Second Gaza flotilla seeks EU political cover
The organisers of a second flotilla aiming to break Israel's siege on Gaza are seeking EU diplomatic protection after Israeli commandos killed nine people and injured 52 during their first trip in 2010.
Speaking to EUobserver from Paris on Monday (4 April), Claude Leostic from Association France Palestine Solidarite (AFPS) said the group will next week send letters to top EU officials Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton urging them to threaten Israel with economic sanctions if there is a repeat of last year's violence.
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"The EU has been saying for a long time that the blockade is against international law. It has the means to apply economic pressure, to cancel its economic agreement with Israel. If they are serious about their position, they could send such a message. This would be a really good move," she explained.
The NGOs behind the project also expect several MPs from EU countries and MEPs from Brussels to join them when they set sail in late May.
Huseyin Oruc from the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a Turkish NGO, said: "There will be many MPs on board. I don't think Israel will attack us. They did so much damage to their international reputation last time that I don't think they will repeat the same actions again."
Plans for the new project will be finalised at a meeting in Athens next week.
AFPS and IHH said delegations from around 75 countries numbering two to three people each aim to take part. The new flotilla will carry activists from Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines and Turkey but is to have a more 'Western' composition than in 2010.
Delegates are also expected from Canada, the US, Switzerland, the Nordic countries, Belgium, Germany, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. Nobody from the former Communist EU member states or from Iran and Syria will be involved.
Around 15 boats are to set sail from a number of ports in the Mediterranean including Cyprus, Italy, Malta, Turkey and Tunisia. The route will avoid the Nato naval blockade on Libya and Israeli territorial waters, aiming to unload humanitarian supplies in Gaza and, later on, to sell the boats and donate funds to charities working in the strip.
The cost of the French boat alone is around €400,000, with money collected from charity fund-raiser events and internet-based donations.
Israel has offered to let the boats disembark in the Israeli port of Ashdod instead. The IHH's Oruc said organisers are willing to let the UN, or an international group including Israeli experts, search the boats for weapons "but not the Israelis on their own."
Ashton spokesman Michael Mann declined to comment on whether she will back the project or not.
"We'll see what they say [in the letter] and then we'll respond," he said. Mann read out the latest EU ministers' conclusions urging Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, adding: "All the parties involved are already exerting diplomatic pressure [on Israel]."
An Israeli diplomat told this website that EU governments should discourage nationals from taking part.
"They should advise them not to embark. We're talking about a conflict situation between Gaza and Israel. To go ahead and sail into such an area is in a way to look for trouble. Our expectation is that European governments will make people understand the risks involved," he said.
The contact declined to rule out fresh military action, adding: "They are trying to initiate a clash with Israeli forces for PR reasons."
An internal Israeli enquiry, the Turkel Commission, last year exonerated Israel's use of deadly force but Israel declined to allow an independent probe despite Turkish appeals.
The Israeli diplomat cited the 1994 international agreement, the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, as saying "merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured" and that "merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked."
Noting the current turmoil in the region due to the Arab uprisings, he said: "It makes this attempt to make the situation in Gaza look like the most important thing happening in the Middle East even more out of place than before."
"Maybe they should send the flotilla to Syria instead - I'm sure it's more needed there."