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On Monday, Israeli ships intercepted an unarmed flotilla of boats trying to break through the blockade of the Gaza strip. Israeli commandos rappeled onto the boats, and in the ensuing melee at least nine civilians were shot and killed by Israeli troops. The result has been pure MacBeth, Act V, Scene V – with Israeli partisans on one side nonsensically calling the civilians “terrorists” and arguing that lethal force was justified because they possesed some wooden sticks and kitchen knives, and the anti-partisans demanding Obama immediately suspend US-Israel relations overnight.

All of this is irrelevant to the real issues at hand, namely:

1. What is the situation of the civilian population in Gaza?

2. Does Israel have sufficient justification – moral and legal – to blockade and isolate the Gaza strip?

To answer question 1, the answer is: dire. I’m not going to discuss this further but refer you to the report by the International Red Cross. The suffering of the Gazans is real and is a sepatrable issue from all the usual Israel-Palestine partisan nonsense from both sides.

Question 2 is really the crux of the issue. Israel claims to no longer be an occupying power after its troop disengagement from Gaza after 2005, exempting it from the 1949 Geneva Conventions (protection of civilian populations) and the 1977 Amendments (collective punishment). However, Israel argues that Hamas (which won power in Gaza in democratic elections in 2006) is a hostile entity and thus there is an existential national security interest in preventing weapons from reaching Hamas by sea. Hence, Israel enforces a blockade on the Gaza strip, in international waters three nautical miles offshore.

The question of whether the blockade is legal is to some extent moot; Israel’s occupation of the West Bank continues without any real regard for international law, and international law is often invoked like verses from scripture – selectively and situationally for self-interest rather than high-minded commitment to principle. What matters is precedent, and in that vein the proponents of Israel’s blockade point to the quarantine of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. President Kennedy, in his address to the nation, laid out the justification and parameters of the quarantine:

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. … To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation and port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.

The crisis lasted about two months, and few people realize just how massive a victory for diplomacy it represented, rather than crude military bravado. President Kennedy’s political opponents demanded full-scale invasion of Cuba from the beginning, and even after the crisis had ended called the entire affair a “military defeat” for the United States, even though Kennedy literally averted a global nuclear war and made the USSR stand down.

During the 4 weeks of the actual quarantine policy, fifty-five ships were intercepted and inspected by the US Navy. All of them, including Soviet merchant ships, were found to contain no prohibited material, and permitted to continue on to Cuba.

Given the history, I find the analogy to the Cuban blockade to be poor. Rockets from Hamas are a genuine, terrible threat to Israeli civilians, but are are far short of an existential threat akin to nuclear missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy President Kennedy was able to secure diplomatic support for the Cuban blockade, invoking the Rio Treaty, whereas Israel acted unilaterally and without consultation of its allies in the region such as Egypt and Turkey (well, former ally as far as the latter is concerned). The Cuban blockade was selective, whereas the Israeli blockade of Gaza is total and requires all ships bound for Gaza to be diverted to an Israeli port for inspection, with only a tiny trickle of goods permitted through, with nonsensical and paranoid exclusions like chocolate and x-ray film being prevented from entering Gaza proper.

However, to claim that no blockade of Gaza is justified is simply risible. Just as the United States had with Cuba, Israel does have a legitimate right to stop weapons from entering Gaza – and that includes inspecting ships in international waters. Note, however, that claiming this right essentially concedes Israel remains the occupying, controlling power in Gaza; by denying this, Israel is undermining it’s own valid case for the blockade’s neccessity. And by enacting a total blockade, Israel has relinquished the moral highground, something President Kennedy was careful to avoid.

If we are to draw a historical parallel to the Gaza blockade, it is to the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. The Free Gaza Movement would be well-advised to emulate the Berlin Airlift in trying to make a genuine difference in the Gazan populace’s lives rather than create these media stunts and courting political martryrdom. Imagine what a low-key, weekly flotilla could achieve if they spent all their money on food rather than media coverage? A true Gaza Sea Supply movement would do a lot more for ordinary Gazans than Free Gaza ever has.

Israel, meanwhile, has been played for a fool. The obvious PR agenda of the flotilla would easily be defused by simply permitting the ships through. The sole aim was to draw international attention to the blockade; they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In acting with a heavy hand, Israel has delegitimized the rationale for its blockade and played right into the hands of its most commited critics, raising awareness and criticism of the blockade to a global issue rather than a niche one. Had Israel simply inspected the boats rather than invading them with commandos and provoking the desired response, they would have scored an enormous diplomatic and political win, without sacrificing an iota of their capability and vigilance against ships from Iran or Syrian bound for Gaza – or even suspicious unflagged freighters trying to sneak in.

Finally, let’s note that Israel has pledged to let all the goods from the flotilla pass on to Gaza. There’s zero mention of this on the Free Gaza website. Whether Israel makes good on that prommise remains to be seen, but some attention to that pledge would help ensure the media spotlight could actcually signify something, rather than perpetuate the sound and fury. Poor players, indeed.

UPDATE: Egypt is opening the border to Gaza.

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