* * Update: On May 31 heavily-armed Israeli commandos attacked the unarmed Freedom Flotilla. Israeli forces have fired on activists in at least one of the boats, with media reports of up to 10 people killed and many more injured.
By June 3, Israel had finally released and deported most of the more than 700 passengers it had captured during the assault. Al Jazeera has compiled a list of eyewitness statements from those onboard the boat, which can be read here. The accounts debunk the Israeli PR spin that its murderous assault was somehow an “act of self defence”.
The Israeli Defence Force may deploy a full naval fleet in waters around Gaza to prevent more than 10,000 tonnes of vital humanitarian relief aid and supplies from reaching Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
A convoy of nine vessels is carrying badly needed medical equipment, food supplies, cement, tools, machinery and a huge team of skilled aid workers via the Mediterranean to Gaza.
The Freedom Flotilla involves about 800 activists, journalists, aid workers and officials from 40 countries. Passengers include a Holocaust survivor in her 80s, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a decorated US army colonel.
The flotilla aims break Israel’s total blockade on Gaza. Israel has responded with “strict warnings and even threatened to fire upon the convoy”, Gulf News said on May 25.
The MV Rachel Corrie set off from Ireland on May 14. The boat is named after a 23-year-old peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. By May 24, vessels from Turkey and Greece were waiting near Cyprus ready to sail south to the Gaza strip.
Upcoming emergency protests in Australia:
Adelaide: Friday June 3, 3.30pm, Victoria Square, protest organised by Action for Palestine. Bring placards, banners, your friends and your outrage!
Brisbane: Friday June 4, 5pm, Brisbane Sq, Cnr Queen and George Sts.
Canberra: Thursday June 3, 4pm rally at Garema Place organised by AJPP and UnionsACT.
Melbourne: Saturday June 5, 2pm, outside State Library, City.
Perth: Sunday June 6, 12 noon at Wesley Church. Organised by Friends of Palestine.
Sydney: Saturday June 5, 2pm, Sydney Town Hall.
Wollongong: Saturday, June 5, 12 noon, Outside Telstra building, cnr Crown and Kembla Sts, Wollongong.
If you know of more protests, please include details in the comment section at the end of this article.
The purpose of the journey was to draw international attention to the ongoing crisis in Gaza, caused by Israel’s illegal land and naval blockade, and provide seriously needed materials for the besieged territory’s 1.5 million residents.
Since 2006, Israel has maintained total control over Gaza’s borders, airspace and seas. It also launches periodic incursions and assaults on the territory.
Up to 75% of the damage caused by Israel's 2008-09 war on Gaza has not been repaired, the United Nations said. This is due, in large part, to the severely inadequate provisions allowed across the Israeli and Egypt-controlled border crossings.
Countless aid organisations, as well as the World Health Organisation and United Nations secretary Ban Ki-moon, have condemned the siege.
A May 26 Amnesty International report called it “a military blockade of the Gaza Strip, which effectively imprisoned the 1.5 million residents and resulted in a humanitarian crisis”.
“Israel often stopped international aid and humanitarian assistance from entering Gaza”, Amnesty said.
“Permission to leave Gaza to receive medical treatment was denied or delayed for hundreds of seriously ill Palestinians and at least 28 individuals died while waiting for permission to travel.”
In early May, John Ging, head of United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza since 2006, called on boats such as the Freedom Flotilla to break the siege, a May 26 PalestineChronicle.com article said.
“We recommend the world send ships to the shores of Gaza, and we believe that Israel would not stop these vessels because the sea is open, and many human rights organizations have been successful in previous similar steps, and proved that breaking the siege on Gaza is possible.”
Al Jazeera reported on May 17 that Naor Gilon, deputy director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said: “Israel has no intention of allowing the flotilla into Gaza.”
There were reports the Israeli navy was running training exercises in preparation for the flotilla.
Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak has ordered that waters off Gaza become a closed zone for 20 nautical miles.
Freegaza.org said on May 25: “Reports coming from the Israeli Navy say they will jam the flotilla’s signals and communications, isolating those on board the ships, and barring the world from witnessing what could become a confrontation or prolonged naval stand-off.”
A “protest” in support of Israel’s policies was also launched from northern Israel. Two boats set sail from Herzliya on May 22, displaying photos of rocket fire on Israel and photos of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian resistance fighters in Gaza.
The Israeli government has also claimed Gaza does not need the international aid. But the Free Palestine Movement in the US said Gaza has received almost none of the US$4.5 billion in aid pledged by the international community after Israel’s brutal 2008-09 assault.
Israel has claimed it will deliver the ships’ cargo by land (after arresting and deporting the activists), but flotilla organisers say this is a lie.
The first aid flotilla, organised by the Free Gaza Movement in August 2008, carried 44 people from 17 countries and was welcomed by thousands of Palestinians.
Since then, five protest boats have managed to land in Gaza. The past three attempts have been halted by the Israeli military.
In December 2009, one boat was rammed at sea by an Israeli gunboat. Its cargo was confiscated and passengers were arrested, detained and then deported.
Organisers said the size of the Freedom Flotilla is for protection as well as bringing significant aid.
Aengus O’Snodaigh, a member of the fleet from Irish republican party Sinn Fein, said: “We will not allow our flotilla to be divided. We will stay with our cargo ships — they are the core of the flotilla carrying essential construction materials denied entry into Gaza — cement, steel, and houses.
“This action is not a symbolic gesture but a concrete intervention to allow the people of Gaza to rebuild their lives with dignity.”
Below: Political scientists Norman Finkelstein discusses Israel's attack.