Mideast Briefing: The Second Gaza Flotilla

May 30th, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

A second, much larger flotilla will attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza in the third week of June. This expansion of last year’s effort, again led by IHH, the Turkish Islamist group, revives questions that need examination before events play out.

Despite its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Israel lives in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas regime there. Hamas and groups aligned with or tolerated by it shoot rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians across the border, and are making great efforts to expand the range and lethality of their weaponry-witness the sophisticated, Russian-made, laser-guided Kornet anti-tank missile that blew up an Israeli yellow school bus and killed a sixteen-year-old on the way to visit his grandmother.

Hamas’s often reiterated eliminationist ideology and longstanding record of aggressive assault on Israeli civilians created legitimate Israeli concerns. When Hamas drove the PA administration out of Gaza, Israel imposed a naval blockade to deprive Hamas and its allies of the means to wage armed conflict. This has been a joint effort of Israel and Egypt, although the fall of Mubarak and the steps toward formation of a new government in Egypt raise questions about whether and to what extent that cooperation will continue. Objections to Israel’s blockade of Gaza (which typically ignore Egypt’s role) focus on three basic arguments, one that it is illegal for a variety of technical reasons, another that it is immoral, and the third that it is ineffective.

Answering the legal objections, Professor Ruth Lapidot, an internationally recognized Israeli authority, notes that to be considered legal and binding, blockades must be “declared and announced, effective, non-discriminatory, and … permit the passage of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population.” In carrying out a blockade, naval vessels may interdict ships attempting to violate it, including attacking and capturing them. The military goal of a blockade, or the more limited military goals of interdicting ships to enforce it, must show appropriate proportionality in the civilian suffering they may engender. Moreover, a blockade may not cut off humanitarian aid to the blockaded civilian population, although it can determine ports through which the aid can be directed for inspection and trans-shipment by land, and insist upon neutral verification that the aid is reaching the civilian population. Such blockades, while not everyday events, have been used in recent years. NATO imposed one on Yugoslavia, for example, and Britain did the same to the Falkland (Maldives) Islands, then occupied by Argentina.

The moral objection to the Israeli blockade is that it is both too restrictive in the materials being blocked and that it also constitutes “collective punishment.” In the past, the list of restricted items did keep out products like pasta, and construction materials needed to rebuild after the Gaza war but that could also be used to erect military installations. Since then, however, Israel has revised the list of restricted goods. As for the ill-defined term “collective punishment,” when used so broadly it would seem to preclude any activity that causes any denial of any product or service to any non-combatant, clearly an unrealistic standard that would effectively deny those defending themselves against assault from the blockaded territory the right to prevent acquisition of weapons by the aggressors. Indeed, by denying the potential victims the means to limit the damage, the objectors on moral grounds incentivize Hamas to increase and use its armaments.

Is the blockade effective? Since the first flotilla a year ago, Israel interdicted the ship Victoria with fifty tons of Iranian weapons en route to Hamas; the threat of smuggling weapons by sea could have no more effective illustration. On the other hand, Egypt recently announced it will reopen the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza, and it is unclear whether the new Egyptian government intends to continue the policy of blocking importation of weaponry into the Gaza District. If not-and leaving aside for now the other serious geopolitical ramifications of such a step-the blockade may be rendered moot.

At the heart of the plan for another flotilla lies a fraud, the spurious notion that the territory of Gaza is suffering on a uniquely unviable level, a notion denied by the Red Cross and viewed with derision by observers familiar with conditions in hot spots around the world. Add to this the facts that Hamas is driven by a fanatical determination to destroy Israel, and, as Judge Goldstone belatedly acknowledged, Israel conducts its military affairs under judicial supervision that matches the best among the armies of the democratic states.

And yet plans for another flotilla advance. Sadly, with some honorable exceptions (36 U.S. congressmen requested the Turkish government to take steps to halt the flotilla but were rebuffed, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked governments “to use their influence to discourage such flotillas”) much of the democratic world seems to be looking the other way.