Pondering Israel's naval blockade of Gaza

Israel has asserted its security control over Gaza’s maritime space, but it does not have title to these Mediterranean waters — nor has Israel ever asserted a territorial claim on them.

Israel has had full security control of the sea off Gaza since, probably, 1956 — well before its demarcation.

Gaza’s maritime space was formally demarcated as a Palestinian “fishing zone” or “area of economic activities” by agreement — pending, of course, a resolution by negotiation of final status issues — between the Israeli Government and the Palestine Liberation Organization as part of the Oslo process which started in 1993.

The demarcation of Gaza’s maritime space is defined by an agreed map — which can be found here, as well as on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website — which defines Gaza’s waters as a Palestinian “fishing zone”. Later, the zone also came to be understood as an “area of economic activity”.

Unusually, in terms of customary maritime conventions, Gaza’s maritime space extends 20 nautical miles out to sea. as measured perpendicularly from points on the Gaza shore

This map was signed by both Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and witnessed by both the U.S. Secretary of State and the Russian Federation Foreign Minister, and the same map (with different numerical designations) is appended to to “Oslo process ” agreements signed in 1994 and 1995.

But, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in late 2000, Israel has not allowed free Palestinian fishing in the zone. In 2002, when Israeli troops reoccupied cities in the West Bank, the Israeli navy further restricted Palestinian fishing activities there — and the Israeli government never even fulfilled the terms of an agreement it made that year with the UN’s Catherine Bertini to allow fishing in up to 12 miles of that zone. In 2005, during and after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza, the Israeli coordinators of this “disengagement” informed their Palestinian Authority interlocutors that Israel would retain full security control of Gaza’s maritime space.


As the Israeli ground operation started in Gaza on 3 January this year, the Israeli government declared for the first time a formal naval blockade of Gaza’s territorial waters in the Mediterranean — which it apparently continues to define according to the Oslo Accords.

There has been media speculation that this naval blockade is designed to confiscate supplies of undersea natural gas in what is demarcated as Gaza’s maritime space, but this was dismissed by a Palestinian official involved in this matter who I interviewed last week in Ramallah. This Palestinian official told me, further, that BG (British Gas) which has a 25-year lease on the Gaza gas field, has discounted the possibility …

The discovery of this gas find was publicly announced in 1999 — but it was apparently known, at least to the Israeli government, beforehand, including before the drawing up of the map appended to the Oslo accords.

In any case, it is not clear how this naval blockade affects a specially-demarcated sliver of water adjacent to Egyptian territorial water which is, at least partly, apparently under Egyptian security control.

This special area is delimited as one mile north of the point on the shore where the Gazan and Egyptian borders meet, then (as measured by any point on the shore within that mile) running 20 miles straight out to sea, which is apparently under Egyptian security control — in coordination with Israel.

[There is another similary special area, also delimeted on the Oslo accords maps, which runs 1.5 miles south of the Israel-Gaza border. Like the special delimited area next to Egypt, the area adjacent to Israel also extends straight out to sea for 20 nautical miles.]



The Israeli Navy yesterday intercepted. boarded, detained a Togo-flagged boat carrying a Lebanese cargo of humanitarian goods and about ten passengers, the majority of whom are of Lebanese nationality, who declared their intention to bring these humanitarian supplies to Gaza — despite the Israeli naval blockade.

The boat was ordered under Israeli navy escort to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod.

The Jerusalem Post reported that a person it described as “a senior Israeli naval officer involved in the operation” said: “We told them that we plan to stop them if they break the blockade”. This report can be found here.

The JPost also quoted this “senior Israeli naval officer” source as saying that “They told us that they’re determined to get to Gaza and that they do not plan to stop”.

A statement issued by the Israeli Defense Forces [and received via email distribution to journalists] said the ship had defied all warnings, which, the statement says, were made “because of security risks in the area and the existing naval blockade”.

The Israeli military statement accused the ship’s captain (and passengers?) of deception, stating that “Starting yesterday [Wednesday 4 February] evening, the Israel Navy has been making direct contact with the boat and continued to clarify that the ship will not be permitted to enter the Gaza Strip’s coastal waters. The boat crew stated their intentions of changing their destination to the port in El-Arish , Egypt. [BUT] During today’s morning hours, the cargo ship changed its bearing, and began heading towards the Gaza Strip”.

Then, the IDF statement said, the ship actually “entered Gazan coastal waters”.

The statement added that “The actions of the boat crew raised suspicion, as it could threaten security concerns, or furthermore, the boat could be used for smuggling banned equipment (weaponry, etc.) in to or out of the Gaza Strip”.

In contradiction to eyewitness and other accounts, the IDF statement said that, although force was used, “No gunshots were fired on board during the boarding and capturing of the cargo boat”.

The IDF statement then said that “any humanitarian goods found on the boat will be transferred to the Gaza Strip”.

