By Stuart Littlewood
4 June 2010
Stuart Littlewood views a little-mentioned blockade of Gaza: an interim, five-year agreement signed by the Palestinian Authority in 1995 – probably under duress – but still in force, allowing the Israelis “to weave a tangled web of security zoning in Gaza's coastal waters” and leaving them in charge offshore, where there is a massive gas field.
I must have got it all wrong.
I thought the first duty of a government was to protect its citizens from assault while going about their lawful business.
"There is no greater priority, no more important responsibility than the safety of all our citizens..." Didn't our previous prime minister, Gordon Brown, say so?
To my way of thinking, that means protecting from armed thugs any British subjects sailing peacefully and lawfully on the high seas. The Israelis advertised their threats. The government had plenty of warning. So where was the Royal Navy?
Probably horsing around in the Gulf protecting foreigners who would rather be left alone. Or chasing pirates along the Somali coast. Or cruising the Caribbean showing the flag. Brown had also promised Royal Navy ships to thwart arms smuggling into Gaza, so if the flotilla was suspected of carrying arms you’d think jolly Jack Tar would be have been on hand in a flash.
It seems our ships were just too busy on other chores like protecting Iraqis and Afghans to bother defending our own people from being murdered or abducted on their way through the Mediterranean on a noble humanitarian mission.
So the new prime minister, David Cameron, fails his first test.
His foreign secretary, William Hague, told the House of Commons that he would stress to the Israeli government the need for restraint, “given that their actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimize the risks, or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries."
Meaning that the assault would have been OK if less blood on the decks?
He also wanted the Israelis to observe UN Resolution 1860, which calls for “sustained delivery of humanitarian aid” and calls on states “to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation”. The fact that it has not happened, he said, was "a tragedy".
More than a tragedy – it’s a dereliction of duty on the part of Britain and the rest of the international community. Their cowardice and moral bankruptcy has allowed Israel to defy dozens of other UN Resolutions.
"We will therefore continue to press the Israeli government to lift the closure of Gaza,” said Hague, “and plan early discussions with Israel as well as with our other international partners about what more can be done to ensure an unfettered flow of aid while also ensuring that aid reaches those who need it and is not abused".
Press away! There is only one way to “alleviate” the situation and that’s for the world’s navies to land supplies on Gaza’s beach.
Hague ducks and weaves
Sir Gerald Kaufman, the forthright Jewish MP, pointed out that any one of the 37 UK citizens might have been killed when the Israelis “committed a war crime of piracy in international waters, kidnapping and murder – and all in pursuit of upholding an illegal blockade on Gaza that amounts to collective punishment...” He asked Mr Hague for his assurance that further steps would be taken if the Israelis failed to comply with the modest request that had been made.
But Hague sidestepped, saying: "It is our strong advice to British nationals, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, not to travel to Gaza – let me make that absolutely clear – as they would be going into a dangerous situation, but it is absolutely wrong to maintain the blockade."
By advising us not to travel – now and in the future – and failing to take action to break the illegal blockade, he chickens out and hands the Israelis an amazing victory. They of course don't want witnesses crawling all over their major crime scene.
Jeremy Corbyn asked if it wasn’t time for sanctions such as revoking the EU-Israel trade agreement. Hague replied that he did not think imposing sanctions was the right policy. So no consequences.
Frank Dobson suggested that Britain and the other European members of NATO should give naval protection if another flotilla sets off for Gaza, with the Royal Navy reverting to its traditional role of protecting the freedom of the seas. Hague dismissed this too.
Does this mean that, after all that’s happened, we’re going to abandon the Rachel Corrie to her fate? She was too late to join the main flotilla and is steaming towards Gaza independently and due to reach Israel’s killing zone any day.
Mr Hague has been a Friend of Israel since his school days. Prime Minister David Cameron reminded MPs that he too counted himself a Friend of Israel. Why on earth do they and so many others in government champion a racist, rogue state? Why are they friends of Israel and not Palestine, not Lebanon, not Syria, not Iran? Why are they supportive of the Israeli government, who are proven terrorists, but hateful towards the democratically elected government of Gaza?
