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In the wake of Israel’s attack on aid ships bound for Gaza on 31 May, Natasha Shivji contrasts the oceanic activities of Somali pirates with the recent measures taken by Israeli security forces in maintaining Israel's siege of Gaza. East Africa ‘must straighten the international law that has been manipulated to condemn our people’, writes Shivji.

Israeli commandos have murdered up to a dozen or so people upon a flotilla of six aid-carrying ships on Monday 31 May. The events have been played out on our screens and the response has been overwhelming. It must not end here.

Israel needs to be condemned under international law for committing an act of state piracy upon an unarmed ship. The Freedom Flotilla, as it has been dubbed, had no weapons aboard and all the members were registered upon embarkation from Turkey. Therefore, it posed no threat to the inhabitants of Gaza. Its mission, let us be clear, was to carry aid in the form of chocolates, toys, workbooks and most importantly medical supplies to the 1.5 million people in Gaza who depend on international aid. For the last three years, Israel has held Gaza under siege, imposing a blockade and hence bringing the people of Gaza to their knees in the face of dire shortages.

The Freedom Flotilla was carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid and approximately 750 peace activists, including politicians, former United Nations (UN) officials, European Union (EU) delegates, Nobel laureates and journalists. Moreover, the ship underwent all the legal procedures upon embarkation from Turkey and was searched to ensure that no weapons were found on board and all those on board were peace activists. Israel has blatantly made a series of statements, which lie in stark opposition to the findings of the Turkish customs upon embarkation. Israeli officials have been claiming that weapons were found on board and the people on board were dangerous activists collaborating with terrorists. Hence, they had the right to attack the ship in defence of their people. We need not deliberate much upon these statements made by Israeli officials, as it is quite clear that UN officials, EU delegates and Nobel laureates are not, in common imagination, ‘dangerous activists’. Furthermore, toys, chocolates, books and medicines do not constitute ‘weapons’.

It is unnecessary to go into the long chain of contradictions of Israel’s statements, as they are being adequately dealt with by the UN, EU and League of Arab States. Let us instead think hard about what position we on the East African coast are to adopt. Starting with an example at home, when the people on the Somali coast started to seize ships that were depositing toxics in the territorial seas of Somalia, the UN Security Council, pushed by the US, was quick to respond by issuing the UN resolution of 1816 allowing states to take action to counter the Somali ‘pirates’. There was no hesitation from the international community to deem the Somali people, defending their seas from toxic waste, as pirates. They abducted ships and were henceforth committing acts of piracy. Let us carefully note that the ships were on Somali territorial waters, and illegally depositing toxic wastes, without any consequences. When the Somali people took matters into their own hands they were immediately called pirates allowing for the necessary actions to be taken upon them.

Israel attacked an aid-carrying ship upon international waters (65km off the coast of Gaza), even though the ship posed no threat. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a military ship cannot lawfully board a foreign ship on international waters unless there is reasonable ground to suspect that the ship is engaged in piracy, slave trading, unauthorised broadcasting or is not bearing a flag of the state from which it originates, and therefore has no proof of nationality. The Freedom Flotilla was not a pirate ship or a slave ship, it did not carry out unauthorised broadcasting and it clearly exposed its nationality through the Turkish flag. It may be deduced that the very act of Israeli commandos being airlifted onto the Mavi Marmara was illegal under international law. One law broken.

Upon landing on the ship the Israeli commandos, as seen in footage taken on board, used live ammunition on the peace activists, killing up to a dozen or so people and injuring several. Israeli officials claimed they were met with violence once they landed on board. In fact, the peace activists raised a white flag as a sign of surrender. Of course the activists took up anything they could lay their hands on to defend themselves from being shot, but again this hardly constitutes of an attack on the Israeli commandos, rather a defence. So far, the ships and the activists have been detained. The same convention defines an act of piracy as an illegal act of violence or detention. Violence and detention on board the Mavi Marmara was illegal, as the Israeli commandos had no basis to see the Freedom Flotilla as a threat to its people. Two laws broken.

If the international community, led by the US, could call the Somalis who were seizing the ships that were harming their people ‘pirates’, then I think there can be no hesitation that Israel, with no basis in committing acts of violence upon peace activists in international waters, has committed an act of state piracy and must be punished accordingly. Yet, according to recent reports the same US government has been playing an obstructive game on the passing of a security council resolution to condemn Israel strongly.

We here in East Africa must straighten the international law that has been manipulated to condemn our people, to condemn Israel for its arrogant and horrendous crime. Let us learn to recognise real piracy, as in the case of Israel, and real resistance, as in the case of Somalia.


* Natasha Shivji teaches in the history department at the University of Dar es Salaam.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.