THE messages were clear and unequivocal from both sides. "We are coming," insisted the Free Gaza Movement, giving notice of their intention to bring a boat load of humanitarian aid into the beleaguered coastal strip. From the Israeli navy, the response was equally determined, warning that they would stop the ship's entry "by any and all means".

It was early last week when the exchange of messages occurred, just before the 66-foot Spirit of Humanity pulled slowly out of Larnaca port to a few plaintive cries of "Free Palestine" from the handful of activists who had gathered to see the ship off on its mercy mission.

For hours before its departure, crew and volunteers from the US-based Free Gaza Movement (FGM), the organisers of the mission, worked frantically to install a new radio system, and load boxes of bandages, IV bags, baby milk and emergency medical equipment.

A few alterations had also been carried out on the vessel, including stencilling the boat's new name on the front of the wheelhouse. Steel panelling was bolted along the sides of the cabin area, offering psychological comfort rather than any real protection against the firepower from Israeli warships.

Despite the best efforts of the crew and organisers to make the boat ready for the journey across the Mediterranean, few among the international doctors, human rights activists and parliamentarians en route to Gaza expressed much confidence in what until that moment had been a Greek island-hopping ferry boat sailing under the name the SS Arion.

"It's the kind of vessel you use to go sightseeing around my city, not cross the Mediterranean into a war zone," quipped an Italian journalist from Venice.

But organisers of the humanitarian mission refused to be daunted, and on the jetty before boarding, the FGM co-ordinator, Huwaida Arraf, once again reiterated the group's commitment to running the Israeli naval blockade to bring their meagre medical supplies and expertise to the people of Gaza.

"We will not be intimidated. We have told the Israelis we are coming in and that is what we will do," said Arraf.

Just before she spoke, the Cypriot authorities had informed the FGM that the Israeli government had officially contacted the Cypriot embassy in Tel Aviv, warning them that they felt "justified" in using "any means available" to forcibly prevent the Spirit of Humanity from arriving in Gaza. This was despite a request by the ship's organisers that the Cypriot authorities search the vessel prior to departure to certify that it only carried medical supplies.

According to one Greek journalist on board, a high-ranking Greek ministerial source had also said the Israelis would be prepared to shell the vessel if it did not comply with warnings to back off.

In the context of what has been happening in Gaza over the past few weeks, the incident might seem comparatively insignificant and come as little surprise in light of Israeli military actions on the ground inside Gaza. Nonetheless, it served as yet another example of Israel's uncompromising and flagrant disregard for international humanitarian law as defined by the Geneva Conventions.

Even yesterday, as talk of a ceasefire gained momentum, there were reports of strikes in direct violation of international humanitarian law after Israeli tank fire killed two boys at a UN-run school in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said two brothers had been killed and 14 people had been wounded, including the boys' mother.

"These two little boys are as innocent, indisputably, as they are dead," said John Ging, head of the UNRWA in Gaza, after the school was hit.

Ging, an Irishman and an ex-Army officer who worked in Rwanda during the genocide, added: "The question now being asked is: is this and the killing of all other innocent civilians in Gaza a war crime?"

His remarks echo the thoughts of many human rights observers in the region and around the world over the last few weeks.

Israel's response to such suggestions has been robust. "These claims of war crimes are not supported by the slightest piece of evidence," Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said when asked if there was any chance of a case being brought to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Anthony Dworkin, the executive director of the Crimes of War Project and an expert in international humanitarian law, said Israel's broad approach to what it considered a target in the conflict might expose it to claims under the 1949 Geneva Conventions governing non-international conflict.

"Israel's thinking, evidently, is that all members of Hamas, and any facilities used to enforce their physical or ideological control over Gaza, are fair game," he wrote on his website, "Under the laws of war, such an approach is highly questionable."

Referring to the targets hit, he added: "It is hard to see how all these targets could be justified according to the rules of international humanitarian law."

At the same time, he said there was evidence Hamas' rocket fire into Israel was in violation of international law, and that the group may have used "human shields" to carry out attacks.

About 45,000 Gazans fleeing the bombardment are sheltering in UN-run schools. On January 6, Israeli shelling killed 42 people who had taken refuge at a UN school, yet despite Israeli assurances following the incident, another UNRWA compound was hit twice last Thursday. Three staff were wounded.

