Israel now says it is enforcing a "maritime SECURITY blockade" of Gaza

The Israeli Naval interception of the French-flagged Yacht took place around 1:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday — reportedly, 40 miles off Gaza, whose agreed maritime space, as defined by the Oslo Accords, extends 20 nautical miles out into the Mediterranean off Gaza’s coastline.

The Dignity, with 16 or so passengers and 3 crew members — but no cargo — was nonetheless taken to Israel’s Ashdod Port, where all on board were due to be interrogated — then apparently deported (all, that is, but Israeli journalist for Haaretz, Amira Haaretz).

The IDF spokesperson later said [see below] that the take-over and commandeering of this yacht took place once it became clear those on board were creating a “provocation”, and after they had “lied” …

Haaretz reported in the evening that “The most complicated tasks were actually performed by the electronic warfare team and by the IDF Spokesperson’s unit”.

The Haaretz report noted that “When they set sail on Saturday and declared the Alexandria port as their destination, no one seemed to care anymore. The end of the saga was predictable. After all, Israeli intelligence knew exactly who was on board the yacht, and that none of the passengers would react violently. The Israel Navy was in action, but by then was regarding it a near routine operation … For once, the IDF was not only controlling the battlefield but the media as well”.

This congratulatory piece, published here, also said that “Simultaneously, the IDF Spokesperson supplied media outlets with real-time updates on every stage of the negotiations between the navy and the French yacht, released the IDF chief’s orders to intercept the vessel, and, after 10 minutes, put out a statement on the IDF interception, which had been carried out quickly and smoothly. Pictures and videos taken by IDF ships were also immediately circulated …”

What we really learned from last year’s “mistakes” is that a fuller version of the story will emerge only after those on board are free to speak about their experiences.

Four hours elapsed between the time the yacht was boarded until it arrived in Ashdod Port. All initial Israeli media reports say that those on board the yacht were treated in an exemplary manner with the utmost consideration.

UPDATE: Jerusalem Post Defense Correspondent Yaakov Katz reported on Wednesday that “IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz was in the Navy’s underground command center in the Kirya overseeing the operation, OC Navy Vice-Admiral Eliezer Marom was at sea with the forces and the IDF Spokesman’s Office was releasing blow-by-blow updates of the operation accompanied with pictures and real-time videos”. Katz noted that “in just a few weeks, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss is expected to release what some predict will be a scathing report of the political and military echelons for the way they mishandled the last flotilla [on 31 May 2010] … The smooth operation on Tuesday [n.b. – maybe, but the full account is not yet in] was a way for the officials above to show Lindenstrauss that while there might have been mistakes and failures last year, they have been studied and rectified. This was likely done with the hope that Lindenstrauss will tone down his critique in light of the improvements”. This is posted here.

An earlier JPost report by Katz and published here said that the passengers were taken off the yacht, which was then sailed by Israeli navy personnel into harbor: “An IDF doctor inspected the passengers and they were transferred to one of the navy ships where they received food and water. The bridge of the Dignity was taken over by navy officers and then sailed towards the Ashdod Port”.

An instructive report on this, accompanied by a photo of an IDF soldier offering fruit to a person who can be described as reacting with mixed emotions (he looks angry and humiliated), has been widely announced and is posted by the IDF spokespersons unit here.

IDF photo from IDF website

A second piece in Haaretz, co-authored by Haaretz journalist Amira Hass who was on board the Dignity, reported that the yacht “refused to obey an Israeli demand to change course as it sailed for a Gaza port”.

This article, posted here, said that “minutes after Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz issued the order to intercept, the commandos quickly took control of the vessel, with no resistance from those aboard”.

And, it said, this military communique was issued: “In accordance with government directives, after all diplomatic channels had been exhausted and continuous calls to the vessel had been ignored, IDF (marines) boarded the Karame in an effort to stop it from breaking the maritime security blockade on the Gaza Strip”.

This is a new phrase: “maritime security blockade”.

It is not clear exactly what it means. A maritime blockade is normally concerned only with cargo, especially of the sort that might aid and assist an enemy, and it is concerned with the passage of people if they are fighters, or would give material support to an enemy

The Dignity, a small yacht, was not carrying any cargo at all, and no one on board was a trained killer, or even a rocket scientist.

