Ship to Gaza Norway responds to Norwegian Foreign Minister
Oslo, 15 October 2012
Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Postboks 8114 Dep.
On the necessity to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza, recognizing that people in Gaza are fellow human beings, and that human rights should also apply to them.
Thank you for the letter which we received from the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre on 6 September 2012 in reply to our letter of 29 June 2012. The letter contains both good and bad sections, and we will comment on the contents below in more detail.
But first of all, we wish to underline that we expect the Norwegian government to protest strongly if Israel intercepts a vessel in international waters, forcing the vessel with crew and passengers to an Israeli port, imprisoning the crew and the passengers and tries to force them to sign papers that state that the signatory admits to having entered Israel illegally, confiscates assets belonging to the crew and the passengers, damages the vessel and keeps it in its own possession for a long time. All this happened to ships that participated in the Freedom Flotilla expeditions in 2010 and 2011.
In particular, we expect this when Norwegian citizens are victim to such actions by the Israeli authorities. Free and safe navigation on the high seas has been and remains crucial for Norway with our strong maritime tradition.
Ship to Gaza Norway is participating in the “Estelle” expedition, with the schooner “Estelle” sailing towards Gaza with solidarity as its main cargo. The voyage from Sweden via a number of European ports to Gaza is being used – with considerable success – to attain the attention of media, the public opinion and political authorities on the blockade and its inhumane effects. The people on board wish to show 1.6 million Gaza residents that their fate is not forgotten. The ship’s cargo of goods that people in Gaza need, does not help much in itself, but it symbolizes the goal: To break Israel’s illegal blockade and to increase pressure for it to be lifted. Among those on board we also find European parliamentarians and representatives of politics, culture and academia in Europe, Israel and Canada.
There are four Norwegians on board on the last leg of the voyage to Gaza: Aksel Hagen, Jan Petter Hammervold, Herman Reksten and Nils Johan Sjøstrøm. Through their participation they show in practice that they consider Gaza’s population of 1.6 million people to be their fellow human beings, who obviously are entitled to full human rights like people all over the world. To keep 1.6 million people hostage and subject them to collective punishment breaches international law. This is why these four men are on board this peaceful, slow, old sailing ship. Based on the principles of nonviolence, they are unarmed on their way to Gaza. It is absurd to consider this expedition to be a threat to Israel’s security, and Israel does not have any valid legal grounds for preventing “Estelle” from entering Gaza harbor.
We expect the Norwegian government in general and you as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in particular to protest strongly if the Israeli navy intercepts the ship and thus violates the fundamental principles of freedom of navigation at sea. Gaza is not in Israel, and Israel has no right to stop a ship and force it to an Israeli port on the grounds that Gaza is its destination. And in particular, we expect a strong protest if Israeli authorities in any way put Norwegian citizens in detention. They are on board a peaceful ship bound for a non-Israeli port, and there is no legal basis for detention.
More on the letter dated 6 September 2012 from Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre, and the status of the report from Palmer/Uribe (The Panel of Inquiry that collapsed).
In his letter to us, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre wrote: “The government has not made and will not give any law “clearance” within international law for the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. The Norwegian view is that the blockade is unacceptable. We have repeatedly stated that the Israeli regime of closure of Gaza must be lifted, and that some relief by itself is not enough. This attitude is also based on considerations concerning international law.”
This is good.
But it is not acceptable when the letter thereafter says: “If Israel is subjected to rocket attacks from Gaza targeting Israeli population centers, Israel can – on the basis of the general right to self-defense, which is recognized in international law – have grounds to take certain necessary and proportionate measures to prevent the supply of arms and other means of attack to Gaza. This is also emphasized in the report from September 2011 of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry on the Gaza Flotilla, which on this basis concludes inter alia that the naval blockade, treated as a separate and distinct action in relation to the measures of closure on land, was not in violation of international law.”
We sharply dissociate ourselves from any attack on civilians, regardless of who carries it out. Simultaneously, it is necessary to underline that Israel is an occupying power, and that Gaza is occupied territory. This is also the view of the United Nations. In his letter to us, the Foreign Minister Gahr Støre writes as if Israel is the party that is under attack, and that Israel then responds with measures of self-defense. This turns the situation on its head.
In the reply from Foreign Minister Gahr Støre the report of 2011 from the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry (The Palmer-Uribe Report) is given a status which it does not have. Paragraph 5 of the report’s chapter “Introduction” states: “The panel is not a court. It was not asked to take make determinations of the legal issues or to adjudicate on liability”. The premise for the work of the panel was to build on consensus. The panel consisted of New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer (Chair), former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (Vice Chair), and two members from Israel and Turkey respectively. But the Turkish member could not approve the draft report, and it ended with only Palmer and Uribe formally reporting back to the UN Secretary-General.