On Friday, Tony Laurence, the head of the World Health Organisation's office in Gaza, insisted that attacks on clinics and hospitals had been a "grave violation of international humanitarian law".

In Geneva, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies endorsed this view, saying that the situation was "completely and utterly unacceptable based on every known standard of international humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles and values".

The international medical body, not known for using emotive language, said the Palestinian Red Crescent Al-Quds hospital and administrative buildings had been subjected to direct attack, causing fires in the pharmacy and severe damage to many parts of the hospital.

The report went on to say that 500 people, among them 30 war-wounded patients, were left huddled on the ground floor of the hospital in fear for their lives, choking on dust and fumes resulting from the attacks.

Back on board the Spirit of Humanity last week, the international volunteers' first attempt to enter Gaza in defiance of the Israeli naval blockade, was first stopped ironically not by warships, but by a generator problem preventing fuel from reaching the engine which left the boat without power and yawing heavily in strong winds and seas.

After returning to Larnaca, however, the organisers and volunteers, including parliamentarians from Greece, Belgium and Spain, held a series of meetings at their base in the city's Sunflower Hotel near the port. Within 24 hours they were again under way, until around 100 nautical miles from Gaza in the early hours of the morning, when at least four Israeli gunboats intercepted the vessel turning their floodlights on the ship's wheelhouse.

An Israeli radio message to George Klontzas, the Greek skipper of the Spirit of Humanity, said that if the ship did not return to Larnaca, their warships would be prepared to open fire. Asked by Klontzas to confirm that they would open fire on the humanitarian vessel while inside international waters, the Israelis declined to acknowledge.

In Athens, the Greek foreign ministry immediately sent a strong protest message to the Israeli foreign ministry that emphasised the need for the Israeli authorities to protect of the lives and security of those on board the boat.

Finally, several hours later, the Spirit of Humanity was forced to abandon its mission and return to Cyprus with its badly needed doctors and medical supplies still on board.

Among the doctors faced now with no alternative but to travel to Egypt in the hope of getting into Gaza overland were Palestinian eye specialist Ali Dabbagh, who once studied and worked in Scotland, and Dr Sonia Robbins, a British consultant reconstructive and hand surgeon who has worked in the Middle East for the last four years.

"I feel a weird mix of anger, frustration and incredulity about what is happening in Gaza," said Dabbagh, who after the ship aborted its attempt and returned to Larnaca immediately made his way to the airport to board a flight to Egypt in the hope of getting through the Rafah border crossing.

In the course of the last few weeks, at least 1,201 Palestinians have been killed, including 410 children, and 5,300 wounded, among them 1,630 children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rockets fired from Gaza, have been killed since Israel launched its air attack on December 27, sending in ground forces a week later.

Last week Jonathan Cook, a writer and journalist based in Nazareth and well known for his work on the Middle East, expressed surprise that no-one has reported an even more appalling statistic: that there are some 1.5 million injured Palestinians in Gaza; an entire population who, after weeks of bombardment in one of the most densely populated places on Earth, will doubtless be left in "a deep, and possibly permanent, state of shock", he pointed out in an online article.

Whether it be the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the World Health Organisation, Free Gaza Movement, United Nations or simply concerned people the world over, few doubt that the carnage in Gaza has left Israel with a case to answer for in its abuse of humanitarian principles in time of war.

Earlier this month, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said some Israeli actions reported in Gaza might warrant prosecutions for war crimes. Yesterday, following reports of the tank attack on the UN school in Beit Lahiya, UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness, reiterated that call. "There has to be an investigation to determine whether a war crime has been committed," he said.

Should a ceasefire take effect and hold in the coming hours, days and weeks, and Israeli restrictions on reporters entering Gaza are lifted, few human rights workers doubt that yet more evidence will point to Israeli breaches of international humanitarian law.

In its defence, Israel - with some justification - will most likely also cite Hamas as the perpetrators of such crimes. But the growing clamour for Israel to be taken to task over its infringements is unlikely to go away. Should that turn out to be the case, the question then is who, if anyone, will ultimately be held to account?

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