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Threats to Free Gaza Ship illuminate Israeli stance on mission

Aug. 17, 2008 7:19 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 17, 2008 7:19 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - Reports released Sunday give the first indications as to what the Israeli response to the Free Gaza Ship will be.

Reports claim that Israel is pressuring Cyprus, from where the Free Gaza ship will launch, to halt the voyage. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has also voiced concern over the project.

Initially scheduled to set sail on 5 August, the ship has been delayed; waiting for the right meteorological, and political conditions for the small craft to embark on their voyage. Until now it is unclear what the exact nature of the Israeli response to the Free Gaza ship will be.

On Sunday, however, Israeli press articles hinted at the response that might be expected.

One newspaper reported the Israeli Foreign Ministry as saying "it is within its [the foreign ministry's] rights to use force against the seafarers."

"Allowing the ships to reach the Gaza coastline could create a dangerous precedent," the article continued. The statement, it was reported, came after several meetings of Israeli officials on the possible courses of action for the impending arrival of the Free Gaza ship to Gaza.

According to the Israeli Navy, there have been no official instructions given as to how to proceed when the ship is encountered.

An official paper issued from the Foreign Ministry cites the Oslo Accords as those which give Israel the right to patrol Gaza waters.

In a statement issued Sunday, the Free Gaza movement reminded Israel that the accords expired in 1999. The accords, in fact, were never fully implemented, and are considered by most to have been a failure now defunct.

The Free Gaza statement, responding to rumours of the use of force against their vessel, stated:

"We are nonviolent human rights activists and we have vowed to take no violent action, in either word or deed, against any other human beings - including against Israeli government and military officials who, apparently, wish us harm."

The ships sailing to Gaza hope to open the port near Gaza City. If they land it will be the first international vessel to dock in Gaza for over a year, and will effectively open Gaza's sea border and break the three year siege on the area.

The movement is prepared to be stopped by the Israeli Navy on their way into Gaza waters. Where the boat is stopped, and the justification given for any Israeli military altercation with the ship, will shed light on the current Israeli mechanisms being used to sustain the Gaza blockade.

Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The document laying out the terms of the withdrawal stated that "Israel will guard and monitor the external land perimeter of the Gaza Strip, will continue to maintain exclusive authority in Gaza air space, and will continue to exercise security activity in the sea off the coast of the Gaza Strip."

The document also stated, however, that "Israel recognizes the great importance of the continued activity of international humanitarian organizations assisting the Palestinian population. Israel will coordinate with these organizations arrangements to facilitate this activity."

The Free Gaza claims to be a Humanitarian vessel bringing needed supplies into the area and has no violent or military intentions. The group has also corresponded with Israeli Minister of Defense Tzipi Livni, among other Israeli officials, and invited them to the welcome ceremony in Gaza.

There has been no Israeli response telling the Free Gaza ship that they are unwelcome in Gaza waters.

In its statement, however, the Israeli Foreign Ministry does not cite the unilateral withdrawal paper in its justification for using force. Rather, they cite the 1993 Oslo agreement.

The 1993 accord, officially titled "The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements is the main agreement signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation," does not give any concrete information on the status of the sea border for the Gaza strip. The agreement sets out terms for future cooperation on development projects including a sea port in Gaza, but there has been no cooperation regarding any of these issues since the mid 1990s.

If Israel is still operating within parameters of the Oslo accords, than the ship should be halted 20 nautical miles off the cost of Gaza.

Threats to the crew may indicate popular reactions to the mission

Some of the crew of the ship has reported that they have received threatening phone calls warning them that the ships will be sunk on their way to Gaza.

Lauren Booth, sister in law of former British Prime Minister and current Middle East Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, reported receiving a call at her family home in France. An anonymous caller told her husband "your wife is in great danger. These ships will be blown up."

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