Gaza Flotilla incident – Defence or piracy?

Recently a group of activists attempted to break the blockade of Gaza by sending a flotilla of 5 ships filled with humanitarian aid to the port of Gaza. On route the Israeli defence force (IDF) intercepted the flotilla and after a violent confrontation the flotilla was redirected. We have all seen the videos, the condemnation, the recriminations and the general excess of propaganda of both sides to see their viewpoint. Now this is intended to be another example of how skepticism can help clarify (if not answer) conflicts that arise of such heated issues.

The first question we must ask ourselves, does Israel have justification for imposing a blockade on the Gaza Strip? The Israeli government states that it is only trying to stop the flow of arms into the occupied territory because anti-Israeli ‘forces’ (be it an organized group or independents) fire mortars and rockets into Israel from the territory. Now according to my research, until 2006 probably less than 500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, from 2007-2008 that number rose to less than 5000 with a lull in 2009 of less than 200 (not including the ones fired during the Israeli invasion of the strip). Of these less than half were the ‘long’ range rockets mostly home-made with the rare exception. However, out of a reported 8600 attacks, they have only managed to kill 28 but injured hundreds. As in-effective as a ‘weapon of death’, the psychological effect on those in range of an attack (roughly the entire southern half of Israel) is profound. So, I think we can say that Israel has a justification for the blockade. We are not going to talk about the justification for the rocket attacks or the legality of the occupation; we are simply saying that Israel, under the current situation, has justification for blockading the Gaza Strip.

That said, we now must ask, what is justified to blockade? The reason stated for the flotilla was to supply materials that were being unjustly included in the blockade. We can agree that Israel is justified to blockade military supplies such as arms and munitions. What material was on the flotilla? According to Israel’s friendly neighbour (well pre-flotilla attack) Turkey, the ships were inspected to ensure no ‘contraband’ was onboard. On board were food, medical supplies and building materials. Of these, Israel claims the building material unacceptable because it could be used to create re-enforce bunkers…something only a problem IF Israel planned to re-occupy Gaze. Considering that the occupied territory has been ravaged by Israeli attacks (most notably the ‘incursion’ early in 2009), there is a great need to rebuild. Palestinians say that the denial of these good is not to protect Israel from attacks but to collectively punish the Palestinians for democratically electing Hamas as its major party/government.

Is Israel using the blockade as a form of collective punishment or for justifiable self-defence reasons? It has been noted by Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups that things such as paper, crayons, tomato paste, lentils, canned juice, etc[1]… were blocked because they were deemed ‘luxury goods’[2]. This also explains why Israel’s apparent conciliatory move to ‘distribute’ the aid itself was more PR than genuine. In previous attempts to deliver aide, Israel (offering to distribute the aide itself) delayed or failed to do so. Some stocks spending years in storage before being released by which time the items in question were spoiled. Under these conditions, it appears that there was justification on the activists’ part to try and, at least partially, break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

So, we have a situation where both sides are justified; Israel in enforcing a blockade and the flotilla in delivering humanitarian aid. Israel has the right (according to “San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea”) to detain any ship in its territorial waters (and for the sake of our analysis, Gaza will be considered Israeli territory), an area defined by the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” as (roughly) 23 km. Attempts to board, detain and confiscate ‘contraband’ in international waters could be interpreted as an act of piracy or illegal hostile actions.

Now the next question arises; where did the action take place. According to the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), the ‘incident’ with the flotilla lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, occurred at 68km west of Israel – clearly international waters. A previous attempt to break the blockade, by the ship “Spirit of Humanity”, was intercepted 29 km off the coast. It seems fair to state that the captain and passengers of the Mavi Marmara, believed that they had the right to deny access to the ship while in international waters and that any attempt to board was a hostile act which they were legally entitled to resist.

So far, we have acknowledged Israel might have the right to blockade but such right is limited to territorial waters, that the flotilla has the right to challenge a blockade that could be interpreted as collective punishment and that the boarding of the lead ship occurred in international waters.

Now from video evidence from onboard the flotilla ships, the IDF threw stun grenades on board the ship, it also fired live ammunitions (although this may have been intended as warning shots) that apparently hit two people killing one of them. Under these circumstances, the passengers had a right to defend themselves. When the ship failed to stop, the IDF landed heavily armed troops on the Mavi Marmara from helicopter. These troops were attacked. The flotilla passengers claim, with justification, that they were defending themselves from an attack that had already been fatal. The IDF, from their point of view, were justified in attempting to defend themselves from what it saw a legal enforcement of a blockade; a view supported by the edited out-of-context video produced by the IDF. We have discovered from our sceptical analysis, this view is hard to support when put into context however convinced of it the IDF or its ideologue supporters may be.

Now, questions of disproportionate force are beyond this discussion. The points we are after are “was the attack on the Mavi Marmara legal or not” and “was the response of the passenger and crew to the attack justified”? To me, this all boils down to the location, it appears that having occurred in international waters, the attack ‘stretched’ international law and secondly that the people onboard the Mavi Marmara believed they had a right to defend themselves. Irrespective of the (un)justification of the blockade itself, it seems that this incident in question shows the IDF share the greater share of responsibility. Again, political skeptism slices past the rhetoric and propaganda spewed out by both sides and show that most issues are not black and white and patients and research will at least put us on common ground to discuss the truly ‘debateable’ issues at stake.


[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8654337.stm

[2] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article7141868.ece

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