The May 2010 Israeli raid of the Gaza-bound flotilla and the subsequent clashes aboard that resulted in the death of nine of the activists has drawn much ire and debate. Protest rallies and demonstrations against Israel (and for Israel) were held around the world.
There have been conflicting reports about how the violence escalated and who fired first? Calls for a UN investigation of the raid were made by Turkey, Hamas, and others. The Israeli government has already begun its own internal investigation of the affair and has rejected the calls for a UN investigation.
This devastating episode, unfortunately, highlights many aspects of globalization. This analysis will examine competing claims of the international laws broken by the raid (and the Gaza blockade itself), the influence of global NGOs, as well as the impact of media framing the story.
The flotilla raid takes place in the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conflict has been going on for many years and this analysis will not examine the varying claims of “who was there first.”
In 1948, Israel was given the right to statehood by a UN resolution. Thereafter Israel declared and fought for its independence. During the War of Independence, some Palestinian Arabs fled and others were forced to leave their homes in Israel. Some Palestinians went to Lebanon, others to Jordan (and the West Bank which was controlled by Jordan), others to Egypt (and the Gaza Strip which was controlled by Egypt), as well as to countries around the world, including the U.S.
Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948 to the Arab world (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank, and Gaza Strip) were placed in refugee camps and many still have not been repatriated into their host countries (even those living under Palestinian control).
In 1967, Israel fought a per-emptive war and gained control over the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. After additional wars, Israel made peace with Jordan, who renounced claims to the West Bank and East Jerusalem and with Egypt, who renounced claims to the Gaza Strip. Once gaining control of these areas, Israelis built settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and started moving into areas of East Jerusalem, such as the Old City.
In the 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestinians; the main tenet of the Accords was a two-state solution. At this time, Palestinians were given the right to their own legislature. In 2000, final status negotiations fell through and were soon followed by a second intifada (the first took place, starting in 1989). In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza and dismantled all of the settlements there. In 2006, Hamas came to power in the Palestinian Legislative Council and took control over the Gaza Strip.
Blockade of the Gaza Strip
After Hamas came to power, Israel and Egypt set up a blockade against the Gaza Strip to stem the flow of weapons into the area. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization, by the U.S. State Department (and others) and has vowed to destroy Israel. Since Israel left the Gaza Strip, border towns, such as Sederot, face daily mortar attacks. Approximately 3,300 rockets fell on Israel between 2005 and 2008/2009 War with Gaza.1
In the past, Israel has successfully intercepted Gaza-bound boats carrying weapons (i.e. Karine A) and felt that blockade over the sea would be an effective way to stop further weapons from entering into the area. Many weapons (and other goods) though still make it into Gaza through tunnels alongside the Egyptian border.2 Israel has set up an area in Ashdod, a port city in Southern Israel, to check all packages entering into Gaza and has released humanitarian aid and essential items to be delivered into Gaza.
Not all of the humanitarian aid though gets into the Gaza Strip. Allegra Pacheco, an American-Israeli lawyer who has worked in the United Nation’s humanitarian coordination office for the last seven years in the Palestinian territory, notes, “Indeed, in the last two years of the blockade, the weekly average for supplies going into Gaza hardly ever reached more than 20 percent of the total goods Israel allowed to be imported.”3
Many organizations, such as the Red Cross, believe that the blockade is unnecessary and that its use is considered collective punishment against all Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer, is an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, notes:
Likewise, the fate of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza (and 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank) has been all but ignored by governments too. Had it not been for the deadly Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla, it too would have been lost in a sea of forgotten humanitarian initiatives whose declared mission is not only to deliver aid to a desperate population besieged for the past three years, but also to break the inhuman Israeli (and Egyptian-assisted) blockade that no other government has supported as legal, let alone justified.4
Additional perspectives, based on international law, will be discussed below.
Mavi Marmara Raid
A six ship flotilla, sponsored by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), left Turkey on May 30th to travel to the Gaza Strip. The flotilla organizers note that their goal was to break the Israeli blockade and to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Before the ships set sail, the Israeli government asked the flotilla organizers to travel to Ashdod instead so that Israel could inspect the goods and then deliver them to Gaza. Israel met with Ambassadors of European countries participating in the flotilla and told them of their intentions of not allowing the flotilla to pass the blockade. After repeated requests, Israeli commandos boarded the main ship, the Mavi Mamara. The events that transpired next are not fully known because of conflicting accounts.
