City of Brass

City of Brass


Pirates of the Mediterranean: Is Israel’s Gaza blockade legal?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

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.



  • http://phelps.donotremove.net Phelps

    Here’s the problem with the humanitarian situation, and I put this squarely on the PA: (From the Red Cross report)

    The only way to address this crisis is to lift import restrictions on spare parts, water pipes and building materials such as cement and steel so that homes can be rebuilt and vital infrastructure maintained and upgraded.

    The problem is, when I read “spare parts, water pipes and building materials” I see “rocket components and bunker materials.” Everything that Israel is blocking is either a dual use item, a precursor material for weapons, or a foodstuff that has been used to try to smuggle weapons precursors in. The coriander one, for example, was obvious to me. It’s a near perfect material to smuggle granulated explosives in. Chocolate is perfect to coat plastic explosives like Semtex in.

    “Even when patients do obtain the necessary permits to leave, the transfer through Erez crossing into Israel can be arduous. Patients on life-support machines have to be removed from ambulances and placed on stretchers, then carried 60-80 metres through the crossing to ambulances waiting on the other side. “

    And they have to do this because someone in the PA leadership decided that it was a brilliant idea to use ambulances to make terrorist attacks from.

    Urgent steps must be taken to allow farmers to resume growing their crops in safety. Fertilizers, spare parts for machinery, plastic sheeting for greenhouses and fodder must be allowed into the Gaza Strip in quantities that will ensure that they are sold at prices farmers can afford. At the same time, farmers must be permitted to resume their exports of produce in order to earn a proper living. Recent restrictions on fishing should be rescinded.

    Except that fertilizer goes into rocket fuel and warheads, and machinery and plastic sheeting become rocket components. Again, all of this lays squarely on the PA leadership that has weaponized everything they can get their hands on.

  • Ariely

    The triumph of hypocrisy?
    The agony of the free world?
    Adopting Islamism methods – the way ahead?
    I can’t decide what should be the proper title-could it be the all 3?
    What issues are to be considered?
    1:”Freedom activist” are called the supporters of the ideology stating that:
    All cultures can leave peacefully only governed by Islam and Sharia low
    All lands once conquered by Islam are Muslim territory forever and should be re conquered (From :Paris gates to Morocco- Vienna gates to Istanbul- All India- Sicily and part Italy)
    Human rights and democracy should be destroyed
    Keel all Jews
    2: “Not punished”- their war methods- not included in the international war laws:
    Islamist hate propaganda
    Terrorist dressed as civilians
    Countries supporting and sheltering terrorism
    Killing everywhere and everyone
    Shelling indiscriminately civilian areas
    Firing and hinting between civilians
    3: Freedom defenders– “Punished” tying to defend their nation–
    Uniform dressed solders acting to stop terrorists hiding in civilian areas
    Soldiers defending their lives against terrorists masked as “freedom activists”
    Closing supply logistic channels to areas controlled by terrorist and supporters
    Acting against countries sheltering terror infrastructure
    ** * To survive on this hostile and hypocritical environment what is the way forward?

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  • Heather

    These “Peace activist” are sending another ship to try to cross the blockade. Why is there no outcry for them sending another ship?
    The supplies from the first ships is being taken to Gaza, so to claim they need to violate the blockade to ship supplies is a total lie.

  • Timhogs

    I’ve been watching Israel vs Palestine for several decades now; and every time I think that an action on one side is the stupidest thing that anyone could have done in support of their cause, someone on the other side comes along and does something even more idiotic.
    Someone once told me that doing the same thing over and over and getting the same results, but thinking that the next time will actually work, is one way you can define insanity. One side has been throwing rocks, firing home-made rockets, and sending kids to blow up school buses for decades, and it has never worked. The other side has been using excessive, raw, brute force to destroy camps and build settlements for decades, and that hasn’t worked either. Both sides have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that any fool can pull a trigger (or throw a rock, or for that matter stage a tragedy for the world press to chew up); and there are fools enough to go around on both sides.
    I pray that some day, someone over there will be enough of a man to stand up to their own side, and point out the forty-plus years of evidence that show that “the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t work; and convince their people to try another approach.

  • Eric k

    All sides—the “critics” of Israel, her supporters, and everyone in between—agree that the “peace flotilla” affair is a disaster for Israel. I disagree. I say it is a victory for Israel, for truth, and for civilization in its eternal war against barbarism. The affair has not discredited Israel, but its “critics.” It has made it plain beyond a shadow of doubt that the “critics” are in reality remorseless enemies who deny Israel the right to exist, as shown by the fact that they have portrayed Israel’s perfectly legitimate and necessary act of self-defense as a crime against humanity. The “critics” have thus uncovered the truth about themselves and can no longer credibly deny it: that they are not the high-minded humanitarians they claim to be, but allies of Hamas in its jihadist war of extermination against the Jewish state.
    To arrive at the true and the good, falsity and evil must be exposed. Never has anti-Israelism so clearly revealed its falsity and evil to the eyes of the world as it has now done. That is change I can believe in.

  • muham
  • singh
  • kingskidd

    I have a feeling that Israel was set up. Of course if there is a blockade, and I’m sure the vessel knew that there was; did they not think that Israel would board it for inspection of weapons? Also why would the people aboard the vessel start attacking the soldiers with clubs and knives, when they could have just let the inspection go on to find out that there were no weapons. As for me if someone starts to club, or stab me with a knife, and I have a gun, I would definetly use it.

  • Richard s

    CAN ISRAEL IMPOSE A NAVAL BLOCKADE ON GAZA?
    Yes it can, according to the law of blockade which was derived from customary international law and codified in the 1909 Declaration of London. It was updated in 1994 in a legally recognized document called the “San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea.”
    Under some of the key rules, a blockade must be declared and notified to all belligerents and neutral states, access to neutral ports cannot be blocked, and an area can only be blockaded which is under enemy control.
    “On the basis that Hamas is the ruling entity of Gaza and Israel is in the midst of an armed struggle against that ruling entity, the blockade is legal,” said Philip Roche, partner in the shipping disputes and risk management team with law firm Norton Rose.
    WHAT ARE INTERNATIONAL WATERS?
    Under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea a coastal state has a “territorial sea” of 12 nautical miles from the coast over which it is sovereign. Ships of other states are allowed “innocent passage” through such waters.
    There is a further 12 nautical mile zone called the “contiguous zone” over which a state may take action to protect itself or its laws.
    “However, strictly beyond the 12 nautical miles limit the seas are the “high seas” or international waters,” Roche said.
    The Israeli navy said on Monday the Gaza bound flotilla was intercepted 120 km (75 miles) west of Israel. The Turkish captain of one of the vessels told an Istanbul news conference after returning home from Israeli detention they were 68 miles outside Israeli territorial waters.
    Under the law of a blockade, intercepting a vessel could apply globally so long as a ship is bound for a “belligerent” territory, legal experts say.
    CAN ISRAEL USE FORCE WHEN INTERCEPTING SHIPS?
    Under international law it can use force when boarding a ship.
    “If force is disproportionate it would be a violation of the key tenets of the use of force,” said Commander James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College.
    Israeli authorities said marines who boarded the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara opened fire in self-defense after activists clubbed and stabbed them and snatched some of their weapons.
    Legal experts say proportional force does not mean that guns cannot be used by forces when being attacked with knives.
    “But there has got to be a relationship between the threat and response,” Kraska said.
    The use of force may also have other repercussions.
    “While the full facts need to emerge from a credible and transparent investigation, from what is known now, it appears that Israel acted within its legal rights,” said J. Peter Pham, a strategic adviser to U.S. and European governments.
    OPPONENTS HAVE CALLED ISRAEL’S RAID “PIRACY.” WAS IT?
    No, as under international law it was considered a state action.
    “Whether what Israel did is right or wrong, it is not an act of piracy. Piracy deals with private conduct particularly with a pecuniary or financial interest,” Kraska said.
    So every single argument by the Free Gaza folks about how illegal Israel’s actions were are complete and utter lies.
    Like pretty much everything else they say.

  • Anan E. Maus

    I don’t think that politics mixes particularly well with religion.
    Religion is founded on love.
    Politics is founded on difference and competition.
    There certainly have been human rights abuses on both sides of the conflict.
    I think the religious call is for all violence…on both sides…to end.

  • Lori Crowley

    This is a very good article. Isreal has no regard for anyone but themselves.

  • Anan E. Maus

    People have to understand that a people’s government very rarely expresses the will of the people. There are plenty of Israelis who are vehemently opposed to the policies of their own government.
    And, on the other side, there are plenty of demagogues among the Arab nations who love to do nothing better then foment real, deep and serious racial hatred of Jews.
    Let us not forget who the real enemy. The real enemy is Satan, not people. The real enemy is born when Satan tempts someone to fall out of grace and into hatred.
    The more we pray for sinners, the better off the whole world will be. There is no human power more powerful than prayer. If enough people prayed for peace, the forces of evil would surrender even without an iota of external intercession.