Turkey was particularly affected by the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla 2010, because the nine passengers who were killed were Turks, and they were on board the flotilla’s largest ship, the Turkish “Mavi Marmara”. The Turkish member of the panel, Süleyman Özdem Sanberk, stated as his view that he disagreed with the panel leaders on these issues contained in the report:
• The question of the legality of the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel
• The Actions of the Flotilla
• Naval blockades in general
• Appendix: The applicable international legal principles
Regarding the legal aspect of the blockade, he criticized the panel leaders and their report for associating themselves fully with Israel and categorically dismissing the Turkish views, despite the fact that the legal arguments presented by Turkey was supported by the vast majority of the international community. He also pointed out that common sense and conscience dictate that the blockade is unlawful. He also noted that the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the blockade was unlawful, and that the Report of the Human Rights Council Fact Finding Mission received widespread approval from the member states. He further pointed out that freedom and safety of navigation on the high seas is a universally accepted rule of international law, and that there can be no exception from this long-standing principle unless there is a universal convergence of views.
The Turkish member of the panel also emphasized that the intentions of the participants in Freedom Flotilla 2010 were humanitarian, reflecting the concerns of the vast majority of the international community. They came under attack in international waters. They resisted for their own protection. Nine civilians were killed and many others were injured by the Israeli soldiers. The evidence confirmed that at least some of the victims had been killed deliberately. He pointed out that the wording in the report was not satisfactory in describing the actual extent of the atrocities that the victims had been subjected to. This included the scope of the maltreatment suffered by the passengers in the hands of Israeli soldiers and officials. On this basis he rejected and dissociated himself from the bulk of Palmer’s and Uribe’s report.
On the basis of this devastating rejection of the Palmer-Uribe report we find it reprehensible that the Foreign Minister refers to this report as an authoritative legal source. The prerequisites for the Panel of Inquiry to issue a report in accordance with their actual mandate, collapsed. It is incomprehensible that the Norwegian Government chooses to base its views on Palmer/Uribe’s highly contested considerations, which have extremely weak international support.
Better security with extensive, illegal smuggling through tunnels than with the ordinary, open transportation routes?
After we wrote our letter to the Foreign Minister Gahr Støre on 29 June 2012, several shocking reports have been submitted concerning the conditions of Gaza’s population. Special emphasis has been given to the report which the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territories (UNCT.oPt) submitted on 27 August 2012, titled “Gaza in 2020 – A liveable place?”. The report answers the question negatively. The 15 pages of this UN report cover the most important aspects of the situation and the future prospects for the people of Gaza. In Chapter 1 “Economy” the report states on page 4: “Due to the restrictions, Gaza’s economy is largely dependent on external aid, the tunnel economy and remittances.”
On page 5 there is a separate section entitled “The Tunnel Economy”. It states inter alia: “Circumventing the closure of the Gaza Strip, goods are illegally smuggled from Egypt into Gaza through hundreds of tunnels. Estimates of the number of tunnels, the number of tunnel workers, and the amount of goods smuggled through the tunnels vary and no reliable data are available. The tunnel economy benefits the de facto authorities in Gaza, who according to an ILO report, “receive a considerable share of the benefits” from it”.
The tunnel economy nurtures criminality and undermines normal, legitimate economic activities. Tunnel owners are getting rich, and goods smuggled into Gaza become expensive. They are too expensive to be within the financial reach of the impoverished majority, but these goods are referred to from the Israeli side when claiming that there are shopping centers bursting with goods.
Foreign Minister Gahr Støre’s reply referred to Israel’s need “to prevent the illegal smuggling of arms and ammunition into Gaza”. But through these tunnels come also the imported supplies needed to make the rockets that are fired into Israel. The recent escalation confirms that this is the case. It is not true that the blockade is necessary for Israel’s security, and it is quite absurd to claim that the security is maintained in a better way if the goods come in by extensive, illegal smuggling than through normal, open transportation routes.
The purpose of the blockade is primarily collective punishment of the people living in Gaza, not the strengthening of Israel’s security. There are much proof showing that this is the case, including the fact that the blockade also includes terrorizing and shooting at Palestinian fishermen who venture 3-4 kilometers off Gaza’s beaches. Through the Oslo process Gaza’s fishermen were given permission to fish only within a limit of 20 nautical miles (37 kilometers), but Israel has unlawfully restricted the limit to only 3 nautical miles (5.6 km). Now the Israeli marine terrorizes the fishermen shooting at them even inside this 3 nautical miles limit. In what way is the Israeli security strengthened by firing on fishermen and destroying one of Gaza’s main industries?
On the effects of the blockade and the concept of “humanitarian crisis”
The summary of the report “Gaza in 2020 – A liveable place?” concludes: “In short, an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip in the context of Security Council resolution 1860, and Gaza’s recovery and long-term economic development remain fundamental objectives of the United Nations”.
In an article in The Guardian 9 September 2012 Robert Turner, the Gaza Director of UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) sums up the main findings of the report: The catastrophic drinking water situation, where groundwater levels are fast declining and polluted by contamination by nitrates from uncontrolled sewage and becoming undrinkable. It may take hundreds of years to develop new groundwater resources. The noxious sewage conditions, where three-quarters now goes untreated into the sea, the unsustainable health situation, the education sector where UNRWA has 247 schools with 93% double shifting – the same building serving two separate shifts each day, the inadequate food supply where 44 percent of the 900,000 refugees have unsafe nutritional conditions even after UNRWA has distributed food to them.
His conclusion is: “Our prescription to avert this looming but avoidable catastrophe is simple. While the UN has condemned the rockets many times, we continue to demand a lifting of the blockade, which is costing the international community hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Allow the people of Gaza to enjoy the standards of development and economic prosperity for which they yearn. They are capable of self-sufficiency. They do not want the current levels of 80% aid dependency to continue and neither do the world’s taxpayers who fund the international aid agencies. Let us address the root causes of this looming disaster rather than expecting the international community to foot the bill to mitigate their disastrous consequences”.
More than once, the Foreign Minister Gahr Støre repeats in his response to us the completely incomprehensible standpoint that also previously has been put forward as the Government’s view: There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. His letter states on page 2: “There is little doubt that people in Gaza experience their living conditions as critical, even if the food supply is such that we are not dealing with a humanitarian crisis in the regular sense”. This sentence is also repeated on page 3 of the letter, except here with “no doubt” instead of “little doubt”.
In his letter it is obviously essential for the then Foreign Minister Gahr Støre to state that no matter how bad the situation is, it is not “a humanitarian crisis”. We find the explanation to why this is considered to be a magical expression, when we read the Report of 27 September 2010 from the UN-appointed Hudson-Phillips Mission, entitled “Report of the international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance“. In the paragraphs 260-278 the mission draws its conclusions. Paragraph 261 reads as follows: “The Mission has come to the firm conclusion that a humanitarian crisis existed on the 31 May 2010 in Gaza. The preponderance of evidence from impeccable sources is too overwhelming to come to contrary opinion. Any denial of this cannot be supported on any rational grounds. One of the consequences flowing from this is that for this reason alone the blockade is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law. This is so regardless of the grounds on which one seeks two justify the legality of the blockade. “ (Our underlining)
If the conditions in Gaza have to be labelled “a humanitarian crisis”, the blockade is illegal.
It must be emphasized that this mission was appointed for the sole purpose of investigating the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla 2010, that is to say that the specific subject of the Mission’s conclusions was the legality of the naval blockade. Its conclusion regarding Israel’s attack on the flotilla was that the attack was in violation of international law.
It should be added that Israel boycotted the Mission, probably because Israel had greater expectations to what kind of conclusions one might expect from Alvaro Uribe and Geoffrey Palmer as leaders of the aforementioned Panel of Inquiry (which also had as its explicit ultimate goal given by the UN Secretary-General to “positively affect the relationship between Turkey and Israel, as well as the overall situation in the Middle East”. It was in fact a negotiating panel, and it was never meant to make any serious investigation of the case based on international law. The panel completely failed to achieve this ultimate goal, but Israel was satisfied that the two panel leaders legitimized Israel’s attack on the flotilla).
It is true that the food supply to the population of Gaza means that people usually do not starve to death. But this is solely due to the extensive efforts of international humanitarian organizations, that provide aid to 80 percent of Gaza’s population. Israel’s role is to make money on this relief effort, among other things in connection with the transport of goods through Israel into Gaza. The paradox here is that Israel keeps running a blockade, while they at the same time let international aid organizations take care of the task of keeping people alive, and Israel itself makes money on the organizations’ efforts. This is outrageous. It is easy to understand why 50 international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies on 14 June 2012 made this most striking joint declaration: “For over five years in Gaza, more than 1,6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: “End the blockade now!”
The “legal” logic that Israel presents, then, is this: The international aid organizations nurture people, and therefore there is no humanitarian crisis. For that reason the blockade does not violate international law.