The Israeli commandos state that they were attacked first with clubs and knives; one of the Israeli soldiers was thrown off the deck and was being beaten by the activists on board. Thereafter, acting in self-defense the Israeli soldiers responded with live fire, killing nine of the activists.
The activists provide a different narrative noting that the Israelis fired first and only then did the activists start fighting in self-defense. One of the activists has admitted to seizing the weapons from the Israeli soldiers, but claims the activists only beat the soldiers in self-defense. The activists also admit to throwing the weapons overboard.5
International Law Perspectives
Israel has been accused of multiple crimes with the Mavi Marmara incident: 1) Illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, 2) Illegal enforcement of the blockade via international waters (outside of 12 mile from Israel’s shores, according to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention), and 3) Disproportionate response on the Mavi Marmara (use of live fire against unarmed, non-combatants).
Alan Dershowitz, a prominent, US civil rights lawyer, notes that Israel’s actions were “entirely consistent with both international and domestic law.”6 Dershowitz claims that the use of blockade to respond to acts of war (such as the constant barrage of missile attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip) is legal.7
Human Rights Watch has called the blockade illegal under Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention, they call it “unlawful collective punishment against the civilian population.”8
Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School believes that blockades are legal during times of war or armed conflict. One of the problems though is that usually “armed conflict” takes place between two countries. Gaza is not considered a sovereign state.” So Posner concludes, “there is no clear answer to the question whether the blockade is lawful.”9 However, Posner notes that since there war-like conditions between Israel and Hamas, Israel’s legal position is reasonable, and it has precedent.10
As to the legality of boarding the ships in international waters, Posner writes, “Longstanding customary international law permits states to enforce publicly announced blockades on the high seas. The Gaza blockade was known to all, and certainly to those who launched the ships for the very purpose of breaking it.”11
Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu, claims the act was legal based on San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea. The Manual states, ”that merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral states outside neutral waters can be intercepted if they “are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture.”12
Anthony D’Amato, a professor of international law at Northwestern University School of Law, disagrees. He does not believe that the laws of war can be applied to this situation because Hamas is not a state. He would apply the Geneva Conventions instead.13
On the issue of proportionality, Dershowitz notes that
There can be little doubt that the moment any person on the boat picked up a weapon and began to attack Israeli soldiers boarding the vessel, they lost their status as innocent civilians. Even if that were not the case, under ordinary civilian rules of self defense, every Israeli soldier had the right to protect himself and his colleagues from attack by knife and pipe wielding assailants.14
Thus, he considers the response within reason.
An Irish Times article by Israel’s Ambassador to Ireland further illuminates the issue of unarmed, noncombatants:
Interviews with the detained passengers of the Mavi Marmara are now confirming that the violence met by the Israeli commandos as they boarded the ship was not spontaneous but an organised, premeditated action carried out by a hardcore of approximately 40 IHH operatives, recruited specially for the mission. This group boarded at Istanbul without undergoing security checks…It is also emerging that the Mavi Marmara, the biggest ship in the flotilla, carried no humanitarian aid at all).
The hardcore took over the upper deck and set up a communications room…As they approached the blockade, they sent ordinary passengers below, donned ceramic vests and gas masks, and armed themselves with weapons such as knives, axes, hammers, slingshots, wooden clubs and steel rods cut in advance from the ship’s railings using angle grinders. This latter action appears to have been carried out contrary to the captain’s orders.15
Human Rights Watch, among others, have called for further investigation on whether Israel’s response was proportional.
The Influence of NGOs
The two NGOs that sponsored the flotilla were the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). The IHH purchased three of the six ships in the flotilla and sent hundreds of its activists on the ships. The Wall Street Journal provides an expose of the IHH:
The IHH—the Turkish acronym for the “Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief”—has widely reported links to Hamas… in the 2001 Seattle trial of Ahmed Ressam, the would-be Millennium bomber, French counterterrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere testified that the IHH had played an “important role” in Ressam’s plot to bomb LAX airport on New Year’s Day, 2000…
“The IHH is an NGO,” said Judge Bruguiere, “but it was also a type of cover-up . . . in order to obtain forged documents and to obtain different forms of infiltration for Mujahideen in combat.”…
In a 2006 study for the Danish Institute for International Studies, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann noted that Turkey had known of the IHH links to terrorism for at least a decade.
“Turkish authorities began their own domestic criminal investigation of IHH as early as December 1997, when sources revealed that leaders of IHH were purchasing automatic weapons from other regional Islamic militant groups… Security forces uncovered an array of disturbing items, including firearms, explosives, bomb-making instructions, and a ‘jihad flag.’
… the IHH belongs to a Saudi-based umbrella group of Islamic charities known as “The Union of the Good,” which the U.S. Treasury designated a terrorist organization in November 2008.16
Given, IHH’s connections to terrorist organizations, Israel’s decision to board the Mavi Marmara seems justified.
The Free Gaza Movement is an international coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations. Since 2008, it has been raising funds and purchasing ships to break the Israeli blockade. It also has a mission of raising awareness of “prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation.”17 FGM certainly achieved its mission with the Mavi Marmara incident, whose tragic end focused world attention on the blockade and the Gaza Strip.
The Impact of Global Media
The Mavi Marmara incident was covered in nearly every major newspaper around the world. While the basic facts were covered, the frame varied according to the newspaper’s bias. Backgrounders of the flotilla sponsors were found in Israeli newspapers and in the Wall Street Journal, but were not covered in many accounts of the incident. All of these factors influence public opinion of the event.
Examples of headlines from the international press from May 31, 2010 to June 1, 2010:
- “Author Henning Mankell aboard Gaza flotilla stormed by Israeli troops”18
- “Fury follows Israel’s deadly attack on aid flotilla”19
- “Freedom flotilla ready to break through blockade”20
- “After the Flotilla Fiasco, Israel on the Defensive” 21
- “Pakistan slams Israel over inhuman flotilla siege.”22
Each of these titles was carefully worded to invoke a reaction. At the time that the stories went to press, the full details of the incident were not yet known. Nonetheless, these examples already show Israel in a negative light and the flotilla in a positive one.
There were article titles that were more straightforward, such as Reuter’s “U.S. treads cautiously on Israel flotilla crisis”23 and Jerusalem Post’s “Mixed reaction to flotilla in Germany.”24 The wording here does not place blame or use words that invoke a strong emotion against one party or the other.
Following the Mavi Mamara incident, Israel is planning on easing the blockade. It will be re-opening crossings into the Gaza Strip for everyday goods. There will be a new, narrower list of prohibited goods. This will certainly help appease much of the public outcry.
If this story involved different actors, would it have gotten the same media coverage, same public outcry? Globalization certainly helped amplify the impact of the event, but did it precipitate judgment before all the facts were in?
1 Makovsky, David. “Recalibrate the Blockade.” New York Times. June 1, 2010
2 Buck, Tobias. “Gaza looks beyond the tunnel economy.” Financial Times. May 24, 2010.
3 Pacheco, Allegra. “A Failure of Relief Agencies.” New York Times. June 1, 2010.
4 Allaf, Rime. “The U.S. Must Rein in Israel.” New York Times. June 1, 2010.
5 “Gaza flotilla organizer admits activists seized weapons from Israeli soldiers.” Haaretz. June 3, 2010.
6 Dershowitz, Alan. “Double Standard Watch.” Jerusalem Post. June 2, 2010.
8 Human Rights Watch.
9 Posner, Eric. “The Gaza Blockade and International Law.” The Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2010.
12 Lynch, Colum. “Israel’s flotilla raid revives questions of international law.” Washington Post. June 1, 2010.
14 Dershowitz, Alan. “Double Standard Watch.” Jerusalem Post. June 2, 2010.
15 Evrony, Zion. “A rush to judgment that will be refuted by history and fact.” Irish Times. June 11, 2010.
16 “Turkey’s Radical Drift .” Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2010.
18 Flood, Allison. “Author Henning Mankell aboard Gaza flotilla stormed by Israeli troops.” The Guardian. May 31, 2010.
19 Koutsoukis, Jason and Kirsty Needham. “Fury follows Israel’s deadly attack on aid flotilla.” The Sydney Morning Herald. June 1, 2010.
20 Kevorkova, Nadia. “Freedom flotilla ready to break through blockade.”ArabNews.com. May 30, 2010.
21 Vick, Karl. “After the Flotilla Fiasco, Israel on the Defensive.” Time. June 1, 2010
22 “Pakistan slams Israel over inhuman flotilla siege.” Daily Times. June 1, 2010
23 Quinn, Andrew. “U.S. treads cautiously on Israel flotilla crisis.” Reuters. June 1, 2010
24 Weinthal, Benjamin .“Mixed reaction to flotilla in Germany.” Jerusalem Post. June 1, 2010.