The Gaza Flotilla and International Law

By Berkowitz, Peter | Policy Review, August-September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Gaza Flotilla and International Law

Berkowitz, Peter, Policy Review

On May 31, 2010, in defense of a naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, Israel seized control of the Mavi Marmara in international waters, detained the passengers, and towed the ship to the Israeli port city of Ashdod. During the previous three days and without incident, Israel had boarded, inspected, and brought to Ashdod the other five ships that had set sail from Turkey as part of the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla." But on the Mavi Marmara, passengers wielding pipes, knives, and axes attacked Israeli commandos as they rappelled from helicopters down to the ship's deck. Nine passengers were killed in the operation and several dozen were injured. Seven commandos were injured as well.

The flotilla's ostensible purpose was to bring humanitarian goods to the Palestinian population of Gaza. In fact, humanitarian goods had been arriving in Gaza over land through Israel, and Israel had repeatedly volunteered to deliver the flotilla's humanitarian cargo through the established land crossings. The flotilla's real and obvious goal was, as one of the organizers put it, "breaking Israel's siege."

The international outcry in response to Israel's raid on the Mavi Marmara was immediate. Little attention was given to the Turkish flotilla's deliberate provocation or to the possibility that Israel had acted ineptly or unwisely. The focus rather was on the accusation, often couched as a conclusion, that Israel had acted unlawfully.

On May 31, almost as soon as the news broke, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon insisted that it was incumbent upon Israel to explain its actions to the world: "I condemn this violence ... it is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place ... I believe

Israel must urgently provide a full explanation."

Also on May 31, Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, immediately pronounced Israel in egregious violation of international law: "Israel is guilty of shocking behavior by using deadly weapons against unarmed civilians on ships that were situated in the high seas where freedom of navigation exists, according to the law of the seas." Falk called for an investigation on the grounds that "It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behavior, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts." He characterized the Gaza blockade as "a massive form of collective punishment" constituting "a crime against humanity, as well as a gross violation of the prohibition on collective punishment in Article 3 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention." He insisted that failure to punish Israel's lawlessness would itself be criminal: "As special rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, familiar with the suffering of the people of Gaza, I find this latest instance of Israeli military lawlessness to create a situation of regional and global emergency. Unless prompt and decisive action is taken to challenge the Israeli approach to Gaza all of us will be complicit in criminal policies that are challenging the survival of an entire beleaguered community." Such was Israel's "flagrant flouting of international law" that, to end its blockade of Gaza, Falk concluded, "the worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel is now a moral and political imperative, and needs to be supported and strengthened everywhere."

Many nations promptly condemned Israel and some presumed its guilt that day. According to the bbc, within hours of the boarding of the Mavi Marmara French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced he was "deeply shocked" by Israel's action and called for an inquiry, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Israel of a "disproportionate use of force." Sweden summoned the Israeli ambassador to discuss the "unacceptable action." The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement declaring the incident a "flagrant breach of international law" while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed Israel's raid "totally contrary to the principles of international law" and an act of "inhumane state terrorism. …

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