Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gaza Flotilla 2011: Set to Sail with Former U.S. Diplomat Ann Wright, Retired U.S. Ambassador Samuel Hart, Alice Walker and More

Freedom Flotilla incident. 31 may 2010. Cartog...Image via Wikipedia
An international flotilla is set to sail for Gaza to challenge Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian territory. Last year, lives were lost during a confrontation at sea.

This year, a US vessel named the Audacity of Hope will join the flotilla of some ten ships with over 30 Americans and activists from other countries.  Former U.S. diplomat Ann Wright is an organizer of the U.S. Boat to Gaza. Ann is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and a former US diplomat who served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. In 2003 she resigned in opposition to the Iraq war. also reports that Samuel Hart, a Jacksonville resident and former U.S. ambassador to Ecuador with 27 years  of service as a career diplomat is also joining the Gaza flotilla. The report did not indicate which vessel he will be on:

By the time the civil rights movement began making significant strides, Hart had left Mississippi, first to serve as an Army officer, then to join the diplomatic corps in 1958.

Which is one of the reasons the retired ambassador decided at age 77 to participate in the upcoming Freedom Flotilla II, which will attempt to carry humanitarian aid past an Israeli blockade to 1.5 million residents of Gaza.

"I wasn't at Selma," said Hart, a Jacksonville resident since 1994. "I wasn't at the March on Washington. ... I see great similarities between this and the civil rights movement. I am pleased to be a part of it."

But before the flotilla even left port, it is once more big in the news.

On June 24, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson released the following statement on the Gaza   "Anniversary" Flotilla:
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the confrontation between Israeli forces and activists when a flotilla attempted to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza on May 31, 2010. The United States deeply regrets the tragic loss of life and injuries suffered among those involved in that incident aboard the Gaza bound ships.

We are concerned that a number of groups are organizing a one year “anniversary” flotilla to commemorate the incident by sailing from various European ports to Gaza in the near future. Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers. Established and efficient mechanisms exist to transfer humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
We underscore that delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate U.S. civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration.

Read the whole thing here:

During the Daily Press Brief on June 27, the journalists chased the spokesperson around the room:
QUESTION: The – some of the ships that will make up this flotilla that you’re so – not enthusiastic about have left already, heading for points close to Gaza, if not Gaza itself. The Israelis over the weekend first warned journalists and then were rescinded this warning that if they got on any of these ships that they could be subject to criminal penalties, deportation, 10-year ban from the country.

I’m wondering if there was any contact between the U.S. and Israel about that, and whether the warning that you put out last week – or, not the Travel Warning, per se, but the – your statement in which you warned Americans that they might be violating U.S. law if they participated, did that apply to journalists?

MS. NULAND: First, with regard to the Government of Israel’s decision, our understanding from press reporting but also from our own contacts was that that first announcement was made at a relatively low level, and when senior Israelis became involved, the decision was amended, as you saw.

The U.S. warnings to U.S. citizens apply to all U.S. citizens. We are concerned about any of our citizens involved in a situation that could be provocative, that could be dangerous. That said, freedom of the press; journalists make their own decision, but we have made clear that we are concerned about this situation.

QUESTION: But a journalist who is on one of these boats, could they be subject to laws that bar – the law specifically, the legislation, the laws that you mentioned in your statement which have to do with material support for Hamas?

MS. NULAND: I’m not aware of legal distinctions that we would make between journalists and other citizens, but I can double-check whether there’s a distinction to be made there. I think our concern was that this was a dangerous situation for any American to be involved in.
QUESTION: Yes, ma’am. To the best of your knowledge, has there ever been a ship caught smuggling arms on these aid ships? Has there been any ship that was caught with arms being smuggled to Gaza?

MS. NULAND: Our understanding is that Israel has been the victim of arms smuggled illegally at sea and --

QUESTION: Right. But not these aid ships? Are you aware of any of these aid ships used to smuggle arms?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to precisely which kind of ships arms have been found on, but one of the reasons for the Israeli concern is that they have been victims of arms smuggled at sea.

The board of The Foreign Press Association was not at all happy about the threats by Israel on journalists covering the flotilla and released this statement of 26th June, 2011:
"The government’s threat to punish journalists covering the Gaza flotilla sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press. Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation. We urge the government to reverse its decision immediately."

After Israel reversed its decision the board released another statement on June 27:
The Foreign Press Association welcomes the prime minister’s decision to drop plans to deport and ban journalists covering the Gaza flotilla. We are pleased to see that Israel has recognized the value of allowing reporters to cover an important news event, and understands that journalists should be treated differently from political activists. We urge the government to continue to do its utmost to promote freedom of the press as core values of a democratic society. -  The Foreign Press Association , 27th June 2011

Bloomberg reports that two members of Congress, Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and Nita Lowey (D-NY) said U.S. citizens who join a flotilla planning to break Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip should face prosecution.

Probably not surprising to Maureen Murphy who writes in Al Jazeera:
I am a Palestine solidarity activist in the US, and one of 23 US citizens who have been issued with a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury as part of what the government has said is an investigation into violations of the laws banning material support to foreign "terrorist organisations".

None of us have given money or weapons to any group on the State Department's foreign terrorist organisation list. But what many of us have done is participate in or help organise educational trips to meet with Palestinians and Colombians resisting the US-funded military regimes they live under.
Travel for such purposes should be protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But a year ago the US Supreme Court decided in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project to dramatically expand the government's definition of what constitutes material support for a foreign terrorist organisation.

Now the government considers travel to places like the West Bank and Colombia to be a predicate or justification for opening up an investigation and issuing search warrants to raid activists' homes and seize their belongings. Political speech if made in a "coordinated way" can be construed as material support.

JTA reports that "commandos from the Israeli Navy's elite Shayetet 13 unit have spent weeks preparing to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza, including practicing new ways to quickly board the ships' upper decks and how to use water cannons and other non-lethal riot control methods."

And because this is 2011, the flotilla journey will most certainly be tweeted, live-blogged, and may even be streamed live as it unfolds ....

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