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1 Jun, 2010 02:18

Israeli deadly assault on aid ships sparks worldwide outcry

Strong condemnation is growing around the world after the Israeli military attacked a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, thus violating international maritime law.

Media reports say at least 9 pro-Palestinian activists were killed and about 40 injured as Israelis boarded one of the ships and opened fire at its passengers and crew. Earlier reports gave the number of dead as 19, but verified death toll proved to be lower, but the situation still can change as many of the wounded escaped commandos and were locked inside their cabins without proper medical help.

All the ships of the flotilla had arrived in the port of Ashdod by midday Tuesday. The activists, whose total number is estimated at over 600, are to be interrogated and then deported, however, those who fail to co-operate may face imprisonment.

Some of the detained activists have refused to name their nationality and citizenship, which makes it impossible to deport them for the moment, reports Belgian TV channel RTL. According to the channel, only 48 foreigners have so far agreed to be deported and signed a written statement, while at least 480 are being kept prisoner. 45 are in hospitals.

The UN Security Council gathered for an emergency session on Monday. Practically all its members condemned Israel’s actions with the peace flotilla, naming them “banditry and piracy, murder conducted by a state that has no excuses, no justification whatsoever.” In a formal statement the council also demanded the immediate release of ships and civilians held by Israel.

Russia’s spokesperson in the Council has particularly stressed that “the use of weapons against civilians and detaining vessels in the open sea without any legal grounds is a flagrant violation of universally recognized international regulations.”

Israel remains uncompromising.

"Although portrayed in the media as a humanitarian mission delivering aid to Gaza, this flotilla was anything but a genuine humanitarian-only mission,” said Daniel Carmon, Israeli Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations. “If indeed it really was really a humanitarian-only mission, the organizers would have accepted weeks ago, during the planning stages of this flotilla, the offer by the Israeli authorities to transfer the aid through the port of Ashdod to Gaza, through the existing overland crossings in accordance with established procedures."

A thorough analysis of the attack on the aid mission has been called for by Russia's Foreign Ministry. The whole situation shows the need for improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the ministry spokesperson said.

Lifting the Gaza blockade is recognized as the shortest way of providing normal social and humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Some countries have already been outspoken over Israel's actions, demanding that the Jewish state apologize for the incident.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets around the world, from Cairo to Paris, protesting against the deadly assault.

Greece has suspended all military exercises with Israel. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the incident, adding that a thorough investigation needs to take place.

The history of the assault

It began late Sunday night with Israeli soldiers warning the six ships to turn back. Then Israeli commandos stormed the flotilla in international waters.

When Israeli soldiers were already on board the ships they opened fire at passengers and crew with live ammunition. The press service of the Israeli Defense Forces said later in the day that the servicemen were attacked by crewmembers armed with knifes and clubs and that up to 10 Israelis were wounded in this attack. Israeli report also said that the Free Gaza mission organizers had close ties with Hamas and Al Qaeda. But the protesters, who came from many different countries, have dismissed the Israeli report as blatant lies.

Governments and international organizations around the world are demanding action. The Arab League is urging members to cut ties with Israel. And as demonstrations in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel itself gain momentum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut short a trip to North America to return home. Israeli police are on high alert around the country for fear the protest could get out of hand. Hamas says Israel’s actions are nothing short of state-sponsored terrorism.

The flotilla’s passengers came from all around the world. Among them were parliamentarians, journalists, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureates. They had with them 10,000 tons of supplies to help alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

But Israel maintains there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says the area is ruled by a terrorist organization, Hamas, and therefore Israel has the right to examine all cargo entering the strip.

The Palestinian Authority is holding an emergency meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called Israeli actions a massacre. He has also called for three days of mourning.

Most of the injured and dead were on the Turkish vessel. The Israeli ambassador to Turkey was called in the early hours on Monday for an explanation. Also Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Israel. So, Turkey seems to be leading the international condemnation of Israel.

A former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dr. Ra'anan Gissin, insists the picture was concocted in order to delegitimize Israel, because "every country has the right to defend itself against aggression and the aggressor here is Hamas."

"This flotilla of ships was nothing about human rights, nothing about humanitarian aid – we provide the humanitarian aid," Dr. Gissin said.

"We are not going to pass any aid whatsoever to Hamas, which is a regime supported by Iran which is the largest terrorist base today in the Middle East. That is our right," he added.

In turn, Abdul Karim, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, called Israel's actions "piracy in the high seas" and "a war crime of the Israeli Army and Navy."

"The real victim of the Israeli blockade is 1.5 million Palestinians living there," he acknowledged.

"The so-called Hamas pretext cannot be accepted. The people there are not terrorists, they are innocent civilians that are suffering because of this blockade."

