Former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney returned home today after six days being held by the government of Israel while attempting with 21 colleagues to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza on the vessel, "The Spirit of Humanity."
“Don’t sign, Miss Cynthia, don’t sign!” So chanted a boisterous group of Palestinian teens and pre-teens in Beirut’s Shatila Refugee Camp demonstrating support for the Freegaza Humanity boat abductees on the 4th of July.
The students understood that those illegally arrested while in international waters had been offered a “get out of jail free” pass if they confessed in writing to violating Israel’s territorial waters.
The Spirit of Humanity boat, trying to bring emergency humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, was the topic of a lively discussion during a Sabra Shatila Foundation summer school civics lesson on “International law and the Question of Palestine.” The students were interested in the plight of some of their relatives and countrymen in Palestine and the continuing siege of Gaza. Some had just finished their baccalaureate exams and were wondering how they could continue their education given the severe impediments the government of Lebanon places on Palestinian civil rights, and their post-exam relief seemed to energize them for the discussion.
A couple of the students had met Cynthia McKinney during her recent visits to Lebanon. When they learned that, as a Congresswoman, she had introduced articles of impeachment against Bush, was a consistent anti-war voter during her twelve years in Congress, and that no member in Congress had achieved a more consistent, principled, voting record of issues of civil and human rights, including Palestinian rights, they really connected with the subject of the Freegaza aid boat, the Spirit of Humanity and her travails. “Those supporters of Palestine should not accept a false confession and should stay in jail if necessary. They are patriots.” was a commonly expressed sentiment.
The students understood that in refusing to sign the Israeli government prepared “acknowledgement/confession” the Freegaza group acted in a manner consistent with international law. They learned that territorial waters, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is a belt of coastal waters extending at most twelve nautical miles from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state. The territorial sea is regarded as the sovereign territory of the state, although foreign ships (both military and civilian) are allowed innocent passage through it. They learned from media reports that in any case "The Humanity" was in international waters and that, consequently, Israel had no right to molest it.
The class adjourned sharing a general consensus that the Spirit of Humanity, enjoyed and will continue to enjoy on every subsequent humanitarian voyage, these freedoms as well as other internationally lawful uses of the sea within contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones, and on the high seas. Needless to report, were it possible for them, the whole class would like to be on the next Freegaza boat.
This week there was a spate of critical reports concerning Israel’s brutal occupation and its continuing strangulation of Gaza. Among others were the following:
- Amnesty International issued a major report claiming that Israel inflicted "wanton destruction" in the Gaza Strip in attacks that often targeted Palestinian civilians during an its 22 day war this past December and January. Among other conclusions, Amnesty said it found no evidence to support Israeli claims that Gaza guerrillas deliberately used civilians as "human shields," but it did, however, cite evidence that Israeli troops put children and other civilians in harm's way by forcing them to remain in homes taken over by soldiers. Accusing Israel of "breaching laws of war," Amnesty said: "Much of the destruction was wanton and deliberate, and was carried out in a manner and circumstances which indicated that it could not be justified on grounds of military necessity."
- A UN human rights mission investigating alleged violations committed during the war in the Gaza Strip at the turn of the year resumed its public hearings on July 7, 2009. The two-day session in Geneva follows hearings in the Gaza Strip last week that included gruesome testimony of Palestinians caught under Israeli shelling during the 22 day offensive. The session at the UN's human rights headquarters in Switzerland is meant to allow those who were not able to travel to Gaza to provide public testimony, notably witnesses from Israel who were targeted by rocket attacks. The mission has a broad scope to investigate alleged violations committed by all sides during the offensive in December and January, which Israel said was aimed at stemming rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. The mission headed by Richard Goldstone, former war crimes prosecutor for both ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, has not been allowed into Israel or been given access to the occupied West Bank, according to the United Nations. The hearings are to allow "victims from all sides in the conflict as well as experts on its consequences to speak directly to the international community of their experiences," said the UN human rights office. Although this kind of public testimony is a novelty for the world body, Goldstone, insisted on it when he accepted to take up the probe. A former South African judge, he wanted to apply some of his experience from post-apartheid South Africa.
