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Rough seas ahead for Freedom Flotilla

Freedom Flotilla III which aims to break the siege on Gaza is ready to set sail from its final European destination, Greece. The five ship flotilla carrying over 80 activists, journalists, artists and politicians, as well as a limited cargo of solar panels and medical supplies and equipment for the Gazans is led by the lead ship Marianne of Gothenburg, which originally departed from Sweden. When it will set sail and whether or not it will be allowed to reach Gaza is still to be seen.

The flotilla was due to set sail yesterday, however, because of the unsuitable weather conditions, it is still docked in Greece. Flotilla organisers and participants have stressed that the aim of the movement is to carry out a peaceful and non-violent mission, however the chances of it being allowed to reach Gaza’s coast is slim as Israel has announced it will stand in its way.

The Israeli government has called the Freedom Flotilla III a provocation and a publicity stunt, and therefore plans to thwart and intercept the ships. Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, has also stated that her ministry was “working around the clock through all possible diplomatic channels” to block the flotilla.

However, Israel’s threats have not deterred prominent and high-profile figures from participating in the flotilla. Such figures include former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who said the purpose of his participation is “to stand in solidarity with oppressed people who are living among ruins and whose rights to travel, work and health care are being violated. For someone with a legal background like myself, it is only natural that I stand in solidarity with these people, especially since I am no longer in an official position that imposes political obligations on me. I am a free individual and I am fighting for human rights.”

Another popular figure, Sister Teresa Forcades, a Spanish physician and a Benedictine nun who is a prominent social activist, was inspired to participate in the flotilla after learning that Israel used white phosphorous bombs against civilians in 2009, which is forbidden by international conventions. Forcades was upset by the fact that despite its illegality, “no international jury has actually condemned Israel because of that and no sanctions were given to Israel because of that.”

She believes prominent figures in the world should participate in such initiatives because doing so generates media attention and highlights what is happening in Gaza. Although Forcades does not believe the odds of reaching Gaza are good and expects Israel to derail the boats or bring them to an Israeli harbour, this does not diminish the significance of the effort in her opinion. “The action is still meaningful – even though I don’t think we will make it to Gaza – because all of our actions, including talking to the media, is a part of the action. The main issue is not to bring them a few more bottles of medicine, it is to call attention to their living conditions and promote international efforts to lift the blockade.”

Arab-Israeli Member of the Knesset Basel Ghattas of the Joint Arab List is also participating in the flotilla. His participation provoked political anger amongst Israeli MKs as they view Ghattas’s participation as a form of working against Israel. The Knesset House Committee went as far as to vote in favour of stripping the Arab lawmaker of his immunity and some of his parliamentary privileges following his plans to join the flotilla.

Whether or not he will be penalised like his colleague Arab-Israeli MK Hanin Zoabi who participated in the 2010 flotilla to Gaza from Turkey, is yet to be seen. Ghattas believes Israel will try to take the harshest measures possible against him, but believes they will not be able to seriously penalise him because he is not exercising any illegal actions. “I am doing my political, peaceful, non-violent action against the blockade and this is my duty and my right. I am not breaking any Israeli law.”

He added that despite the fact that Gaza’s coasts are closed by Israeli military order, they are not breaking any laws by attempting to go. “They are breaking international law by blocking Gaza from the sea. They are breaking international humanitarian law and are exercising collective punishment, which is against international law.”

Ghattas believes that the Israeli naval forces will most likely stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza, like it has done with previous flotillas, but expressed hope that the international pressure and Netanyahu’s delicate situation may drive Israel’s prime minister to allow the ships to enter the Strip. However, he believes that it is “more important to put the issue of the blockade on the international agenda again and on the Israeli public discourse. With all that is happening in the Arab world and with Iran and other issues, people forgot there are two million people in one huge jail facing a humanitarian crisis. This can’t continue.”

Despite Israel’s hostility towards the flotilla, there has been much international support for it. Over 200 European parliamentarians have signed a letter to the EU’s High Representative, Frederica Mogherini, supporting the Freedom Flotilla and calling for an end to the blockade imposed on Gaza. In addition to this, the League for Supporting Freedom Flotilla-Gaza sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting international protection for Freedom Flotilla III and calling on the UN to “prevent the Israeli occupation from practicing piracy and committing a massacre, as was the case in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla”.

According to the head of the International Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza, Zaher Birawi: “The moral and legal responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the secretary-general in the event that the flotilla is intercepted by the Israeli army, especially since the Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC) has repeatedly and clearly declared that its mission is peaceful, that it will not pose a threat to anyone’s security, and that it will not use violence at any point. It is the occupation that disregards all international laws and conventions as well as UN resolutions.”

It is difficult to tell what fate lies ahead for the flotilla, but for those taking part, reaching Gaza is not the most important goal. They hope the flotilla will raise the international awareness needed to finally lift the illegal siege on Gaza.

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