“Moscow is seriously concerned about the Israeli actions and condemns them, especially given the fact that a number of participants in the so-called ‘humanitarian convoy’ were killed or wounded,” said Andrey Nesterenko, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry. “It is necessary to clarify all the details of the incident. Using weapons against civilians and detaining ships in international waters without any legal ground whatsoever is obviously a gross violation of universally accepted rules of international law. Furthermore, we view the incident as another indication of the need for Israel to terminate the blockade of Gaza at an early date and to take real steps to evaluate the social and humanitarian problems of the territory.”

Konstantin Kosachev, head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee, views this as an extraordinary situation that demands a strong response from the international community.

“This will not be accepted and should not be accepted by the international community,” Kosachev told RT. “I believe that the Middle East quartet, the Middle East group of four countries including Russia, should first of all ask for exhaustive explanations from the Israeli authorities, this is number one. And number two, in case we will not be satisfied by this explanation, and I believe this will be the case, I think that we shall demand further discussion on that conflict, on that situation in the Security Council.”

There are reports coming in that the Israeli army boarded one of the aid ships while it was still in international waters.

Professor Aleksandr Vylegzhanin from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations told RT that in this case the Israeli army acted illegally.

“What happened in terms of international law? Civilian ships were moving in high seas, which are reserved for peaceful purposes under international law, and all of a sudden they were attacked by a military ship.”

“Use of military force against civilian ships is strictly regulated by international legislation, for example, cases of piracy,” Professor Vylegzhanin said. “But what happened does not fall under those cases. Civilian ships have been attacked by a military ship without any international legal grounds whatsoever.”

“From the point of view of international law, in this case it was a violation by the Israeli fleet,” he added.

Russian journalist, Nadezhda Kevorkova, who was due to board a flotilla vessel in Cyprus, says that the activists were prepared for the worst, but could never have predicted this outcome.

“All people who were onboard the ship were ready for different situations,” she said. “All passengers onboard had to sign documents agreeing what steps to take in case of arrest, illness or detention by Israeli forces. So everyone was prepared for a difficult situation. But no one, including lawyers who drafted the documents, could have predicted what has happened.”

An emergency Security Council meeting was called on Monday. “It was called by Turkey, and Lebanon now is the president of the Council," said RT correspondent Marina Portnaya. "Condemnations from various countries around the world have been voiced against Israel for this attack. Lebanon called the attack ‘a massacre’ and called for immediate investigation.”

“I imagine that at this point they are pushing for a presidential statement,” Portnaya added. “A statement that the Security Council can read out in a few hours or so, but all the members of the Security Council need to agree on this text. … The White House released a statement saying it deeply regrets the lost of life and injuries that have been sustained and the White House is currently working on understanding the circumstances of what took place, so Washington did stop short of using any harsh rhetoric.”

Representatives of the European Union on Monday condemned the acts of violence and excessive use of force.

“In this regard on behalf of the EU, the High Representative is requesting a full immediate inquiry by the Israeli authorities,” said John Clansy, EU Commission for development and humanitarian aid. “The continued policy of closure of Gaza is unacceptable and politically counterproductive,” he added. “The EU reiterates its call for an immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings in Gaza for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from Gaza.”

Political commentator Doctor Asad Abu Sharekh from Gaza thinks the US, as Israel's primary ally, is no less responsible for the attack on the aid mission.

“Unfortunately, Israel was given a green light by the Americans,” Abu Sharekh told RT. “Otherwise they would not have dared to attack these peaceful ships in international waters. This is why we call upon the whole world, we call upon Russia, we call upon superpowers, we call upon United Nations, the peoples of the world to put pressure on America, on Western countries in order to bring Israel to account and to impose sanctions on Israel and to bring Israeli generals to accountability for the crimes they committed.”

Mustafa al-Bargothi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, believes there can be no doubts about who shot first.

“I think this is a silly question to ask who attacked first,” al-Bargothi told RT. “These people were peaceful people, with no military weapons, with nothing to defend themselves in ships in international waters. It was the Israeli army who came to them with helicopters, Israeli navy military ships, and attacked them. It’s so obvious and so clear… What Israel has done is an act of piracy, a serious violation of international law…This is equal to an act of declaration of war. And more than that, Israel attacked civilian people, non-violent people, peaceful people who had no weapons to defend themselves with and killed twenty of them.”

Wisam Ahmad, a spokesman for the Al Haq human rights organization in Ramallah in the West Bank, says that any aid to Gaza is desperately needed.

“The people of Gaza are getting approximately only 25% of what they need to be able to live,” Ahmad told RT. “And the Israeli occupation, the population is under siege, allowing them to barely maintain the minimum standard for survival.”

“We have field workers on the ground in Gaza that describe a very horrendous situation,” Ahmad stated. “And it just continues to deteriorate with every passing day, and every bit of aid is needed. And what must be remembered is these aid groups and flotilla should be commended for their activities, because they are stepping into the shoes of the international community, which has the responsibility to step up and break this siege that is holding the entire population in Gaza in prison.”

As a reaction to the events, protesters in Istanbul attempted to storm the Israeli embassy.

Anger is mounting over what many have called the disproportionate use of violence against a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza.