Early reports of the Israeli interception of the Malaysian-owned, Moldovan-flagged small coastal freighter, MV Finch (renamed recently, The Spirit of Rachel Corrie) on early Monday morning didn’t give a lot of detail:
Israeli naval forces fired warning shots at a Malaysian aid ship as it approached the Gaza Strip on Monday, forcing the vessel to retreat to Egypt, organisers and the Israeli military said.
“The MV Finch, carrying sewage pipes to Gaza, had warning shots fired at it by Israeli forces in the Palestinian security zone this morning at 6:54 am (0354 GMT),” said Shamsul Azhar from the Perdana Global Peace Foundation.
“The vessel was in the Palestinian security zone, about 400 metres from the Gaza shoreline, when they were intercepted by Israeli naval forces,” he told AFP, adding it was now anchored 30 nautical miles away in Egyptian territory.
An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed that the vessel, flying a Moldovan flag, had been intercepted as it sailed from Egypt’s El-Arish port, where it had been docked for several days.
“A navy patrol boat contacted the vessel, which claimed to be heading for the Gaza shores. Once it crossed into Israeli naval territory and didn’t answer calls to turn back, warning shots were fired in the air and it returned to El-Arish,” she said.
The Perdana Foundation is helmed by former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, an 85-year-old firebrand who was a strident critic of the West and Israel over the treatment of Palestinians during his two decades in power.
The organisation was also involved in the first “Freedom Flotilla”, a May 2010 attempt to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which ended in disaster when naval commandos raided the aid ships, killing nine Turks on board one of the vessels.
Perdana Foundation officials said the MV Finch left Greece on May 11, carrying plastic pipes to help restore the “devastated” sewage system in Gaza.
Most of the sparse news reports throughout Monday were based on the same information in the above one. Around mid-day Gaza time, more details emerged from the Perdana Foundation:
The Perdana Global Peace Foundation (PGPF) condemned in the strongest possible terms the act of aggression by the Israeli Naval Forces when they fired on the humanitarian mission bound for the Gaza Strip. The Spirit of Rachel Corrie ship, a humanitarian cargo vessel, officially known as FINCH came under attack one nautical mile inside Gazan waters at 6.35, this morning. We urge the international community to join with us in condemning this illegal, barbaric and uncivilised act.
The cargo ship was inside the Palestinian territorial waters and had broken the siege when the Israeli Naval Forces intercepted the ship and ordered the Captain to retreat. The first shot was fired across the bow and followed by several more shots. One of the shots almost hit a crew member, Mohd Jaffrey Ariffin, causing others to panic and hide for safety.
During the ordeal all those on board feared for their lives. The inhumane behaviour by the Israeli Naval Forces continued, despite the ship already turning towards the Egyptian waters.
In the communication between the Captain and the Israeli Forces it was clearly stated that the ship was unarmed, and only carrying humanitarian aid. Despite that, the Israeli Naval Forces were not dissuaded and continued to shoot directly at the ship when it was leaving.
As far as PGPF and the anti-war activists are concerned, we had ‘Broken the Illegal Israeli Siege’ by being one nautical mile inside Palestinian territorial waters. The Gazan fishermen and other locals witnessed the event from the shoreline as they had gathered to welcome the siege breaking vessel and receive the aid mission.
PGPF acknowledge the sensitive manner in which Egyptian authorities have dealt with the situation. The vessel, under the guidance of the Egyptian navy has made its way to the port of El Arish. PGPF are currently being assisted in making arrangements for the transfer of the aid to Gaza by land via the Rafah Crossing.
We left the scene and entered Egyptian waters when the lives of unarmed civilians on board were endangered by this act of violence. Mindful of Israeli’s numerous killings of civilians at yesterday’s Nakba commemorations, the vessel withdrew to protect those on board from becoming victims of another act of terrorism by Israel.
Late Monday, more details emerged, including what is being reported as the conversations between the crew of the unarmed vessel and the intercepting Israeli boats:
According to Faizal, after the Israeli navy fired the first shot, the ship’s Captain Jalil Mansor was heard telling the Israelis through radio: “This is a violation of law against unarmed civilians”.
The following exchange then took place.
Israeli army: “This is a warning shot. Turn around.”
Captain Jalil Mansor: “We are unarmed civilians on a humanitarian mission to Gaza”.
Israeli army: “This is a closed military zone. It’s a violation. Turn around.”
Captain Jalil Mansor: “We will continue (the mission)”.
The Israelis then headed to the back of the aid vessel and released a second warning shot into the air.
Derek Graham: “This is a violation (of international law). We are on a peaceful mission and unarmed.”
Israeli army: “Turn around. We will fire again”.
Derek Graham: “You are firing towards unarmed civilians”.
Israeli army: “We didn’t fire towards unarmed civilians”.
Derek Graham: “Looks like firing towards us.”
Israeli army: “We didn’t fire towards you. That is only a warning shot”.
Following that conversation, the Israeli army fired two more shots and threatened: “Next time, we will land on your ship”.
Then the Egyptian navy was heard telling the Israelis on the radio: “Stop firing. They are in the Egyptian waters”.
Upon realising the presence of Egyptian naval forces, the Israelis departed. [emphasis added]
This is new. Last year, I made a number of suggestions as to how the spring 2010 flotillas might have done things differently. This vessel, having embarked from Greece early in the month, appears to have sought the seam between Egyptian and de facto Israeli zones of sea control, perhaps intending to test whether the Egyptians might react differently than they did in 2010. If the description above is accurate, it appears the Israeli Navy has backed down in the face of Egyptian intrusion into an ongoing seizure or attempted boarding, as in – “Next time, we land on your ship.”
This past weekend, the Israelis killed dozens of Palestinians and others on territory Syria has not relinquished, in spite of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. And they fired across the border with Lebanon, into territory Israel has occupied so many times in the past, but isn’t theirs. And they fired once again into Gaza, which is on Egypt’s border, and mere miles from Monday’s maritime standoff.
The Egyptian military is not that of Syria or Lebanon, however. Their officers and troops have been indoctrinated that Egypt, not Israel, prevailed in the 1973 October (or Yom Kippur, or Ramadan) War. In a sense, they did, as the strategic consequence of the war was the withdrawal of the Israelis from the Sinai Peninsula, and the re-opening of the Suez Canal, which had been closed since the Israelis occupied its eastern banks in June, 1967.
The Egyptian Navy is larger than the Israeli. Their largest surface combatants, six former American frigates, displace 4,200 tons. The largest Israeli surface ships, the three Saar 5 corvettes are slightly more than half as large. The Israeli navy is assumed to be far better trained, and its coordination with land and air forces is regarded as a model of efficiency.
The last time the two forces met, was on October 8-9, 1973, in the Battle of Baltim, an Israeli victory, in which six 400-ton Saar class corvettes encountered four Egyptian 200-ton Osa class patrol boats, sinking three of the Osas, in return for slight damage to one of their corvettes. But before that incident, in October 1967, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the Egyptian Navy sank the INS Eilat, a 1,700 ton destroyer, with missiles fired from very small patrol boats.
The Egyptian demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula has created a military vacuum there, which has benefited Israel enormously, allowing it to invade Lebanon time and again since the Camp David Accords were signed. But the Egyptian Navy maintains its country’s sovereignty right up to the Gaza border.
Monday’s encounter might not signal a change in Egyptian policy regarding the sea zone abutting Gaza’s southern border, but it shows an Israeli Navy less than eager to act as it did last summer, in the presence of foreign military vessels whose crews identify with Palestinian aspirations.
The summer flotillas are watching. So are the Turkish, Syrian and American navies.