- From Geneva Special UN Rapporteur, Richard Falk, condemned Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza. "Such a pattern of continuing blockade under these conditions amounts to such a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions as to constitute a continuing crime against humanity." Falk said Israel's two-year blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza "restricted vital supplies such as food, medicine and fuel to "bare subsistence levels." Falk called Israel's seizure of the Freegaza boat, Humanity, carrying relief aid for the Gaza Strip "unlawful" and said its blockade of the territory constituted a "continuing crime against humanity." The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories said the move was part of Israel's "cruel blockade of the entire Palestinian population of Gaza" in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting any form of collective punishment against "an occupied people."
- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a report this week in which it claimed that Israel was also halting entry to Gaza of building materials and spare parts needed to repair damage from its 22-day invasion late last December.
Israel’s new raft of legal problems include numerous common law and statutory crimes against all those on board the Humanity including, but not limited to false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious destruction of property, conversion of personal property, assault and battery, abduction, theft, for beginners.
The claim that the Humanity was sailing in a “closed military zone” is also bogus. Since its 1967 aggression, Israel has used an obscure 1858 Ottoman Lands Law to create “closed military zones” in order to steal thousands of acres of Palestinian land using complex ‘legal’ and Catch-22 bureaucratic measures. These ‘special security areas" (SSAS) were designed to meet Israel’s expansionist goals and are now being applied by the Israeli government to International waters. The Humanity had every right and indeed responsibility to reject Israel’s transparent efforts at expanding its control of the high seas. The Freegaza boat, the Humanity, enjoyed and will continue to enjoy on every subsequent humanitarian voyage, these freedoms and other internationally lawful uses of the sea within contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones, as well as on the high seas.
Reflecting this obligation, the Law of the Sea reserves the high seas for ‘peaceful purposes.’ Only military activities that are consistent with the UN Charter are allowed within the ‘peaceful purposes’ for which the high seas are reserved. Israel’s actions on June 30, 2009, reflecting its three year siege of Gaza, clearly did not meet the international standard of ‘peaceful purposes’ and its crimes against the Humanity boat group are part and parcel, as Professor Falk noted, of its continuing crimes against Humanity itself.
Israeli violations of the rights of Journalists on board the Humanity.
Israel's false arrest and false imprisonment of journalists on board the Humanity contravened its international legal obligations, imposed by international customary law as well as statutory enactments. The Johannesburg Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of 1995, an amalgam of general principles of international law and customary international law, states that the government of states that would interfere with the work of journalists bares the "burden of demonstrating the validity of the restriction.” The blanket ban instituted by Israel in November 2008, as it prepared its assault of Gaza did not meet this standard nor did the arrests of Journalists on board the Humanity, including Al Jazeera’s Othman Al-Battiri and cameraman Mansour Al-Ibbi, and Press TV’s Cynthia McKinney.
Israel was required to give the journalists on board the Humanity respect for their life, property and personal dignity based on General principles of the international law relating to the protection of human rights including Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols as well as international practice of States and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Journalists on the Humanity were civilians and they share the rights of any member of the civilian population and must be treated as such. Abducting, falsely arresting and falsely imprisoning a journalist is prohibited as are acts or threats of violence, psychological pressure and intimidation in order to pressure them into signing ‘confessions’ without a due process court proceeding. Israel’s treatment of journalists on the Humanity grossly violated these international norms.
The International Covenant for the Protection of Journalists (ICPJ), an NGO based in Geneva, condemned the Israeli arrest of Humanity’s journalists and International Lawyers Without Borders have asked the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Arab Federation of Journalists (AFJ), as well as the Palestinian Union of Journalists and the Israeli Association of Journalists to start an immediate investigation into the Israeli arrest of the journalists.
Cynthia Mckinney, without support from her own government, stood up for the principals on which her country was founded 233 years ago and spent Independence Day inside a foreign jail. All people of peace and good will salute her and her colleagues who sailed the Freegaza Spirit of Humanity with the universal message of self-determination.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article has been slightly abridged.
Franklin P. Lamb, PhD
Director, Americans Concerned for
Middle East Peace, Wash. DC - Beirut
Acting Chair, the Sabra-Shatila Memorial Scholarship Program Laptop Initiative
Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp