Political stunts not the way to end Gaza conflict

The new flotilla to Gaza is all about delivering provocation rather than aid, just like last year’s

IMAGINE THE house next door to yours was occupied by neighbours who announced that one of their most cherished goals was to drive you off your property and then proceeded to launch daily barrages of explosives into your yard, with no regard to whether these missiles exploded on the lawn, on your roof or in the faces of your children.

This scenario describes Israel’s current reality. In 2005, Israel implemented its “disengagement plan”, completely withdrawing both its military and civilian presence from the Gaza Strip.

While Israel hoped disengagement would serve as a springboard for improving relations with its neighbours, the opposite occurred: Hamas, an EU- and US- designated terrorist organisation, took control of Gaza and stepped up rocket attacks, firing more than 10,000 rockets and mortars at civilian targets within the internationally recognised borders of Israel proper – targets that have included kindergartens, schoolbuses and marketplaces.

The heavy armament used in these attacks is smuggled into Gaza via land and sea. One need not look any further than the March 2011 interception of the Victoria to appreciate the threat posed by maritime arms smuggling: on board the Victoria – an otherwise legitimate commercial vessel – 50 tons of advanced weaponry were unearthed, including land-to-sea missiles, originated in Iran and bound for Gaza.

Israel, as a democratic state, looks for legal tools to curb such smuggling and respond to Hamas’ terrorist attacks against its citizens, much as the Irish Government did when faced with maritime smuggling to paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. One of the recognised and legitimate tools available under international law in the context of an armed conflict is the naval blockade, which may be imposed on international waters. Indeed, naval blockades have been imposed throughout the 20th century in the context of both international and non-international conflicts, and the naval manuals of several western countries including the US and UK, and Germany, recognise the naval blockade as an effective, legal measure. When a blockade is in effect, any vessel that breaches or attempts to breach a blockade, irrespective of the cargo on board or of the vessel’s nature – whether enemy or neutral – may be subject to legal measures to enforce the blockade, including capture. Furthermore, these measures may be undertaken in international waters at a distance from the naval blockade, if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a vessel intends to violate the blockade.

Israel’s naval blockade stands the legal tests set forth in the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea (1994). In particular, Israel meets its humanitarian obligations towards the civilian population of Gaza. Since Israel liberalised its policies in June 2010, all civilian goods are allowed into Gaza via accepted land channels recognised by the UN and other major human rights groups.

At present 36,000 tons of goods are transferred weekly. Moreover, just this week, Egypt opened its border with the Gaza Strip. In this vein it should be stressed that the flotilla protesters, past and present, have been made aware that all humanitarian goods delivered to these land corridors will be transferred to Gaza.

In her article in yesterday’s edition “Flotilla aims to turn tide on Israel’s Gaza policies” on the opinion page, Claudia Saba maintained: “The Palestinians will accept nothing less than a total end to the illegal blockade and all forms of violence and discrimination against them.”

Israel, likewise, calls for a “total end” of the violence against its sovereign territory and civilian population and asks that its desire to protect its citizens from efforts to expand the armory of weapons intended for its destruction be respected. The need to stop maritime arms smuggling is the reason for the naval blockade.

Last year the Israeli blockade of Gaza was challenged by a flotilla of six vessels claiming to carry peace activists bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza. As these ships approached and were duly notified of the blockade by Israel, five of the vessels, including the Irish one, complied, and no violence of any kind ensued.

However, aboard the sixth vessel were some 40 members of the IHH, an Istanbul-based terrorist organisation with a history of providing material support to jihadi campaigns worldwide, including in Chechnya and Afghanistan. They initiated a violent attack against the Israeli soldiers undertaking legal blockade-enforcement actions, while shouting: “Go back to Auschwitz!”

The tragic outcome of their violence is well known. Contrary to what is asserted in Saba’s article, the events of last year’s incident were thoroughly investigated by a special public commission, which was headed by a former supreme court justice and included two foreign observers. Israel is also co-operating in an investigation of the flotilla incident being undertaken by the secretary general of the UN.

It should be noted that when these vessels purporting to deliver humanitarian aid were unloaded, two of the vessels – including the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara – carried no humanitarian aid whatsoever, while two-thirds of the medical “aid” found on board the other ships had expired prior to their voyage. These findings point to the fact that the goal of this flotilla was not the delivery of humanitarian aid but rather the delivery of a politically charged provocation.

Now, for the second year in a row, hundreds of activists are planning a protest flotilla to Hamas-controlled Gaza, and, once again, at the vanguard of this campaign is the IHH. The international community has recognised the pernicious nature of this activity, with the call, just a few days ago, by the UN secretary general to all relevant governments “to use their influence to discourage such flotillas”, pointing to their highly political and incendiary nature. Indeed flotilla protesters, past and present, have little real concern for the people of our region or for resolving the historic conflict. Their goals are entirely political – to cause a political provocation and to delegitimise Israel.

It is now up to responsible states to ensure that last year’s events are not repeated and that regional actors are not drawn into a political circus and pushed further apart, to the detriment of all those who live in the region.

This is the time for a mutually-negotiated end to our conflict, not for unconstructive, divisive and illegal political stunts at sea or on land.

RUTH ZAKH

(www.irishtimes.com / 01.06.2011)

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