It added that “The IDF Spokesperson Unit would like to emphasize that any organization or country that wishes to transfer humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, can do so via the established crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip with prior coordination”.

Now, under the naval blockade, however, the Israeli government is enforcing at sea a situation that previously existed on land ever since the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council: ALL goods, including humanitarian aid, destined for the Gaza Strip MUST be done ONLY with Israeli approval, and ONLY via “established crossings”.

The JPost article reported that “IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said that the rest of the supplies on board were being examined and would also be sent to Gaza”.

This morning (Friday), Israel’s YNet website reported that “The IDF has transferred 1,100 blood units into the Gaza Strip Friday, via the Erez crossing. The blood was brought aboard the Lebanese aid ship which was detained by the Israel Navy off the Strip’s coast Thursday. The units were transferred into Gaza by Magen David Adom [MDA – Israel’s national society that is part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent socities] blood Bank teams. Head of the Blood Bank Prof. Ayelet Shenhar said that ‘the ship was carrying 1,100 frozen (blood) units. Magen David Adom was asked to assist in transferring them to the Erez crossing. A Blood Bank team was sent to the Ashdod Port and transported the blood in special containers, meant to keep the units at a temperature of -20 degrees Celsius (-68 Fahrenheit) to the crossing’. Shenhar could not say if the was a blood shortage in the Strip’s hospitals during the Israeli offensive in Gaza, since ‘MDA was not contacted on the matter. As far as I know Jordan sent blood to Gaza and there was no need for the Israeli Blood Bank to do the same. The Palestinians refused to receive blood units from us”… This report can be read in full here .

Dr. Shenhar was at the regional medical center for Gazans established after the cease-fire in Israel’s Erez border crossing terminal.

YNet reported in a separate article also published on Friday morning that “All 18 people aboard
[including the crew] were expelled to different destinations, apparently according to nationality”.

It added that “Nine Lebanese and a Palestinian resident of Lebanon [some activists and some journalists] arrived early Friday, with the help of the UN peacekeeping force, across the Lebanese-Israeli border at the coastal town of Naqoura … Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed said one of the passengers, 86-year-old former Greek Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem Hillarion Capucci, was taken to the Golan Heights where he crossed into Syria. Three others were to be flown out to London early Friday, Israeli officials have said. It was not immediately clear where the four other people detained were headed”.

One of the journalists said that she and several others had been hit during the boarding of the ship, which, Ynet reported her as saying, happened “in Egyptian territorial waters”.

YNet reported that “Those aboard were blindfolded, handcuffed and separated, Khoder said. Then they were interrogated by plainclothes agents and their belongings and equipment taken away. They were later taken to Israel’s port of Ashdod along with the ship. Israeli officials weren’t immediately available for comment”. This report can be read in full here.

The ship will apparently remain in Israel, at least for the time being …

Israel has allowed NO ship to get to Gaza since Operation Cast Lead began on 27 December.

One Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus was rammed by Israeli navy boats and damaged a few days later [was it 29 December] in what the Free Gaza movement insists were international waters. Another Free Gaza expedition was intercepted by Israeli naval vessels somewhere (reportedly about 70 miles off Gaza’s coast) and reluctantly returned to Cyprus [“We had no choice”] a couple of weeks later, still during the Israeli military operation. The Free Gaza movement, which apparently had a hand in the unsuccessful Lebanese-chartered attempt, says it will make another try, reportedly from Cyprus, on 2 March — by which time the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza will most likely still be fully in place.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post report mentioned earlier in this article said that “At the United Nations, Lebanese diplomat Caroline Ziade urgently appealed to members of the 15-nation Security Council and to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, saying her government ‘calls on the international community to press Israel to immediately release the ship’ and let it deliver tons of medicine, food and toys. ‘My government condemns the Israeli actions and considers them a blatant and flagrant breach to international law and international humanitarian law’, she wrote. A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement sharply condemned what it called Israel’s act of ‘maritime piracy’.”

3 thoughts on “Pondering Israel's naval blockade of Gaza”

  1. I am just curious about the ship’s crew statement in which they say the never entered the Israeli waters….and that the Israeli warships forced them to change destination and go to Ashdod…

    Is that really true?

  2. A friend and former classmate who now works in a responsible international position in Gaza told me on Saturday that the ship was intercepted 19 miles off Gaza’s coast.

    This is exactly one mile within Gaza’s territorial waters, or maritime space (a/k/a”economic activity” and “fishing” zone) as defined by the 1994 and 1995 Oslo Accords.

    Remarks by Israeli naval officers in January about the naval blockade indicated then that the Israelis were blockading the area as defined in these Oslo Accords. which gives the Palestinian Authority (yes, I think it must be the PA) 20 miles in the Mediterranean Sea off Gaza’s Coast — minus, as noted above, one and a half miles south of the Israeli-Gaza border, and one mile north of the Egyptian border.

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