  • Anosh
  • ELSA

    Israel has every right to defend itself against any hostile enemy, including Hamas.
    When those who surround Israel are ready to truly make peace, that being recognizing Israel’s right to exist and ending the calls for a second Holocaust of the Jews, then maybe, just maybe, peace will be possible. Until then, Israel is constantly under threat by those who align themselves with the politics of ethnic cleansing.
    Long live Israel!!!

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  • Alicia

    Hi, Aziz. Good post. I’ve been a non-Jewish supporter of Israel’s right to exist for many years. I’ve also supported a two-state solution, and was very hopeful, whether I was naive or not, about the Geneva Accords, which now seem like ancient history.
    After the Second Intifada began, and after following the history in the region for many years, I concluded that the Palestinians had become their own worst enemies. As someone said, it seems like the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to blow an opportunity for peace. I still believe this. I have no sympathy for Holocaust deniers, or for Hamas, or for people who chant “Death to Israel.” However, the Israeli government’s actions over the past few years have convinced me that Israel has also become its own worst enemy.
    Building settlements, when it should be dismantling them. Giving in to the extreme right, and the religious fanatics, invading Lebanon, and under the Netanyahu government, doing its best to undermine the Obama Administration. Now this overreaction to the ships trying to run the blockade. And, worst of all, continuing the unjust and utterly counterproductive practice of collectively punishing the Palestinians, which turns the Palestinians into a collective enemy.
    Its time for a change of heart, strategy, and tactics.

  • brenda parks

    Israel has every right to search ships which are coming into Gaza. They must protect their own people. Gaza has had millions of dollars poured into it and if they had been reasonable they would have taken that money and been able to build their economy instead of being so insistent on taking land which was given to the Jewish nation in 1948. The Palestinians were given land at the same time (Jordan) in which they could have built a good life, but they have a one track mind, which is the eradication of the Jewish people.

  • Abdullah Al Karim

    You say thay nuclear arms are not rockets. You fail to note that both kill. Hamas is deemed a terrorist organization and committed to Israel’s complete destruction. Perhaps your views are a tad biased.

  • http://www.likelihoodofconfusion.com Ron Coleman

    Aziz, of all the things I look to you for here it’s less the shmoozing about bad old Israel, which everyone can and does have an opinion about, but some insight into what is going on with Turkey, which was supposed to be, or so I thought, THE model of moderate, modern Islam. Is Turkey still that, and moderation just isn’t what it used to be? Has Turkey been “radicalized,” in fact, and if so, how? Will the radicalization of Turkey “radicalize” Western reaction to Islam (or “reactionize” it?) even further? Or is the entire premise of my questioning incorrect, and Turkey is just triangulating in a manner that merely only quacks like Islamicism?

  • Aziz Poonawalla

    Ron, since you think I’m complaining about “bad old Israel” you clearly arent reading my posts closely enough.
    Its depressing that anything short of Israel Uber Alles is immediately lumped together into one bin.
    But my record is clear. I am pro-two-state solution; I supported the Separation Fence; I have criticized suicide bombers in the strongest possible, even religious, terms; I have just now acknowledged a right to enforce A blockade (but not neccessarily THIS blockade).
    And yet, for all that, again its just “Aziz complaining about bad old Israel”
    And yes, your premise is utterly flawed regarding Turkey. Thats because you are also assuming that any mulsim-majority nation state that takes issue with Israeli policy must necessarily be doing so out of anti-semitism and “islamicism” (whatever the hell that means, anymore).
    the worst enemy Israel has is its enablers. If you cant see that I – or Turkey – are friends, then you dont deserve us.

  • T. Perrin

    It seems, from the conversations posted, that the only people deserving protection are the Jews. Do the Palestinians not deserve protection and a place to live? Brenda Parks commented saying “the land was given to the Jewish nation (see below). I just need clarification. Who was living in the land at the time? Who owned the land and who gave the land to the Jewish nation?
    brenda parks
    June 8, 2010 11:32 AM
    Israel has every right to search ships which are coming into Gaza. They must protect their own people. Gaza has had millions of dollars poured into it and if they had been reasonable they would have taken that money and been able to build their economy instead of being so insistent on taking land which was given to the Jewish nation in 1948. The Palestinians were given land at the same time (Jordan) in which they could have built a good life, but they have a one track mind, which is the eradication of the Jewish people.
    Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/cityofbrass/2010/06/pirates-of-the-mediterranean-i.html?source=NEWSLETTER&nlsource=14&ppc=&utm_campaign=Muslim&utm_source=NL&utm_medium=newsletter#ixzz0qNCFsFSD

