a high priority.

“I want to provide an update regarding the vessel “Spirit of Humanity”, which the Free Gaza Movement non-governmental organisation, as my hon. Friend has said, attempted to sail from Cyprus to Gaza,” he said.

“The UK appreciates and shares the concerns expressed by many individuals and organisations, including the Free Gaza Movement, about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

“Current travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises clearly against all travel to Gaza, including to the waters off Gaza.”

Labour MP Martin Linton said the case was another example “of the way in which the Israeli Government believe that they have some kind of dispensation to flout international law, not only by harassing ships in international waters but by building settlements and walls on occupied land and by blockading people in Gaza.”

Mr Lewis said those who want to go to Gaza “should co-ordinate their entry and exit with major international organisations and should not attempt to enter Gaza without approval from the Israeli or Egyptian authorities.”

Jeremy Corbyn pressed the minister on whether the Israeli navy’s action in apprehending a civilian vessel in international waters was legal.

“If he is accepting Israel’s control of the waters off Gaza, that is surely accepting the occupation,” he said.

Tory MP Andrew Pelling said Ms Thornberry’s constituent’s family lived in his Croydon constituency.

“They expressed concern to me that Alex Harrison was detained for 23 hours without food and water by the Israeli authorities, and I wonder whether the Minister has any information on that,” he said.

“Her parents also expressed concern that the FCO, although admittedly contacted late at night, was fairly unhelpful for quite a long time in terms of responding to them about her treatment and, indeed, in its attitude to the incident in question.”

Mr Lewis claimed officials at the British embassy in Tel Aviv “confirmed that they were given good access to the British nationals and that all the British nationals with whom they had contact confirmed that they were treated well during their detention.”

He added that that the Foreign Secretary discussed the incident directly with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on 1 July.

Lib Dem MP Paul Rowen asked if the UK had protested “at the interception of a civilian vessel in international waters.”

Mr Lewis said David Miliband had “sought clarification of the series of events that took place” but “we are unable to confirm whether the vessel was intercepted in international waters or in Gazan waters.”

Lynne Jones again spoke for the Israeli Government, who had informed her “they intercepted the “Spirit of Humanity” in Gazan waters, not in international waters, so does Israel have the right to intercept vessels in that location?”

Mr Lewis gave a careful response.

“As far as I am aware, although there may be a debate about whether that is appropriate, it is not in itself a breach of international law. The accusation that is being made about this intervention is that it in some way contravened international law.

“If the vessel was in Gazan waters, people may have a political debate about whether that action was appropriate, but it would not have breached international law.”

Sir Gerald Kaufman said it was “bizarre as well as obnoxious that the Israelis should abduct all those on that ship into a country that they had no intention of visiting and then deport them from it.”

Labour’s John McDonnell suggested an independent investigation, which the minister rejected, and told MPs that “in any other circumstances and with any other country we would be taking diplomatic action.”

Mr Lewis then laid out the government’s position.

“Approximately 90 per cent. of Gazans depend partly on food aid.

“During May, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of truckloads of goods allowed entry into Gaza was approximately 2,960.

“However, that is not enough; it represents less than a quarter of the monthly average of truckloads that entered Gaza in the first five months of 2007, before the tightening of the border restrictions in June of that year.

“We are concerned that those restrictions, and Hamas’s control of the economy and the smuggling tunnels, mean that the people of Gaza are being denied hope, access to the means to rebuild their lives, and the chance of economic growth and education.

“Although there is no permanent, physical Israeli presence in Gaza, Israel retains significant control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters.

“It therefore retains obligations under the fourth Geneva convention.

“The convention is clear that an occupying power must co-operate in allowing the passage and distribution of relief consignments.

“It is therefore essential that the Government of Israel ease the restrictions on the Gaza border and allow an immediate increase in the flow of essential aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza, as well as the legitimate flow of trade, goods and people.

“My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the United Kingdom’s concerns on that general issue in his meeting with the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, on 6 July, and in his conversations with the Israeli Foreign Minister—I referred to one of those conversations—which took place on 13 May and 1 July.

“Together with the European Union, the United States, and the wider international community, we will continue to press the Israeli Government at the highest levels to reduce the restrictions, but Israel is not the only party that should move.

“Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel, accept previous agreements, and work with the Palestinian Authority towards a positive outcome in the current national dialogue negotiations presided over by Egypt.”

Mr Lewis told MPs he would be visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in the summer.

“I shall take the strong message that the United Kingdom intends to pursue a leadership role in securing a two-state solution in the middle east.”


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