However, the situation for the vast majority in Gaza is still so bad, that even though they do not starve to death, many of them have their physical and mental health damaged (e.g. the majority of the schoolchildren suffer from anemia). The Israeli blockade severely affects the restoration of the infrastructure that Israel did extensive damage to during Operation Cast Lead 2008/2009. The inhabitants of Gaza are effectively deprived of the possibility of self-sufficiency. The Israeli marine fires at the fishermen when they fish. Almost all export is blocked, and people are not allowed to visit their relatives on the West Bank. The UN report “Gaza in 2020 – A liveable place?” concludes that the answer is no, Gaza will not be a liveable place. It is urgent to end the blockade. If not, the future will be even worse than today, with the groundwater completely destroyed so that it will take hundreds of years to restore it.
Common sense dictates that in this situation it is clearly justified to describe it as a humanitarian crisis, and that the occupying power Israel in no way fulfills its obligations under international law.
The blockade makes life for the people of Gaza unendurable, and it would have led to widespread famine, with fatal consequences. Such a blockade is illegal under international law. It is absolutely absurd to argue that because international aid organizations are doing a considerable effort to keep people alive, this effort means that the illegal blockade transforms into a legal blockade, even if the occupying power in no way contributes to this effort.
It is very surprising and outrageous that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepts this kind of reasoning, and that it facilitates this by insisting that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Is it really the Foreign Ministry’s view that an occupier’s abuse of the occupied people becomes legal if international aid organizations succeed in alleviating the abuse?
We ask you hereby to explain to us: What precise references do you have that enable you to continue to insist that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, thus legitimizing one of Israel’s crucial arguments for the legality of the blockade?
The naval blockade of Gaza is illegal. To intercept “Estelle” is a violation of international law.
As mentioned above, we are pleased to note these sentences in the then Foreign Minister Gahr Støre’s letter: “The government has not made and will not give any law “clearance” within international law for the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. The Norwegian view is that the blockade is unacceptable. We have repeatedly stated that the Israeli regime of closure of Gaza must be lifted, and that some relief by itself is not enough. This attitude is also based on considerations concerning international law.”
But it is remarkable that the Norwegian government nevertheless is unable to conclude that the blockade is illegal. The blockade cannot be both legal and illegal. Since the government is unable to conclude that it is illegal, while the overall impression of the formulations is that in fact it probably is legal, the position of the Norwegian government functions to give legal support anyhow. The message from the government to Israel is that we totally disagree with what you do, but we recognize your right to do so. Obviously, this has absolutely no effect on Israel.
However, as mentioned above, the UN-appointed Hudson-Phillips Mission was clear in its conclusion 27 September 2010.
The British Baroness Valerie Amos, who is the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator , was also clear in her statement of 13 June 2012, when she pointed out that more than 80 percent of families in Gaza are dependent on humanitarian aid, and that Gaza remains subject to severe restrictions on imports, exports and the movement of people, by land, air and sea. She continued: “This amounts to a collective punishment of all those living in Gaza and is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law”.
The strong, joint statement that 50 international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies published on 14 June 2012, was also clear in its conclusion: Israel’s blockade of Gaza is “in violation of international law”. Within these 50 organizations and UN agencies there is highly qualified international legal expertise.
All these contrast markedly with the Norwegian government’s inability to draw a clear conclusion. The effect of this is that the Norwegian government de facto supports the Israeli view on the legality of the blockade.
Because neither Norwegian nor foreign governments in practice show any willingness to apply pressure on Israel to lift the illegal blockade of Gaza, it is necessary for civil society to take action. With its voyage to Gaza the schooner “Estelle” and the people and the cargo on board are an example of such action.
More and more people in Gaza now say: We do not want more aid. We wish to have the right and opportunity to live and work as human beings and make our own living. “Estelle” carries goods that are needed in Gaza. However, the main purpose of our expedition is not the goods as such, but to display solidarity and contribute to international pressure to end this disastrous blockade.
Finally, we want to emphasize that the international Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC), of which the “Estelle” expedition is a part, is governed by the principle of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance. It is founded on the fact that human rights must be respected and applied to all human beings – including the residents of Gaza. This must be the case regardless of race, gender, tribe, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, citizenship or language. The coalition consists of grassroots, people-to-people campaigns and initiatives from all over the world working together to end the siege of Gaza. FFC is based on solidarity with the Palestinian people, but supports, without exception, no particular political party or organization.
“Estelle” is scheduled to arrive in Gaza within a few days. It is urgent therefore to receive a reply to this letter, and obviously there is a particular urgency concerning the issues we have raised in the first part of this letter on pages 1 and 2.
on behalf of the Board of Ship to Gaza Norway
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