Friday, June 11, 2010

An Illegal Blockade, A Failed Attack, and A Way Forward

This is taking a step back from our usual domestic policy/law issues, however, the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla heading to Gaza is a hugely important news item, with a far-ranging impact.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza has flirted with legality over the past three years without ever quite achieving a lip-lock like, say, Sandra Bullock and Scarlett Johannson did at the MTV Movie Awards a couple nights ago (Ooooh, pop culture reference. I hide in shame. Ashley's probably proud of me :P).  Because naval blockades are acts of war, the UN regulates them strictly:  "One country may legally blockade another only if it is acting in individual or collective self-defense—the standard requirements for going to war—or the U.N. Security Council has proclaimed the action necessary to maintain international peace".  Blockades must be formally declared and, it is generally agreed, extend no further than "the standard 12 nautical miles that define territorial waters".  (Information from Brian Palmer's awesome article at Slate, found here.).

Let's leave aside the fact that the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla occurred 40 miles off of Gaza's coast – far out of range of any blockade, and definitely not in Israel's jurisdiction – meaning that Israel is responsible for the deaths of nine civilians in international waters.  The fact of the matter is, Israel is not at war with Gaza, or Hamas, anymore.  They are occupying Gaza and the West Bank, and occupation (especially belligerent occupation, which is what most scholars agree is happening) does not confer the right to a blockade.  Additionally, the UN adopted a convention in 1988 called the "Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation", which, funnily enough, "prohibits seizure of ships on the high seas or acts of violence against the passengers." (from the Slate article, full text of the Convention found here).  Not only is the blockade itself illegal, the attack is very hard to justify on legal grounds.

Okay, so, unless you've been living under a rock for the past couple weeks, you already know most of the details about the clash between Free Gaza activists and Israeli naval commandos.  Nevertheless, I'll summarize it quickly for you before I go on.  Several ships carrying aid such as food, medicine, and construction materials for Gaza, where 80% of the population lives in poverty.  All cargo had been inspected at the ships' home ports, and the flotilla organizers did not wish to take the chance of sending the cargo through Israel because they knew the IDF would confiscate the majority of it.  So after compromise talks with Turkey failed, IDF naval commandos attacked the ships, killing 9 activists in the process.  One remaining ship, the MV Rachel Corrie had been delayed due to logistical reasons and later surrendered peacefully to the IDF.

This goes beyond a simple PR problem for Israel, just like the Gulf oil spill is more than just a PR problem for BP.  This attack further diminishes Israel's already tattered global image, while doing absolutely nothing to help the people of Gaza.  However, as a wakeup call, it accomplishes more than practically anything else, and definitely more than Israel would like. 

First, it calls attention to the counterproductive nature of the blockade.  While vital aid supplies are being denied to the everyday citizens of Gaza, the ruling Hamas smuggles weapons from Egypt.  It is the children, more than anyone, who is paying the price for the hardline stance adopted by both Hamas and Israel: 95% of Gaza's water in unsafe to drink, a third of the schools are closed, and 80% of the people live in poverty.

Second, it shows how badly Israel's leadership has failed in the policy arena.  By making all criticism of Israel equivalent to anti-Israel, anti-peace, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, Israel's government is showing a remarkable (and disturbing) naivete.  A majority of the people criticizing Israel's latest actions, such as the US and Turkey, think Israel has a right to defend itself.  But by claiming they are attacking aid vessels in self-defense, they are, in essence, equating Mahmoud Ahmedinijad (a real threat to their existence) with medical supplies (which, well, aren't).  Israel doesn't have a PR problem, they have a policy problem.

The only way forward is through moderation and mediation.  Unfortunately, the Netanyahu administration and Hamas have both shown repeatedly that they want nothing to do with either of those key elements of peace.  Perhaps these attacks and the international outcry will serve to push one or both of these parties back to the negotiating table, or at least away from the semiautomatic, reflexive violence that they have turned into an art form.  One can only hope.  As the incomparable Queen Rania of Jordan says, "Now and always, hardline policy and those who embrace it are vessels for darker forces that are at once self-cannibalising and combustible. No good can come of them.  [...]  Peace. People. Moderation. I would have thought that those were too heavy a price to pay for sustaining a hardened stance. So, when flotillas came to break the blockade, they came to help the people of Gaza. But, just as important, they came to break the blockade on the Israeli mind."

No comments:

Post a Comment