Humanitarian aid envoy to Gaza seized
by Lewis Pollis, Green Party of Ohio, with contributions from Wendy Kenin, Green Party of California
Green Party 2008 presidential candidate and former congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney was part of a number of naval expeditions to bring humanitarian aid to victims in the Gaza Strip. After their boat was rammed and fired upon by the Israeli military in previous trips, McKinney and others from the Free Gaza Movement ended up detained for over a full week in an Israeli jail on their most recent voyage this summer.
While boats, the ìFree Gazaî and ìSpirit of Humanityî were docked at their last stop in Larnaca, Cyprus before heading to Palestine to bring much needed supplies to Gazan civilians effected by the Israeli assault, the crew received a letter from the Cyprus Port Authority stating the boats had failed their safety inspections and could not depart. However McKinney said the letter was written before the ships even arrived. McKinney said she had second-hand knowledge from a Cypriot government official that Israel had pressured Cyprus to prevent the boats from leaving. Israeli Foreign Ministry documents later reported via the Cypriot Embassy in Tel Aviv that authorities of the Republic of Cyprus had permitted the ìSpirit of Humanityî to head for Port Said in Egypt.
On June 29, four days after their intended departure date, the ships set sail for the Gaza Strip. At 1:30 the next morning, when the boats were within 25 miles of Gaza, the Israeli Navy surrounded the ìSpirit of Humanity.î The Israelis disabled the ìSpirit of Humanityísî navigation equipment and threatened to fire on the ship if it did not turn around, according to FreeGaza.org, an organization that arranged for the “Spirit of Humanityî to come to Gaza.
From the trapped ship, the 21 passengers expressed their outrage. ìWe are unarmed citizens aboard an unarmed boat,î said McKinney, who also demanded Israeli officials ìcall off their attack dogs.î Chairperson of the Free Gaza movement, Huwaida Arraf said, ìWe have traveled from Cypriot waters to international waters and will enter Gazan waters. Weíve never gone near Israel. Ö No one could possibly believe that our small boat constitutes any sort of threat to Israel.î
Israeli Foreign Ministry documents released June 30 about the ìSpirit of Humanityî naval protest stated the shipís intention to ìbreak the siegeî was a ìmere provocationî since Gaza had been receiving supplies through legal existing channels. The ministry referred to the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement claiming the territorial waters off the Gaza coast are under Israeli security control with a distance limit for foreign vessels of 12 nautical miles from the coast.
Later that day, the Israeli army boarded the ìSpirit,î seizing the boat and arresting the passengers. On June 30, Israeli police issued a 24-hour administrative detention order, and the passengers appeared before the border authority July 1, resulting in custody warrants and subsequent deportation orders. The Israel Entrance Law mandates a 72-hour hold before deportation to allow for detainees to appeal deportation orders. According to Israeli official documents, 96 hours after the arrests the Border Control court reaffirmed the detention judgments.
McKinney and the other envoys were taken to Giívon Prison in Ramle and charged with illegally entering Israel, Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire told Democracy Now July 2 from her prison cell. When describing life in jail, the group focused more on the plight and unjust imprisonment of some of the other inmates who did not have strong grassroots followings to demand release.
During the height of the detention on July 3, the Green Party of Israel issued a letter calling for the immediate release of former U.S. Congressional member Cynthia McKinney, who is ìone of the leaders of the United States Green Party,î and did not ìpresent any security threat to the State of Israel.î
The detainees were deported on July 6 after spending seven days in jail, according to FreeGaza.org.
This voyage was not the first time McKinney had attempted to travel to Gaza and met with interference and violence by the Israeli military. December 2008, while trying to bring medical supplies to Gazan victims of Operation Cast Lead, her groupís boat was fired upon, then rammed and destroyed by the Israeli Navy. The trip was ìan assertion of our human rights and the human rights of the people of Gaza,î she said. McKinney and her fellow passengers were also intercepted on their second trip, a few weeks later.
ì[The trips] acquired much more significance as the resistance from the Israelis intensified,î McKinney said. ìI canít answer the question of why the Israelis are so afraid of me,î she said.
In an interview during her ëGaza Solidarity Triumph Tourí McKinney told ëHip Hop and Politicsí blogger Davey D August 24 she thinks Israel drew attention to its own faults by interfering with the groupís mission. ìIf I had been allowed to proceed to Gaza, there would not have been any need for any media attention,î she said. ìThere would not have been the spontaneous demonstrations that erupted around the worldÖdemanding the release of the Free Gaza 21.î
The envoy received no help from the U.S. government. ìThe Obama administration was silent,î McKinney said. The group had even contacted the White House and State Department before their departure to describe exactly what they planned to do, according to McKinney. ìWe needed to have safe passage,î she said. ìOne word from them could ensure that.î
The Green Party of the United States (GPUS), however, gave as much support for McKinney as possible. In addition, Greens throughout the country held protests and wrote letters critical of Israelís detainment of McKinney. The national office issued a formal statement calling for the release of McKinney and her crewmates as well as stating, ìThe Green Party of the United States condemned the invasion and massacre of Palestinians and has endorsed the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until the Israeli government guarantees full human rights, including political rights and democracy, for all Palestinians and non-Jewish Israelis.î
ìWe want to break the siege of Gaza. We want to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip, and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation. We want to uphold Palestine’s right to welcome internationals as visitors, human rights observers, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, or otherwise. We have not and will not ask for Israelís permission. It is our intent to overcome this brutal siege through civil resistance and non-violent direct action, and establish a permanent sea-lane between Gaza and the rest of the world.î FreeGaza.org said in a formal statement.
Gershon Baskin, a member of the Leadership Committee of the Israeli Green Movement Party told the Green Pages, ìCynthia’s comments are all understandable given the situation she was in Ö We hope that the Quartet will use its leverage to bring about agreement and to see the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands together with mutual security, environment, water, economic and other agreements that will produce long term vested interests in peace for the benefit of the people of Israel and the people of Palestine.î
McKinney fulfilled her goal on July 15, when Egypt granted the Viva Palestine caravan permission to cross the normally blockaded border into Gaza. ìGaza is beautiful. Gaza is full of life,î she wrote, even though it had been ìbombed to smithereens.î
McKinney said that the most important lesson to be learned from her experiences is ìsome people have human rights that are protected under the law, and other people have an aspiration to have their human rights protected under the law.”
ìIf I had been allowed to proceed to Gaza, there would not have been any need for any media attention,î she said. ìThere would not have been the spontaneous demonstrations that erupted around the worldÖdemanding the release of the Free Gaza 21.î Cynthia McKinney