Protecting Israel’s Blockade of Gaza

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The Legal Rules and Israel’s Hasbara

The new flotilla of ships from Sweden and elsewhere, currently attempting to breech Israel’s efforts to stop war-material reaching Hamas, will provide Israel with enormous diplomatic and hasbara opportunities. These will greatly assist the promotion of Israel’s legal rights and help to shift international perceptions of blame from Israel to the Palestinians.

Essentially, Israel’s legal rights to act in international waters against attempts to break a lawful blockade are simple and specific. They include the legal permission to stop, search, divert, seize and even attack ships attempting to breech the blockade.

The San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, 1994 provides:

1. The right to visit, search and divert a ship:

If the commander of a warship suspects that a merchant vessel flying a neutral flag in fact has enemy character, the commander is entitled to exercise the right to visit and search, including the right of diversion for search under paragraph 121.
(para 114)

If visit and search at sea is impossible or unsafe, a belligerent warship or military aircraft may divert a merchant vessel to an appropriate area or port in order to exercise the right of visit and search.
(para 121)

2. The right to seize such a ship as a prize:

If, after visit and search, there is reasonable ground for suspicion that the merchant vessel flying a neutral flag or a civil aircraft with neutral marks has enemy character, the vessel or aircraft may be captured as prize subject to adjudication.
(para 116)

Such ships can also be attacked if they:

are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture;
(para 67)

Capturing ships as prizes will clearly raise the stakes and may prove very useful in deterring those who own, lease or insure ships from any further such adventures. It may also assist deterrence if they have to pay Israel’s operational costs and costs for berthing, security and administration during any adjudication period regarding a captured ship.

Tremendous hasbara opportunities

The speedy and peaceful diversion of the first ship to Ashdod attracted relatively little publicity. Hardened Hamas supporters are unlikely to be pleased with that – it was hardly worth the effort. If so, it would be wise to be prepared for further events and the ensuing worldwide publicity.

If these occur, Israeli spokespeople are likely to be challenged on numerous foreign TV and radio stations before audiences of MILLIONS. This presents Israel with opportunities on a vast scale.
But to take advantage of them, Israel’s international and public diplomacy personnel need to understand these legalities in order to be capable of informing audiences – unlike the occasion of the Turkish flotilla ship Mavi Marmara in 2010 (see, The War Flotilla & Israel’s Blockade).

Secondly, also unlike 5-years ago, they will need to be equipped with a pre-planned series of sound-bite solutions that speak to the concerns of the international public. There are many options for this. Here is a sample that needs to be expressed at every opportunity.

There is a simple way to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza and avoid conflict, casualties and suffering – all that is needed is a leadership in Gaza that is:

  • not dedicated to the dismantling of Israel;
  • not committed to murdering as many Israelis as possible;
  • not diverting aid for war purposes.

In other words, the point is made that war and destruction can easily be avoided – all it takes is a peaceful Palestinian leadership and government. This short and simple statement accomplishes several aims:

  • it blames Hamas and its supporters;
  • it educates the international public that the main blockage to peace lays with the Palestinians;
  • it provides an easily understood solution.

All this is necessary because the mainstream international media never reports that Hamas is a genocidal, anti-Semitic, terrorist organization determined to annihilate Israel. For all practical purposes, they cover for Hamas by their silence on the content of the Hamas Charter.

As a result, our spokespersons need a rehearsed strategy to turn such interviews into an exposure and discussion of Hamas and its aims. An appeal can be made on-air to audiences to see for themselves by viewing the Hamas Charter online. Otherwise, without such challenges, the impression created in the international media, that Gaza is a monstrous concentration camp created by Israel, remains unchallenged.

In fact, in all this we need to learn a lesson from Palestinian propaganda. This incessantly repeats the mantra that the cause of the conflict is the ‘occupation’. Only rarely does one of their spokespeople fail to mention it. Constant repetition works.

But an unfocused, uncertain and defensive response (so depressingly frequent with the Mavi Marmara incident 5 years ago), which entirely fails to deliver crucial points with well worked out sound-bite-solutions, always looks weak because it is weak. A far more effective method is to attack and accuse (politely, of course) in order to put our enemies and their media assistants on the defensive.

For this reason, behind every incident a major focus for Israel’s hasbara should be the core accusation that the driving force of the conflict is the continued refusal of the Palestinians and the wider Arab world to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (see The Israeli Demand that Palestinians Accept Israel as a Jewish State).
This core issue is not understood at all by the international public. Therefore, Israel needs such strategies to break-the-silence of the media. This requires planning and constant repetition in order to prevent foreign news channels from suppressing or avoiding these issues. But do Israel’s hasbara powers-that-be understand this?

End Note
Immediately prior to the arrival of the first vessel of the flotilla and its diversion to Ashdod, arguments4israel sent an abbreviated version of the above points in a message to the Cabinet and most of the MKs.

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