The Gaza War Flotilla and Israel’s ‘Hasbara’

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One Step Forward & Two Steps Back

The deluge of international anti-Israel hysteria at the killing of the nine ‘activists’ aboard the Mavi Marmara by Israeli forces once again demonstrates how automatic the reflex has become that Israel is in the wrong. Once again we had an exhibition of how it is considered completely legitimate to savage Israel with any arguments no matter how ignorant or fanciful. But it was just as easy to despair at the feeble and inept way that Israeli spokesmen responded.

We are now used to the abysmal story that the intelligence behind our military preparations for the flotilla were hopelessly inadequate. So it was probably small wonder that Israel’s hasbara preparations (explaining, propaganda, public relations) were no better. This is not easy to understand or forgive. After all, the arrival of the supposed humanitarian flotilla had been trumpeted well in advance. And Israel is famous for its cutting edge intelligence that is the envy of the world?

Yet watching rampaging interviewers on UK television accuse Israel of ‘piracy’ in ‘international waters’ pass with scarcely any counter-attack or serious challenge from the Israeli spokesman added self-made insult to injury.

It was surely not beyond the capacities of the IDF, the Defense Ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others such as the Ministry of Hasbara (Ministry for Public Diplomacy and the Diaspora) to have made even basic preparation for the inevitable international media propaganda war? How difficult can this be? Instead, the ill-prepared defensiveness of Israeli spokesmen was plain. As a result, Israel made it easy for our enemies to win more friends and sympathy and for Israel to lose them. In short, an opportunity to launch a public and diplomatic offensive with an excellent chance of winning arguments or at least neutralizing opposition was lost.

Legitimate grounds for attacking neutral shipping

Even a cursory glance at international law on war at sea confirms that Israel was completely justified in its blockade and its implementation. In the first place, this is because the right to self-defense is enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Secondly, applied to conflicts at sea, states have the right to impose an embargo in international waters – that is, on the high seas. This is easily demonstrated by a look at the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, 1994. This lists various exemptions to the general rule that neutral merchant shipping cannot be attacked. Regarding the first two of six exemptions it states:

“Merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral states may not be attacked unless they:
a) 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;
b) engage in belligerent acts on behalf of the enemy;”
(paragraph 67)

Included in these two short clauses are a bundle of exemptions. That is, an attack is permitted where there are reasonable grounds to believe that supposedly neutral merchant ships are:

  1. carrying contraband;
  2. breaching a blockade;
  3. intentionally refusing to stop;
  4. resisting visit;
  5. resisting search;
  6. resisting capture;
  7. acting belligerently on behalf of an enemy.

Legitimate grounds to stop, search and divert neutral shipping to port for search

Describing the right of those imposing a blockade to visit, search and divert a ship for the purposes of a search, the relevant paragraph says quite simply:

“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.”
(paragraph 114)

Confirmation of the right to divert a ship to port is given in the stated paragraph which says:

“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.”
(paragraph 121)

Stop & search in international waters

Yet wide sections of the international media remained steadfastly oblivious to these rights contained in the laws of war at sea – although it would have taken their various research departments only minutes to carry out basic research. Instead, they led a sustained international outcry against Israel for carrying out the operation outside its own territorial waters. This was the key charge repeated endlessly.

Yet here too the law is quite specific and contrary to all the automatic assumptions that Israel was wrong. Once again, the International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea makes this clear:

“In exercising their legal rights in an international armed conflict at sea, belligerent warships and military aircraft have a right to visit and search merchant vessels outside neutral waters where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that they are subject to capture.”
(paragraph 118, emphasis added

As it is not disputed that the entire event took place in international waters rather than the neutral waters of a non-involved state, there are ample legal grounds for Israel’s actions. In short, there is a powerful case that it was entirely legitimate for Israel to require that the flotilla should be diverted to a port for search.

Yet this was an asset for Israel that was repeatedly squandered in interviews with the foreign media where Israeli spokesmen floundered.

Supporters of terrorism & genocide

In the event, five of the ships in the flotilla, apparently staffed with various peaceful but misguided humanitarian activists, leftists and supporters of the Palestinians cooperated with the command of Israel’s naval forces. Only one ship refused. This was the Mavi Marmara, which contained the supporters of the Turkish IHH (Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardim Vakfi, or Foundation for Human Rights & Freedoms & Humanitarian Relief), a charity established with the express purpose of providing funds to aid Hamas.

In short, the confrontation was provoked by those who were the very opposite of conscientious or peaceful suppliers of humanitarian aid – as they were widely misrepresented to be – when they refused to obey a legitimate command.
Loss of life is a terrible thing and to be regretted. But the cause of this should be laid clearly at the feet of the ‘activists’ who were engaged in a planned act of war in support of Hamas, a totalitarian, genocidal, anti-Semitic, terrorist regime ruling Gaza committed to the elimination of a member state of the United Nations.

Anti-genocide and terror laws

But there is another aspect of Israel’s political and diplomatic response that was thoroughly dismaying. This was the total lack of demands made by Israel’s spokesmen to the ‘international community’ to implement the laws it was supposedly committed to upholding. For example, as signatories to International Anti-Genocide and Anti-Terrorist Conventions, shouldn’t the UK government have been publically reminded of its obligation to demonstrate respect for the rule of law; that it was its duty to call for the arrest and trial of the leaders of Hamas? Shouldn’t the UK authorities have been requested to show its international leadership and arrest UK citizens who brazenly support Hamas, such as George Galloway?