If Dignity carried no cargo — and were to prove it by allowing Israeli inspection when it entered the area of naval blockade — then the question has to be asked: on what grounds is Israel barring it from Gaza?

The answer, it seems, is the ubiquitious catch-all term: “security”.

There is, even within different bodies of the UN, a dispute over the overall legality of the formal and declared Israeli blockade of Gaza’s maritime space, as we reported here.i

But, a maritime SECURITY blockade is something new, and apparently somewhat different…

The Haaretz article co-authored by Amira Hass noted that “Defense establishment sources stressed that they would not allow any kind of vessels to dock in the Gaza Strip, so any ship trying to break the blockade would be intercepted”.

It was, of course, a very big exaggeration, + very imprecise, of Israel’s Deputy FM Danny Ayalon to say Dignity sailing toward Gaza is “a breach of international maritime law”.

The IDF Spokespersons blog reported here that [IDF Spokesperson] “Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai explained that the boarding of the Al-Karama took place ‘as soon as their actions turned into a provocation.”

So, this boarding was really a disciplinary measure, rather than a decision based on any real security concerns.

The IDF explanation continued along the same lines, but moving to accuse the participants in the expedition of lying, in addition to provocation: “After our dialogue with the yacht reached a dead-end and all options were exhausted, the Israel Navy decided to board the Al-Karama. We realized that the Al-Karama captain was lying. He lied to the Greek authorities on his voyage route, changing it midway from Egypt to the Gaza port’, said Brig. Gen. Mordechai“.

Though it was apparently a quite deliberate deception indeed, people associated with the change of destination announcement it argued that was permissible to change the destination once a voyage was underway.

This deception was used, apparently, without qualms of conscience, because what the Dignity was challenging was something that has not yet been tested in a legal setting — and which has been given mixed evaluations in the political arena.

The Dignity was challenging the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza maritime space.

If it were just a normal maritime blockade, then the Dignity could have allowed itself to be inspected by Israeli forces at sea, and could have then been allowed to pass without any violation of the declared naval blockade…

But, the current IDF spokespersons unit is not happy unless it can use the words “terror” and “terrorist”.

Their blog reported that “The Israel Navy is steadfast in its commitment to lawfully enforce the maritime security blockade on the Gaza Strip. According to international law, it is lawful for Israel to impose a maritime security blockade on the Gaza Strip because it is currently in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas terrorist organization, the ruling entity of the Gaza Strip (see the law of blockade for more information). The Hamas terrorist organization is designated as a terrorist entity by the US, UK, EU and state of Israel…” Again, this is posted here.

Another example: IDF spokesperson @CaptainBarakRaz Tweeted late Tuesday that “If naval security blockade were taken off, would allow for smuggling weapons 2 Gaza. It is legal structure 2 keep Isr. safe…. W/blockade terrorists wont b able 2 smuggle weapons 2 gaza so we must keep this blocakde in place”.

While one of the criteria for determining the legality of a naval blockade is whether or not it is applied with impartiality across the board to all nations, it does not require barring every single vessel, even after they passed inspection showing they were carrying no contraband or material that would have given support to the “enemy”, or in situations such as this where — as Yaakov Katz reported here in the JPost — “the Dignity was carrying about 15 people, whose identities were known to Israeli intelligence in advance and were at no point really suspected of carrying weapons”.

One of the markers to determine the legality of a naval blockade is the existence of a state of war.

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet held its regular weekly meeting under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and [with convenient timing, after the Dignity sailed on Saturday] issued a statement determining that Gaza is “still an area from which activity is being perpetrated that is liable to endanger security of State of Israel + its citizens”.

On 19 September 2007 — a few months after the mid-June Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security Forces from Gaza — the Israeli cabinet (meeting under then-PM Ehud Olmert) issued a determination that Gaza was an “enemy entity” or “hostile territory”.

The IDF’s Operation Cast Lead [from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009] ended with two separate cease-fires, one declared by Israel, the other by Hamas.

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