Israel must listen to voices of justice and lift blockade
The world should stand up for freedom and rescue troubled Gaza, says Patrick Corrigan
One of Mairead Corrigan Maguire's favourite items of clothing is an old T-shirt. It bears the image of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the words, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."
It is that indomitable spirit that the Northern Ireland Nobel laureate brings to her global peace campaigning. Fear has never stopped her, whether visiting refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, being arrested in Washington DC during the Iraq war or, as now, sailing for Gaza in an attempt to break Israel's illegal blockade.
So what is the blockade and why has an international aid flotilla alerted the world to it?
Let's recall that the Gaza Strip, an area of land just 25 miles long and six miles wide, is home to a population just short of Northern Ireland's.
Since Israel imposed an economic blockade in June 2007 its 1.5 million inhabitants have suffered ever-increasing poverty and isolation. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty and food shortages have left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid.
Chronic shortages have become a way of life. Many of Gaza's residents are enduring power cuts of up to 12 hours a day and there are recurrent shortages of cooking gas, with a rationing scheme being required to keep hospitals and bakeries functioning.
Gaza has also been plagued by shortages in medical supplies during the blockade. World Health Organisation trucks carrying medical equipment bound for Gazan hospitals have repeatedly been turned away by Israeli border officials.
Tragically, some Gazans have died while the Israeli authorities have delayed or outright refused travel permits to very ill Palestinians who've needed life-saving medical treatment no longer available in Gaza's run-down hospitals.
The Israeli authorities have put forward a range of justifications for the blockade - saying variously that it is a response to attacks from Palestinian armed groups, a reaction to the continued holding of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, or a means to pressure the Hamas administration.
But the truth is that, rather than targeting armed groups, the blockade mainly hits the most vulnerable: children (who make up more than half of the population in Gaza), the elderly, the sick and Gaza's large refugee population.
Operation 'Cast Lead', in December 2008 and January 2009, during which 1,380 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, almost pushed the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to catastrophic levels. Since it concluded, the blockade has severely hampered or prevented reconstruction efforts. With many construction materials barred or limited by Israel, Gaza's inhabitants are unable to rebuild their shattered lives.
But whatever its stated justification, the blockade is collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza, the majority of whom are children, rather than targeting the Hamas administration or armed groups.
Now, the killing by Israeli commandos of activists trying to bring aid to Gaza has shone the spotlight once again onto the plight of Palestinians trapped within the blockade. There must be justice for those victims - killed in international waters in an apparently flagrant use of disproportinate and lethal force.
We are calling on Israel to launch an immediate credible and independent investigation into these killings, to allow the UN access to conduct an international inquiry and to immediately lift the blockade. It is absolutely essential that the international community speaks up now to insist that the Israeli forces do not employ excessive force against Mairead and the others onboard the MV Rachel Corrie.
The sooner the supporters of the blockade realise it is not just illegal, but counter-productive for the long-term security of people in the region and the wider world, the sooner we will get to a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace.