Israel’s public image took a hit on Monday when its troops stormed an aid ship bound for Gaza, resulting in the deaths of nine ''peace activists''. Questions will be asked - why did Israel storm the ship? Why was deadly force used? Why didn't Israel let the ship go to Gaza? Why is it even blockading Gaza?
Let's start with the basics. Since Hamas seized control in 2007, it has been the de facto sovereign power of Gaza. As sovereign, it has launched attacks against Israel. As such, Israel declared itself to be in a state of war against Hamas-run Gaza. Israel has frequently stated that when Hamas agrees to live in peace with Israel, peaceful relations will ensue.
Due to this state of war, Israel enforces a military and naval blockade. The blockade is not designed to starve Gaza into submission; it is designed to deny Hamas the ability to fight effectively. Article 23 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (which concerns the protection of civilians during warfare) makes clear that if goods entering enemy territory contribute to the enemy's war effort, they can be blocked.
Israel enforces a maritime blockade because Hamas has previously shipped in weapons. Israel wants all goods going into Gaza to cross Gaza-Israel land borders. That way, Israel can inspect the goods, ensure there are no weapons or war material in them, and send them through.
And a lot of goods go through. Last year, some 738,000 tonnes of goods went from Israel into Gaza. That's more than 2,000 tonnes per day. By contrast, the seized flotilla carried 10,000 tonnes of aid, equivalent to only five days at the Gaza-Israel border. The flotilla was not about improving humanitarian conditions; it was about confronting Israel.
Israel told flotilla organisers the aid could be transferred across the Gaza-Israel land border. (It still will be.) The flotilla could also have co-operated with Egypt or the UN in order to help Palestinians, but refused to do so. Helping Palestinians wasn't its goal, confronting Israel was.
Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza is legal according to articles 93-104 of the 1994 San Remo treaty on maritime warfare. Israel told the flotilla it was about to enter conflict waters and was not permitted to do so. The ships informed Israel of their intent to enter these waters. Israel commandeered the ships, according to Article 98 of the above-mentioned treaty.
Five of the six ships were captured without violence. Israeli troops boarding the sixth ship were met with violence from the moment they landed. Footage released makes clear the activists used steel pipes, slingshots, knives and Molotov cocktails from the beginning. Activists attempted to wrest guns out of Israeli soldiers' hands. Israel responded with non-lethal force. Footage aired on Australian television on Monday shows an Israeli soldier attempting to only shove an activist off him, despite being repeatedly stabbed.
It was only after activists took guns from Israeli soldiers and used them against those soldiers that Israel opened fire. The Fourth Geneva Convention is clear about this. Article 5 states that if a civilian takes up arms against a soldier, the civilian becomes a combatant.
The situation on the boats is thus clear. The boats were attempting to break a military blockade. After issuing a warning, the soldiers attempted to commandeer the boats, and were set upon by the activists. At a certain point, which came after activists opened fire on Israeli troops, these troops felt their lives were in imminent danger. They thus fired in order to defend themselves.
There is much more to this story. The leading organisation behind the campaign, IHH, has had links to Hamas and other jihadi organisations since at least the 1990s; one of the organisers, Huwaida Arraf, has said she supports Palestinian violence against Israel - hardly a true peace activist.
But the essence of the story is simple: some very cynical people manipulated some very naïve people into an armed attack against soldiers. The better trained and armed soldiers won the battle, but the cynical people won the PR war.
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