Should such people have their hands on the levers of power in Britain? In this new era of sleaze-free politics they owe us an explanation.
A very bad smell
Which brings us to the issue that few people seem to have questioned – Israel’s sea blockade and its legality. I've heard Israel's apologists say the answer is to allow humanitarian supplies in by road through Israeli-controlled crossings while maintaining the blockade, and the US would probably agree to that.
Like everything else Israel does, and America supports, you have to look for the ulterior motive. Why did the belligerent party set up the blockade in the first place?
One reason is Gaza's marine gas field, which lies 25 to 30 km offshore. It is estimated to hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas worth around 4 billion US dollars in revenue. It would last 15 years and Israel wants it, so nobody talks about it.
In 2005, at the time of Israel's “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians decided to drop plans to sell their gas to Israel and talked with Egypt instead. The position changed again when Tony Blair, Israel's faithful dogsbody and special envoy of the Quartet, personally intervened on Israel's behalf.
The plan cooked up was to pipe the gas from the sea-bed to an on-shore terminal at Ashkelon in Israel. A separate pipe would run from the terminal to Gaza, with Israel providing a raft of assurances about uninterrupted supply and an uninterrupted flow of profits to the Palestinians.
How laughable. This is the same Israel that's starving Gazans into submission, blitzing them in their prison-home and trashing their economy. The same Israel that continues to murder and imprison whomsoever it wishes and steal whatever it wants. The same Israel that has no regard for international law or human rights. The same Israel that has blocked the flow of Palestinian tax and customs revenues, humanitarian aid and hospital supplies. The same Israel that will not recognize Palestine or its right of democratic self-determination.
Nobody in the Middle East believes that an assurance or guarantee by Israel is worth the paper it's written on, especially in this case where it mounted a challenge to Palestine's right to own and control the gas field, and lost. Their plan, apparently, is to get their hands on Palestine’s precious energy resource in much the same way as they stole Palestine's water. Israel would siphon off the gas in ever-increasing quantities while keeping the Palestinians in a state of bankruptcy and unable to use their share. Alternatively they'll provoke endless “security” alerts, as is their style, and block the pipeline anytime they choose as a collective punishment.
If Gaza's gas is brought ashore in Israel, how can Palestinians benefit in terms of business contracts and job opportunities?
Would they ever get a whiff of their own gas?
Indeed, should the Palestinians be thinking of selling their gas to energy-greedy Israel in the first place? After 62 years of occupation and ruination isn't every cubic foot needed to fuel their own economic recovery? It will be a long haul taking far more than 15 years.
Gaza itself ought to reap the full benefits and supply the West Bank direct. And maybe pipe some to Israel if it behaves itself.
Unfortunately, an interim agreement signed in 1995 allowed the Israelis to weave a tangled web of security zoning in Gaza's coastal waters, leaving Israel in charge and dictating what happens offshore and who comes and goes. It’s the sort of agreement no Palestinian would have signed unless under extreme duress.
It allowed fishing boats from Gaza to go 20 nautical miles from the coastline, but after Israel’s so-called “disengagement” and the capture of Corporal Shalit, Israel unilaterally reduced the fishing area to three miles.
Being “interim”, these restrictions were not expected to last beyond 1999. But they are still in force. Why?
The nasty whiff is not just gas. So here’s an immediate and urgent task for the international community. It must untangle this sea blockade and restore to Palestine free unfettered use of its territorial waters.
As for the land blockade, if it is “wrong”, as Mr Hague says, and illegal as everyone else believes, it has been wrong and illegal for four years. It is not enough to say it must end. Action must be taken to bring it to an end.
Hague was no help in opposition. Now he’s in power, he is off to a poor start. The message to him and his fellow dining room loafers in the EU is clear: Cut the cackle and ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING – NOW!
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.
River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian