International outcry over the commando raid on a flotilla bringing food and medicine to Gaza continues to grow. Israel insists that its soldiers were merely defending themselves in the shootings that left 9 people dead. Human rights activists insist that the troops opened fire on civilians onboard the ships. Whatever the final facts, the tragedy has brought even greater scrutiny of the long-condemned blockade in Gaza that has led to a humanitarian crisis.
It appears that all nine fatalities were Turkish citizens and Turkey has withdrawn its ambassador to Israel. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the raid “banditry and piracy” on the high seas and “murder conducted by a state.”
Seven Israeli soldiers were also wounded, one seriously.
Israel has been criticized for years over the blockage, which has barred medical and other supplies from countries from France to Turkey to England. Israel imposed the blockade in response to Hamas winning elections in Gaza. Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Israeli military’s chief liaison with the Palestinian-controlled territories, said “We will not allow ships to come to Gaza while Hamas is in control there.”
While various organizations and countries have denounced the blockade as causing great hardship, Israel recently taunted critics by releasing a video of the Roots restaurant — one of the finest restaurants left in Gaza to show that fancy meals are still be served. The IDF noted “we have been told the Beef Stroganoff and cream of spinach soup are highly recommended.”
That move backfired as humanitarian groups alleged that the pictures were dated and the food was smuggled through tunnels for a small percent of wealthy Gazans. Eighty percent of Gazans are being supported by international relief supplies and the United Nations has said that the blockade is causing a health crisis in Gaza.
The blockade itself raises serious legal questions, particularly as a form of collective punishment against Gazans for their election of Hamas party members. Under international law, Israel cannot deny basic supplies to the population. There is also the question of the right of Israel to board the vessels in international waters. Furthermore, there are strict guidelines on the response by military and police in law enforcement situations. The San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, 12 June 1994, is viewed as customary international law and limits such claimed acts of self-defense to proportional acts:
3. The exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations is subject to the conditions and limitations laid down in the Charter, and arising from general international law, including in particular the principles of necessity and proportionality.
4. The principles of necessity and proportionality apply equally to armed conflict at sea and require that the conduct of hostilities by a State should not exceed the degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required to repel an armed attack against it and to restore its security.
Arguments that these searches were acts of self-defense are undermined by Israeli officials tying the blockade to the Hamas election as opposed to gun running. There is no question that Hamas is a legitimate concern for Israel and that Israel has a legitimate interest in ending the attacks on its borders. However, international law requires proportionality and protects foreign flagged vessels in international waters. To the extent that these searches are viewed as collective punishment, they would be viewed widely as an international violation.
While Israel has said that the ships can land in Israel for inspection and transfer to Gaza, international groups charge that the government holds on to the supplies and slows supplies to a trickle to punish Gazans for their support of Hamas. The World Health Organization has charged that Israel is stopping medical supplies and needed machines, like x-ray machines, from entering Gaza, here.
Prominent Jewish figures have also joined in condemning the blockade, here.
One country likely to face increased pressure is Egypt which under U.S. and Israeli pressure has closed its border to these goods passing through to Gaza. With the ongoing scandal over Israel’s assassination in Dubai in violation of the laws of various allies (here), this latest incident has already sparked massive protests around the world.
UPDATE: As expected, Egypt has opened its border to goods in response to the raid, here.