Israel detains fishing vessels carrying injured Palestinians

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The two ships were attempting to break the 12-year illegal Israeli blockade on Gaza

Palestinians board the flotilla bound to Cyprus

By Abhijan Choudhury / The Dawn News / June 1, 2018

The Israeli navy recently stopped and seized two Palestinians fishing vessels carrying students, activists, cancer patients and people injured in the recent mass protests, which were trying to break the 12-year illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza. The two boats had left Gaza’s fisherman’s port on Tuesday morning and were attempting to head towards Cyprus. The boats were intercepted by warships which escorted them to Ashdod port in Israel. The people on board were searched and detained. The boats had managed to cross the 9 nautical mile limit imposed by Israel on Palestinian vessels before they were seized.

Another 30 more boats, mostly smaller fishing vessels, with hundreds of people onboard, had also set sail in support of the main vessels but most of them did not cross the boundary. Around 15 or so vessels that tried to do so were met with fire from Israeli military forces.

“We’re surrounded by Israeli warships to the left, the right, to our front and from behind. We’re stuck in the middle,” an activist on the flotilla told reporters. “We’re all safe and request your prayers.”

The attempt to break the blockade comes two weeks after Israeli soldiers killed at least 61 Palestinians and wounded thousands of others at the Gaza-Israel border.

Organisers and authorities told Al Jazeera that all of those on board had valid passports, with the injured having made arrangements to receive medical treatment in Turkey.

Under the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, Israel is obligated to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles into the sea, but this has never been implemented. The longest distance Israel has permitted vessels to proceed in the past 12 years is 12 nautical miles (22km). Boats are often permitted to travel only six nautical miles (11km), and Israeli forces regularly fire warning shots at boats which attempt to travel further. On instances, boats have even been restricted to a mere 1 nautical mile into the sea.

The 12-year Israeli blockade has prevented the Gaza Strip’s 2 million citizens from receiving much-needed humanitarian aid, including food, medical supplies, electricity, and clean water. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that the effects of this crippling siege could make Gaza “uninhabitable” in the next few years. With severe restrictions on access to basic services, Gaza has been dubbed the world’s largest open-air prison.

Organizers reiterated that the voyage was a continuation of the Great March of Return, which began on March 30. The attempt on Tuesday also coincided with the eighth anniversary of Israel’s attack on the Turkish Mavi Marmara flotilla while it was in international waters. Nine Turkish nationals were killed in the incident.

On Tuesday, Gaza’s Coast Guard was managing the crowds and instructed the vessels not to cross the imposed nautical boundary to avoid casualties from Israeli action.

In 2016, there were 126 incidents in which the Israeli navy fired at Palestinian fishermen and their boats. 12 fishermen were injured, and 121 were detained, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

The International Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC), in a statement, condemned ” Israel’s brutal act of state piracy in attacking the aptly named Hurriya (Liberty) vessel which attempted to leave the port of Gaza today filled with people needing urgent medical assistance as well as students and crew, as they attempted to peacefully make safe passage to Cyprus.”

“This latest attempt to break the illegal blockade of Gaza continues the brave challenges during the Great March of Return, where more than 120 Palestinians have been shot and killed by Israeli snipers and thousands severely injured.”

Committee members said they were working with international agencies, including Human Rights Watch and The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to ensure the wellbeing of the boat’s passengers and to hold Israel responsible for their safety.

A second attempt to break through the Gaza naval blockade is expected later this year. A Freedom Flotilla set sail from Copenhagen last week. Another freedom flotilla, which departed the Norwegian port of Bergen on April 30, is on its way to Gaza.

Israel, meanwhile has announced that it has started work on a huge fortified breakwater in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent “infiltration” from the Gaza Strip. The “new and impenetrable” barrier being built off the Zikim beach, a few kilometres north of Gaza, is in effect a fortified breakwater topped with barbed wire, Israel’s defence ministry said in a statement.

Israel is also continuing the revamp and extension of its border fence with the Gaza Strip, including a massive new underground barrier meant to neutralise the threat of tunnels.

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