Israel's Naval Blockade

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent around a fuller explanation of Israel’s current maritime blockade of Gaza.

The Israeli government and military have been extraordinarily closemouthed about this blockade. It has been difficult even to get information that it still was in effect (it was officially announced on 3-4 January 2009, as the ground phase of Operation Cast Lead got underway).

Military officials have indicated, rather casually, that it extends 20 miles out to sea, and is identical to what is Gaza’s maritime space, as agreed in the Oslo Accords and defined by an official map drawn up in 1994, which can be viewed on the MFA website here.

It has been unclear if that was still the exact area covered by the Israeli naval blockade — the IDF informed the Freedom Flotilla yesterday that the no-go zone had been extended from 20 to 48, 60, or 68 miles, depending on the report. This notice was given just hours before the Israeli military launched an attack on the Freedom Flotilla that, yes, did say it was heading to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade. (The Free Gaza movement said the same thing, months before the naval blockade was declared).

Among the things that are still unclear about Israel’s naval blockade are: exactly where and when it was published, and the exact current dimensions of the zone.

Here is what the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent around tonight:

“1. A maritime blockade is in effect off the coast of Gaza. Such blockade has been imposed, as Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas regime that controls Gaza, which has repeatedly bombed civilian targets in Israel with weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza via the sea.

“2. Maritime blockades are a legitimate and recognized measure under international law that may be implemented as part of an armed conflict at sea.

“3. A blockade may be imposed at sea, including in international waters, so long as it does not bar access to the ports and coasts of neutral states.

“4. The naval manuals of several western countries, including the US and England recognize the maritime blockade as an effective naval measure and set forth the various criteria that make a blockade valid, including the requirement of give due notice of the existence of the blockade.

“5. In this vein, it should be noted that Israel publicized the existence of the blockade and the precise coordinates of such by means of the accepted international professional maritime channels. Israel also provided appropriate notification to the affected governments and to the organizers of the Gaza protest flotilla. Moreover, in real time, the ships participating in the protest flotilla were warned repeatedly that a maritime blockade is in effect.

“6. Here, it should be noted that under customary law, knowledge of the blockade may be presumed once a blockade has been declared and appropriate notification has been granted, as above.

“7. Under international maritime law, when a maritime blockade is in effect, no boats can enter the blockaded area. That includes both civilian and enemy vessels.

“8. A state may take action to enforce a blockade. Any vessel that violates or attempts to violate a maritime blockade may be captured or even attacked under international law. The US Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations sets forth that a vessel is considered to be in attempt to breach a blockade from the time the vessel leaves its port with the intention of evading the blockade.

“9. Here we should note that the protesters indicated their clear intention to violate the blockade by means of written and oral statements. Moreover, the route of these vessels indicated their clear intention to violate the blockade in violation of international law. [n.b. – this last phrase, “in violation of international law”, could be debated.]

“10. Given the protesters explicit intention to violate the naval blockade, Israel exercised its right under international law to enforce the blockade. It should be noted that prior to undertaking enforcement measures, explicit warnings were relayed directly to the captains of the vessels, expressing Israel’s intent to exercise its right to enforce the blockade.

“11. Israel had attempted to take control of the vessels participating in the flotilla by peaceful means and in an orderly fashion in order to enforce the blockade. Given the large number of vessels participating in the flotilla, an operational decision was made to undertake measures to enforce the blockade a certain distance from the area of the blockade.

“12. Israeli personnel attempting to enforce the blockade were met with violence by the protesters and acted in self defense to fend off such attacks”.

This legal backgrounder from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs is posted on their website, here.

There are very loosely-sourced reports that Turkey will send the next humanitarian flotilla via sea to Gaza accompanied by Turkish military escorts. There were rumors that this was what they were going to do this time — but they didn’t…

3 thoughts on “Israel's Naval Blockade”

  1. I was very happy to receive your comment with the link to the information that I have been looking for — but, unfortunately, the Ministry of Transport’s English-language website simply did not open — until just a few minutes ago. Does it only keep regular office hours?

    I am now searching for the text of this specific Notice to Mariners

    And, I wonder why it is not also posted on the authoritative British website which publishes almost all Notices to Mariners?

  2. Just found it. Thanks for the tip.

    There has been a big improvement in speed of access to the English-language pages of the Ministry of Transport…

    Why was Israel not more public about this before?

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