By Stuart Littlewood – London
Will the ‘Free Gaza’ boat, which is about to sail from Cyprus, succeed in running the gauntlet and delivering its desperately needed cargo of medical supplies to the besieged enclave of Gaza?
On board, we are told, will be some 60 Palestinians, Israelis and Internationals from 15 countries, all determined to break the cruel blockade and see a modicum of justice done, albeit in this small way. Those 60 volunteers represent the hopes and good wishes of millions of civilised people who are sick of the despicable conduct of Israel and those cowardly leaders of the western world who stooge for the lawless regime and bring universal contempt down on their own once-great nations.
Will Israeli gunboats turn back this peaceful, humanitarian mission? Will they board the vessel, beat up the crew, humiliate the passengers and confiscate any ‘goodies’ they find? Will they simply open fire, as they often do on Gazan fishing boats even if they are nowhere near Israeli waters? Israel’s navy thinks nothing of shelling Gaza’s beach where children play.
Or will they have a sudden attack of human decency and let the voyage proceed to its destination unmolested?
Right-thinking people may be wondering why there is no international action to ensure the freedom boat’s safe and uninterrupted passage to Gaza, considering that it will be sailing through international waters and Palestinian territorial waters. Any attempt to stop the vessel would surely contravene maritime law and breach the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The latter is an important set of undertakings and Israel happens to be one of the 137 States that are party to it.
Article 1 states:
1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources… In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence. This of course includes fishing and Gaza’s off-shore gas resources.
3. The States that are party to the Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.
Article 2 requires States to guarantee that the rights enshrined in the Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Quartet, please note.
Article 6 says that the States recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.
Article 12 recognizes the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and requires the States to take the necessary steps to provide for the healthy development of the child; improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene… and conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.
Article 16 requires States to submit reports on the measures which they have adopted and the progress made in achieving the observance of the rights recognized… Where can we read Israel’s reports on the steps they have taken to promote the realization of these rights for the people of occupied Palestine?
For those who accept the fundamentals of human rights and count themselves members of the human race, nothing could be more straightforward than implementing this Covenant. But the appalling, dragged-out situation in Gaza and the West Bank begs the question: has Israel or any of the Western powers read and understood the Charter?
Gaza is further mired in a tangle of unjust and capricious impositions. Something called the Gaza-Jericho Agreement signed in 1994 was superseded by the infamous Interim Agreement of September 1995, which contains provisions for maritime activity zones off the coast of Gaza. As the Israeli B’Tselem human rights organisation explains, Israel agreed to allow fishing boats from Gaza to go 20 nautical miles from the shore (except for a few areas where entry is prohibited), but in practice the boats were permitted no more than 10 miles. Then, following the so-called disengagement from Gaza and the capture of Corporal Shalit in 2006, Israel unilaterally reduced the area for fishing to just three nautical miles from the shore.
The fishing industry in Gaza, which normally provides jobs for some 3000 registered fishermen and vital food for the population, has been devastated.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territorial waters in any case extend 12 nautical miles, and Article 89 (Invalidity of claims of sovereignty over the high seas) says: “No State may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty.” How did the Interim Agreement square with these laws?
It was simply a device for enabling the Israelis to weave a tangled web of security in Gaza’s coastal waters, which left them completely in charge and able to dictate what happens off-shore and who may come and go. Being of an interim nature this maritime strangulation was not expected to last beyond 1999, but Israel acts as if it is permanent. “Indeed,” says B’Tselem, “Israel has maintained total and sole control of Gaza’s airspace and the territorial waters, just as it has from the time when the occupation of the Gaza Strip began in 1967.”
As part of the Oslo peace process Israel agreed to the construction of a seaport for Gaza. Work started in 2000 but later that same year Israel bombed the project when two IOF soldiers were killed in Ramallah. The flow of funds from donor states dried up, and no more work has been done. In 2005 Israel again agreed to let construction go ahead and, so that foreign investors would not be put off, guaranteed co-operation in setting up the necessary security arrangements and undertook not to interfere in the running of the port. As before, these proved to be empty promises and Israel’s refusal to deliver on its obligations is not only a further infringement of the right to freedom of movement but an insurmountable obstacle to Gaza’s trade.
So many other rights hinge on freedom of movement that Israel denies this freedom as a matter of policy. “In the Occupied Territories, restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli army have frustrated the efforts of Palestinian farmers to grow and sell crops, and have denied Palestinians access to jobs and to health and education facilities,” says an Amnesty International report. “Blockades and other restrictions – including a 600 kilometre fence/wall under construction since 2002 – are imposed to keep Palestinians away from Israeli settlements and roads used by Israeli settlers. These settlements are illegal under international law and have deprived the local Palestinian population of water, land and other key resources.”
‘Disengagement’ from Gaza was only a pretence – Israel still occupies Gazan airspace, coastal waters and airwaves , keeps Gaza’s borders sealed, carries out air-strikes and makes incursions with troops and armour whenever it pleases. An urgent task for the international legal system is to insist that Israel, in its capacity as the occupier of the West Bank and Gaza, ensures the safety and well-being of the local residents and maintains normal living conditions. But as always in relation to Israel any legal rulings or charter obligations, if they are to have the slightest effect, need to be enforced by a determined international community that’s not afraid to impose sanctions.
In the meantime, what fate awaits the fragile mission of this plucky little Free Gaza boat as it sails towards danger in the Eastern Mediterranean? Do the mighty powers of the West believe in the principles of freedom and kindness enough to provide a protective escort?
There’s no sign of it so far. Nor is there any likelihood that they will uphold the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on behalf of the imprisoned Gazans. On recent performance the nations of the West are “all mouth and trousers”, as we say in England. They spout high-sounding words but renege on their duty. In Palestine’s case they haven’t delivered in 60 years… to their eternal shame.
-Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. For further information please visit www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk.