On Sunday, July 29, Israel seized a ship named Al Awda (The Return) that was bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza. On the final leg of the trip there were about 22 people representing 16 or 17 nationalities--Swedish, Norwegians, Americans, even Israelis, of diverse backgrounds. Most of those on board were Europeans. The cargo consisted of medical supplies to be donated to Gazans to meet the increasingly dire medical situation in Gaza.
This is not the first time an attempt has been made by international activist to deliver badly needed supplies to Gaza, which is under Israeli blockade. Gaza's 2 million inhabitants have been living under this blockade since 2007.
Activists have tried to reach Gaza in Freedom Flotillas more than once. From 2008 through 2016, international activists sailed 31 boats to challenge the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. The most well-known challenge was the attempt by Mavi Marmara on May 22, 2010, that left nine Turks dead at the hands of Israeli naval commandos.
According to Israeli sources, this time the takeover of the ship was without incident. Israel navy said that it informed the passengers they were "violating the legal naval blockade" and that if they had humanitarian aid to deliver they could deliver it to Gaza through the port in nearby Ashdod. They were warned that if they did not turn around and persisted in attempting to go to Gaza, the ship would be seized and towed to Ashdod. And, according to Israel, this is what the Israeli navy did.
The Freedom Flotilla Coalition, a charity umbrella group that organizes these attempts, reported it slightly differently. It wrote that the Israeli navy claimed that the ship was breaking international law and threatened that it would use 'any measures necessary' to stop the ship.
Was Al Awda 'violating the legal naval blockade'?
Under international law Israel, as every other country, has rights over its territorial waters. These rights extend to 12 nautical miles. Beyond that the oceans are international waters, also known as the high seas.
It is important to remember that the Al Awda bore a Norwegian flag. It was around 60 miles out of Gaza city when it was warned by the Israeli navy, boarded and ultimately seized. It was in international waters. It was not illegally crossing any internationally recognized border. The only "border" it was crossing was the border Israel had unilaterally set up in international waters, without any right or authority to do so.
According to the 1982 convention, each country's sovereign territorial waters extend to a maximum of 12 nautical miles (22 km) beyond its coast. Even in this zone foreign vessels are granted the right of 'innocent passage'. There can be nothing more innocent than carrying medical supplies to those who need them badly.
The high seas lie beyond the zones described above. The waters and airspace of this area are open to use by all countries, except for those activities prohibited by international law (e.g., the testing of nuclear weapons).
The Mavi Marmara seizure by Israel was discussed in the UN. A 2011 report to UN Human Rights Council by five independent UN rights experts states that Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip violates international law.
An earlier fact-finding mission named by the same UN forum to investigate the flotilla incident also found in a report that the blockade violated international law. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the blockade violates the Geneva Conventions.
It can be argued that even if Al Awda was within 12 nautical miles of Gaza, it would still not be breaking any international law, having a right under the 'innocent-passage' clause to be there. Besides, Israel says again and again that it has pulled out of Gaza and given it to the Gazans. Gaza, according to Israel, is no longer Israeli territory. If that be so, the sea abutting Gaza would be the territorial waters of Gaza, not Israel.
This is not all. Just a few days after seizing Al Awda Israel turned its attention on another flotilla boat, a 100% wind-powered sailing vessel named Freedom, sailing under a Swedish flag. It was to be a gift for the Palestinian fishers and was carrying a cargo of medical supplies. It was surrounded in international waters about 40 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza, was boarded and seized by Israeli naval commandos.
These ongoing apparently illegal hijacking of ships and acts of piracy by Israel in international waters need to be stopped. It is high time this matter is raised in the UN. These two issues must be settled once and for all.
Israel may have the right to close its borders with Gaza but does it have a right to blockade Gaza? And, more importantly, does it have a right to seize vessels in international waters, board them, brutalize and even kill their passengers and rob them of their possessions?
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