Australians taking part in the second Freedom Flotilla to Gaza have been told not to expect consular assistance should they be detained by Israeli authorities.
The Australians taking part in the Flotilla are former Greens MLC Sylvia Hale, spokesperson for Jews Against the Occupation Vivienne Porzsolt, youth worker Michael Coleman, and recent University of Western Australia graduate Nick Wallwork.
They will join hundreds of activists from over 20 nations taking part in this year’s Flotilla. Coleman says that the aim of the Flotilla is to draw international attention to the ongoing "collective punishment of the population of Gaza" and to deliver humanitarian aid.
The Australian contingent of the Flotilla has been told through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that Israel intends to deny or limit consular access to foreign nationals if they are detained during the Flotilla.
DFAT confirmed in an email to Hale that a meeting between Israeli authorities and foreign embassies in Israel, including the Australian Embassy, took place on 15 June in Tel Aviv. At this meeting the Israeli authorities outlined their plan to intercept the Flotilla and detain all participants, including journalists.
DFAT said that Israeli authorities had told the meeting that, "if it appears that a vessel intends to breach the blockade, it will be seized and escorted to Ashdod Port."
Further, DFAT said that the meeting was told:
"Ashdod Port will be declared a closed military zone and no consular access will be possible. Participants will either be deported or transferred to one of three prisons. Limited consular access will be afforded to Australian consular officials to participants at the prison and no consular access will be permitted to participants at the airport prior to deportation. Journalists will be considered to be participating in the Flotilla and will not receive special treatment."
DFAT told Hale that the Australian Government felt "concerned" about the apparent lack of consular access, however concluded, "the extent to which we will be able to help you will ultimately be determined by the Israeli government."
The Australian Flotilla participants have expressed their disappointment in the position outlined by DFAT and have urged the Gillard Government to reconsider. "It would be deeply disturbing if Australia stands by and does nothing when it knows full well how violent the Israeli assault could be," said Hale.
Professor Jake Lynch from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies said that this decision by DFAT legitimises Israel’s siege and naval blockade of Gaza. He said:
"The Australian government has a responsibility to protect its citizens against illegal military aggression, especially with prior knowledge of Israel’s plans.
"Both Australia and Israel are signatories to the Vienna convention, under which consular access must be allowed to detained persons. For Australia to waive this right at Israel’s behest shows our government places greater importance on supporting Israel’s flouting of international law than it does on the safety of Australians."
Hale, Porzsolt and Coleman are currently in Greece where they are undergoing training and preparations alongside hundreds of activists from around the world as they get ready to embark on the journey to Gaza.
All those participating in the Flotilla will be unarmed and have undergone intensive non-violence training to prepare for any potential confrontation with Israeli authorities. Flotilla participants have signed on to observing guidelines made up of eight points which specify types of behaviour they will not engage in, they call these the "red lines".
They include that participants will not initiate physical contact with soldiers, jump into the water, throw objects at soldiers, start fires, use fire extinguishers (except if there is a fire) or use or display objects that could be misconstrued as weapons.
Coleman said that the training was on how to respond peacefully to potential scenarios Israel could level at the Flotilla including sabotage, ships being boarded, naval stand-off, use of chemical weapons and being detained. "We are completely committed to non-violence and will offer no active resistance should our boat, the Tahrir, be attacked. We will give Israeli forces no pretext for any assault," said Coleman.
Porzsolt said that the Flotilla would harness the strength of people’s power, "In our Flotilla, we are pitting ourselves completely unarmed against the military hardware of the Israeli army." Their boat, the Tahrir, is named after the public square in Cairo that was central to the events of the Egyptian uprising earlier this year. It will carry participants from Canada, Australia, Denmark and Belgium, and was jointly purchased with donations from its participants and their supporters.
Bad weather and deliberate sabotage attempts have delayed the departure of the Tahrir and other Flotilla ships from Greece where they are currently docked.
The propeller shaft of the Swedish-Greek vessel Juliano was found to have been cut off while docked. The boat is currently undergoing maintenance and Amira Hass who will be reporting the Tahrir wrote in Haaretz that Flotilla participants have now created a 24 hour security roster to keep watch over the docked boats to ensure they are not subjected to similar sabotage attempts.
This comes too late for the Irish boat with activists reporting that their boat’s engine has been tampered with, leaving it unseaworthy according to Joseph Dana, a journalist for The Nation taking part in the Flotilla and currently reporting from Greece.
In an earlier attempt to delay the Flotilla’s mission to Gaza, the US and Canadian vessels found themselves the subject of anonymous complaints of being unseaworthy. These complaints were discovered to have originated from Shurat HaDin (Israel Law Center) which prides itself on "combating terrorist organisations".
The Tahrir has since been reinspected and declared seaworthy since this complaint was lodged, and the US ship is undergoing reinspection.
American activists said in a statement on 27 June that their boat had been professionally surveyed and successfully completed its sea trials prior to this complaint, and that there was no reason for this sort of delay. In addition to these sabotage attempts, there has also been a propaganda campaign against the Flotilla.
In one example, a video uploaded to YouTube apparently tells the story of a young man who claims to be a gay rights activist named Marc. He says that he contacted Flotilla organisers in an effort to take part, but was denied and told gay rights activism was "not in the overall interests of the Flotilla".
One of the first people to promote this video was Guy Seeman who Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah identified as working in office of the Israeli Prime Minister. The video which attempted to smear the Flotilla as homophobic was quickly discovered to be a hoax, and "Marc" was outed as Israeli actor Omer Gershon.
Despite this and other efforts to disrupt their mission to Gaza, Flotilla activists remain committed.
The Flotilla marks one year since the ill-fated attempt to break Israel’s siege on the Gaza strip in 2010. On 31 May 2010, the Israel Defense Forces intercepted the Freedom Flotilla, boarding the ships in international waters, and killing nine activists on board the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara.
Before leaving Sydney, Hale said even in the face of last year’s deadly confrontation she remained committed to extending the hand of solidarity to the people of Palestine.
"Whatever we experience is just nothing compared to … the people there in Gaza."
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