  • http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-04-27-palestinians-60_N.htm Ariana

    Israelis forces are known for their brutality, period. If you read the statements of those who were onboard the flotilla, you’d know that the attacks of the activists were in self-defense. Israeli helicopters were circling the boat and began shooting before attacking the ship. Call me paranoid, but if someone is shooting at me from a helicopter, I’m going to assume they’ll do worse damage once they’re on board and I’ll grab what I can do defend myself. Bullets vs. baseball bats is excessive force, period.
    Second, can we please acknowledge the fact that the Israelis treat the Palestinians similar to how the Jews were treated during the holocaust? They have cut off their livelihood, limited their rights to exist as human beings, and are now controlling what comes in and out of their country. If Israel didn’t enact such discriminatory and inhumane policies towards the Palestinians, maybe there would be no threat to Israel and thus no need for a bloackade. For those of you saying the Palestinians want the Jews dead and are trying to enact a genocide, please do your research before making such insane claims. Jews and Palestinians lived together peacefully before the state of Israel was created in 1948. The Jews fled europe and came to Palestine because they knew they were safer there. These accusations are based on nothing but assumptions on the part of people who cannot think for themselves. If you watch any interview with Palestinians, their views are the same regarding the Jews: They sympathize with what happened to the 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, but wonder why they are being punished for it.
    The Jews have cornered the market on torture and are now using it to justify abhorrent behavior. It is absolutely disgusting that the horrific death of 6 million people is now being used as an excuse for inhumane, inexcusably cruel behavior by the Israelis. To give the state of Israel any legitimate excuse for “self-defense” when they are the ones provoking these attacks is absurd and unfair to every other nation out there that gets demonized for their human rights violations, while Israel continues to receive international support. There’s no excuse for institutional racism and/or discrimination based on religion/race. We are too evolved as human beings to condone such barbarian behavior. To those who feel the need to support Israel no matter what, ask yourselves why you’re so sympathetic to the plight of the Jews while you can’t express the same compassion and support for the Palestinians, who are far off worse and whose livelihood has been crushed in favor of Israel’s? If you honestly think the way the Palestinians are treated is fair and that the Israelis are justified in their actions, then pack your things and head off to Gaza. Enlighten us about the great perks of being a second class human being, victimized daily by your neighbor’s draconian policies under the guise of self-defense. A country whose existence is dependent on the suffering of its neighbors does not deserve a penny of my tax dollars.

  • Danny

    Naval blockades are a legitimate instrument that states employ for self-defense
    Britain had Dutch coast under blockade in 1799.
    Britain had? French under blockade in 1806.
    Britain had Denmark under blockade in 1807.
    Saudi Arabia declared that it was placing a naval blockade on the Red Sea Coast of Yemen in November 2009
    the UN itself instituted a blockade of Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990
    Cuba was under the U.S blockage in 1962.

  • http://www.gtr5.com/news.htm BDBoy

    I see some of my fellow readers are trying talk about Turkey. Some are giving example of colonial past when such “Blockade” was normal. We have evolved to a much civilized time in global communities. It is disturbing for me to see some of us are trying “Legitimize” inhuman acts by Israeli government.
    [ Source: http://www.gtr5.com/news.htm
    If anything such peaceful, non-violent protests to help civilians should be encouraged. Just because Israel’s old friend Turkey decided to look into human suffering of Gaza, it is not fair to start talking about a new “Radical” Turkey. Rather it is high time to address Israeli actions towards native Palestinians and make Israel accountable for their actions. It may sound harsh to fanatic supporters of Israel. History teaches us many nations have perished for such careless behaviors.
    History has been very unkind to Jewish people and despite current tension people of middle east have treated Jewish people better than most civilizations. So for its own long term survival as a nation, Israel needs a huge paradigm shift in how it wants to be viewed by its religious cousins and neighbors. What happens in the holy land has a global effect we cannot deny any longer.
    It is fruitless to compare Israel with butcher of Baghdad Saddam Hussain or other dictators of ME. Personally I have great faith in promise and potential of Israel in that region.
    It is time for Israel to “Grow up” and start acting like a mature nation which does not need the USA to “Baby sit” for it till the end of time.
    We like to see prosperous, open and mature nations in future Israel and Palestine.
    Shalom.

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