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The Stalled Voyage of Saint Mariam

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Why is Israel terrified of a ship full of women?"We will not even bring cooking knives." – Samar al-Hajj, coordinator of the all-women Lebanese aid vessel, Mariam

The bloody wake left by the Mavi Marmara after the Israeli commando raid on May 31 has not deterred 50 female activists from trying to break the four-year-old siege of Gaza. To hear Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speak of their planned relief effort, one would think the very existence of Israel was at stake.


The women plan to set sail aboard the Saint Mariam, a Bolivian-flagged cargo ship named in honor of the Virgin Mary – a figure sacred to both Christians and Muslims. Although they intend to depart from Tripoli in Lebanon, the crew is not only composed of multi-faith Lebanese individuals but also foreign nationals, including a group of nuns from the United States. To not allow Israel any pretext to attack, Hezbollah deliberately did not sponsor the mission nor were any members allowed to participate.


Its cargo comprises of books, toys, medical instruments and supplies and most importantly, medication to treat cancer.


The ship cannot sail directly from Tripoli to Gaza as Lebanon and Israel remain at war (and Israel is in control of Gaza's territorial waters), thus it must pass through a third country first. The Mariam was scheduled to leave for Cyprus last Sunday but authorities in Nicosia, surrendering to Israeli pressure, prohibited use of its ports for vessels departing to Gaza. Without the green light from Cyprus, Lebanon's Transport and Public Works Minister, Ghazi Aridi, was forced to cancel the voyage until another country with which Lebanon has maritime relations could be found. Negotiations with Greece are now underway.


Barak, however, was outraged at the very notion that Lebanon was even considering allowing the Mariam to sail, characterizing its mission as "…a provocation intended to aid a terror organization."


He went on to say, "The ship that is preparing to sail from Lebanon has nothing to do with humanitarianism… If the ship insists on arriving in opposition to the current blockade, Israel will be forced to stop it and bring it to the port of Ashdod."


The Israeli delegation to the United Nations submitted a formal complaint to both the Secretary General and the Security Council, indicating Israel reserves the right to use "all necessary measures" to prevent the Mariam – and the toys and medications it carries – from docking in Gaza.


No rational person believes the all-women crew presents a physical or armed threat to Israel, either by their persons or cargo.


So why is Israel so terrified of the Mariam?


It has nothing to do with the activists, Hezbollah or even Hamas. What it does involve is ensuring the collective punishment of Gazans to persist, who continue to wither under a four-year material and economic embargo.


The reason why innocuous items like wheelchairs, crutches, books, crayons or even chemotherapy pose such a "threat" is because relief of any kind provided to Palestinians that is not under the direct jurisdiction of Israel jeopardizes its role as the sole arbiter of deciding whether to enforce or relax the punishment of civilians. Only the occupying power is to have this right.


Collective punishment is an illegal and heinous form of warfare, and Gaza's Palestinians have suffered from it as retribution for rightfully electing Hamas to govern in the January 2006 parliamentary elections.


If the Mariam is allowed to sail and Israel cannot find justification to stop the nuns, doctors, lawyers, journalists, human rights workers and a pop star aboard from landing – permitting them to effectively break the siege – then the Gaza shore could soon become inundated with ships, vessels and relief flotillas from the world over. And Israel's dream to be the invincible regional superpower would, yet again, be shattered.


This is why Israel is terrified of a ship full of women, and why they are demonizing them.

Author of this article: Rannie Amiri
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