05.31.10

Israel Was Right

Israeli commandos mishandled the situation but Israel was right to storm a ship bound for Gaza. Leslie H. Gelb argues why.

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Israel had every right under international law to stop and board ships bound for the Gaza war zone late Sunday. Only knee-jerk left-wingers and the usual legion of poseurs around the world would dispute this. And it is pretty clear that this "humanitarian" flotilla headed for Gaza aimed to provoke a confrontation with Israel. Various representatives of the Free Gaza Movement, one of the main organizers of this deadly extravaganza, have let it slip throughout Monday that their intention was every bit as much "to break" Israel's blockade of Gaza as to deliver the relief goods.

The Israeli commandos who stormed the ship, where fighting erupted, badly mishandled the situation. But theirs was a mistake in pursuit of a legal goal, not a war crime. And as for calls for international investigations, they represent the usual hypocritical nonsense that will go nowhere. Except for those who routinely fool themselves about the judiciousness and effectiveness of action by the United Nations or the European Union, everyone understands their "investigations" will amount to nothing. Only the United States might do something useful—if the White House would only seize quickly the practical solution staring it in the face.

Israel has every right to protect itself under international law, including by blockades in international waters.

Regarding international law, blockades are quite legal. The United States and Britain were at war with Germany and Japan and blockaded them. I can't remember international lawyers saying those blockades were illegal—even though they took place on the high seas in international waters. There would be a general violation only if the hostile actions against the ships took place in waters under the jurisdiction of another sovereign state. Thus, for example, if the Israelis stopped the ships in Egyptian waters, that would have been a violation.

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On a more tactical level, violations could occur if the force used to block and board were "disproportionate" to the circumstances. Those friendly to Gaza aboard the ship claim disproportionality, but this is not supported by the video available. In any event, and as a practical matter, no one is going to be able to prove exactly what happened on that ship Sunday night. Nonetheless, the overriding facts remain that Gazan leaders proclaim their goal is to destroy Israel, have tried for years to do so by missile attacks and terrorism, and that Israel has every right to protect itself under international law, including by blockades in international waters.

As for what the planners of this "humanitarian" flotilla had in mind, just listen to what the leaders of this enterprise have been saying. Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, told The New York Times that the Israeli claim that the people aboard the ship intended violence was preposterous. She argued that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been "waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might." By that keen logic, no Palestinian ever would have fired upon a militarily superior Israeli. We seem to know otherwise.

Or listen to Huwaida Arraf, one of the Free Gaza Movement leaders. She said on Sunday before the incident that the boats would steam forward to Gaza "until they either disable our boats or jump on board." How on earth did she expect that strategy would not lead to violence?

On what remains of the old Lehrer News Hour, Adam Shapiro, another Free Gaza guy, said Monday night that the flotilla aimed to break the blockade as well as deliver aid. Well, of course, no one asked him how he thought the blockade would be broken without violence. It couldn't—unless the flotilla escaped detection. And with six ships in the flotilla, that was highly unlikely.

So, the Free guys and gals achieved their real purpose—to provoke the Israelis, hope they did stupid things (which they did by boarding the ship with commandos who weren't prepared to do this job), and stirred international outrage.

Ah, the international outrage. Turks, French, all leaders large and small condemned Israel and called for international commissions. Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, said he was "shocked" by the attack. He condemned the violence, and added: "It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place. I believe Israel must urgently provide a full explanation."

Well, where was all that international outrage and demand for explanations and retribution when the North Koreans sunk a South Korean ship? Where was it when the Gazans attacked Israel? Where, when Afghan men flogged their women for not wearing veils? Where, when Saudi Arabia funds terrorists around the world? This international outrage is highly selective, isn't it? The one consolation is that the international community, such as it has become, doesn't get anything of value done.

Which puts matters in the American lap, as usual. There is a reasonable solution to this terrible dilemma: The Gazan people are in need of food and medicine, and Israel must protect itself against Gazan terrorists. President Obama should propose this simple arrangement: First, those wishing to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza agree to land aircraft, dock ships, and use land checkpoints all reasonably designated by Israel for inspection of contents. Second, Israel agrees to inspect cargoes within two to three days, and allow all humanitarian goods to proceed to Gaza immediately.

The United States surely has the power to accomplish this. It would prevent much needless killing and haggling—and phony posturing around the world. And if one or both sides rejected the deal, then that one, or the both of them, are on their own.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.