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Marmara, and beyond
By Amira Howeidy
Al-Ahram weekly
11 June 2010

By killing an unspecified number of international activists in international waters Israel has provoked severe diplomatic tensions on multiple fronts. Tel Aviv is now in political and diplomatic confrontation with at least 37 nations. Some 663 international activists from these states were aboard the six ship flotilla which was sailing in the Mediterranean, heading towards Gaza with humanitarian supplies, when it was attacked by elite Israeli forces in the early hours of 31 May.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday Israel had still not disclosed the total number of peace activists it killed on the largest ship in the flotilla, the Turkish vessel the Mavi Marmara. Eyewitness accounts suggest the number could be as high as 19. The majority of the dead are believed to be Turkish nationals.

The Gaza-bound flotilla was carrying 10,000 tonnes of medical and food aid.

The attack, which took place in international waters 65km from Gaza, places Israel in violation of a host of international laws. By attacking a ship on the high seas, the Israel navy committed an international crime, Ali El-Ghateet, an Egyptian professor of international law, told the Weekly. As an occupying force, Israel is also in violation of international humanitarian laws, which require the occupier to transport aid and supplies to the occupied.

The Israeli commandos -- as well as those higher up the chain of command -- who boarded the ship, injured and killed its passengers, and kidnapped others, forcing the flotilla to the Israeli port of Ashdod, are technically subject to Turkish jurisdiction. The scene of the crime -- the Mavi Marmara -- as a Turkish ship, is part of Turkish territory.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador and research fellow at Lancaster University`s School of Law, interprets the Israeli attack as an act of `illegal warfare`.

`Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime,` Murray suggested in an analysis published on his website on Tuesday.

Beyond recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv on Monday, it is unclear what Turkey`s next legal, political or diplomatic steps will be. The Turkish prime minister has described the attack as a `heinous crime`. Its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, went further. On Tuesday in New York he called on the international community to `put an end` to Israel`s breaches of international law and legitimacy. As the Weekly was going to press, the Turkish National Security Council was about to convene, against a backdrop of popular outrage and massive anti-Israel demonstrations.

On Wednesday Turkish lawmakers called on the government to review its political, military and economic ties with Israel. In a declaration approved by a show of hands, they also demanded Israel formally apologise for the raid, pay compensation to the victims and prosecute those responsible for the attack.

NATO member Turkey, till recently one of Israel`s closest regional allies, has grown increasingly critical of its onetime partner. Ankara`s approach towards Israel in the massacre`s aftermath is likely to affect the entire region, with repercussions already taking unforeseen turns. On Tuesday the Kuwaiti parliament urged the government to withdraw from the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, to which Israel has yet to respond. The following day Nicaragua suspended diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv in response to the attack.

The massacre has focussed international attention on the miserable situation in the Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli blockade since June 2007. Israel`s 22-day war on the Strip in December 2008, which killed over 1,400 Palestinians, maimed and injured thousands more and destroyed much of Gaza`s infrastructure, exacerbated the already dire conditions 1.5 million Palestinians face on a daily basis.

It has also directed attention to the Rafah border crossing on the 14km Egypt-Gaza border, Gaza`s only gateway to the world not controlled by Israel. Demonstrations in Egypt over the past three days have called on the government to open the border crossing and `end the siege`.

Cairo has come under Arab and international pressure, direct and indirect, to ease the siege by opening the crossing. Egypt`s official position has been that it is bound by a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to manage the Rafah border crossing and since Hamas took control of the Strip in 2007 its hands have been tied by the agreement. Critics argue that the agreement expired in 2006, and that Egypt, as a sovereign state, has the right to control its border with Gaza as it sees fit.

On Tuesday President Hosni Mubarak made a surprise decision, opening the border for `humanitarian aid... until further notice`. The move was greeted with cautious enthusiasm by observers and activists in Egypt, not least because of its vague wording.

A convoy of medical and food supplies took off from Alexandria`s Pharmaceuticals Syndicate in the early hours of Wednesday morning, heading towards Rafah in a bid to test the decision. The syndicate has transported medical supplies to Rafah in the past few months without problems. This time it has added food supplies to the convoy.

Ayman Abdallah, a doctor accompanying the convoy, told the Weekly that the organisers are unsure if the authorities will allow foodstuffs through Rafah. The convoy was stopped for several hours by state security forces in Ismailia, then in north Sinai. As the Weekly was going to press Wednesday, the convoy had been stopped a third time, in Beer Abd, 80km from Arish, where it was expected to remain overnight before heading for Rafah today.

It is unclear how Mubarak`s decision will impact Israel`s siege of Gaza. Many local and international reporters headed to Rafah on Wednesday to observe the implementation of the decision to `open the border`.

North Sinai`s governor, Major-General Murad Muwafi, says 300 Palestinians crossed into Egypt on Wednesday, following the presidential decision. Border control also allowed 13 electricity generators through the crossing into Gaza.

Speaking to the Weekly by phone, Muwafi said that prior to the decision the border crossing was opened on a `weekly basis` every Wednesday and Thursday for patients with critical medical conditions, and once a month for non-emergency traffic. It will now be open for all on a daily basis. While people and medical supplies will continue to be allowed into Gaza daily, food supplies will have to pass through the Israeli-controlled Ouja border crossing, he added.

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