Likewise, we could ask how the British government would have reacted if shiploads of supplies from Libya, Syria, or wherever, had been sent to the IRA. Maybe in a spirit of compassion, generosity and cooperation the government would have agreed that anyone could send whatever they wished to the terrorists? After all, unlike the Hamas aim of destroying Israel, it never occurred to the IRA to destroy the UK.

Similarly, how would Turkey greet an international campaign of peace activists taking urgently needed humanitarian aid to the Kurdish insurgents fighting to break the grip of their Turkish oppressors? Or to break the Turkish blockade of Armenia? Or to resist the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus? How would the Turkish government have felt about ‘non-provocative’ chants of Death to Turkey by the peace activists?

Yet instead of this fantasy, there is a bandwagon in which the first and last instinct is the axiomatic belief that Israel is wrong. This is often such an ignorant and cavalier inversion of truth and morality that Israel should not miss the golden opportunities provided to combat them when they land on its lap.

No diplomatic or political initiative from Israel

Yet quick-thinking Turkey has already demanded an apology from Israel. Slow-thinking Israel has yet to make a furious demand for a Turkish apology. Linked to this demand should be the insistence that Turkey never support or promote such provocative and warlike actions again.

In the meantime, pending the arrival of such an apology and undertaking from the Turkish government, it could be advised that it will be billed for all the costs of Israel’s operation: berthing costs, all administration, mooring and security costs for the ships in port, along with search costs and medical expenses for the injured military personnel.

After a decent interval (say a month), if Turkey fails to produce the required responses or shows no serious signs of seeking reconciliation with Israel, my first instinct would be to tow the captured Mavi Marmara out to sea and sink it at the nearest convenient point. Alternatively, it could be sold as scrap to help cover Israel’s costs. Better still, perhaps it would be preferable for Israel to retain the ship as captured enemy material?

The legality of seizing ships as a ‘prize’

In fact, the latter action has legal support. According to the previously mentioned International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea:

“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.”
(paragraph 116)

To emphasize the legality of this response in international waters, a section is devoted to the Capture of Neutral Merchant Vessels and Goods. This confirms that:

“Neutral merchant vessels are subject to capture outside neutral waters if they engage in activities referred to in paragraph 67”
(paragraph 146)

The same paragraph provides a list of activities of ‘neutral’ merchant vessels that would justify such action. The seventh of these repeats the point made in paragraph 118, referred to earlier, that merchant vessels are subject to capture if they:

“(f) are breaching or attempting to breach a blockade.”

There is after all a great benefit in capturing offending ‘neutral’ shipping in this way as a prize: if their ships were to be seized, it would encourage those who lease and insure them and promote or aid this type of activity to think twice about any repetition.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

So Israel has a powerful legal and political case. Therefore, it is a huge pity that it was squandered by inept public diplomacy which left the path clear for Israel’s enemies to take advantage of Israel’s a lack of preparation.

Quite possibly, Turkey had pre-thought this out. If the blockade was breeched they would win. Alternatively, if the blockade was not breeched, they would still win if Israel could be made to look the guilty side – especially with the help of a few ‘martyrs’. Israel’s poor diplomatic response has helped them in this enormously. Very probably, our leaders took the entirely understandable view that Turkey needed to be treated with great care in an attempt to keep things cool. After all, until the advent of the current Turkish government, good relations with Turkey had been very important for Israel. Additionally, Turkey is of course an important ally of Israel’s chief ally, the US.

Yet given recent developments in Turkey, with its loud and public declarations of friendship with such deadly enemies of Israel as Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah (see The_Defection_of_Turkey), this approach runs the strong risk of appearing indecisive and weak. It shows that Israel wants good relations with Turkey far more than Turkey wants good relations with Israel. This is turn will only encourage Turkey to ratchet-up its anti-Israel stance in the belief that they can do so without adverse repercussions.

A stronger and broader approach

Therefore, rather than rush to return all the captured flotilla activists, a stronger response would be to send another warning to Turkey by releasing only the moderate peace and humanitarian activists on the five ships that obeyed the instructions of Israel’s naval forces. All the IHH activists and members of like-minded groups which support Hamas or other terrorist organizations should be imprisoned under the provisions of various international statutes against terrorism and genocide.

The problem is that any failure to adopt a robust reaction to Turkey will not only give Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan an impression of lack of determination, it will present the same picture to the international community. It will let them off-the-hook. That is, if Israel isn’t willing to demonstrate its own case, why should they do it on Israel’s behalf? Therefore, at the same time as keeping the captured Mavi Marmara as a prize and imprisoning the IHH activists, Israel should take the diplomatic offensive in every international forum possible to fight its legal and moral case rather than in effect abandon it.

On the positive side, actions are said to speak louder than words. By its actions, Israel successfully prevented a breach of the Gaza blockade. And this in itself will act as a warning to any future flotillas. Further, despite poor preparation, no-one from the Israeli force that boarded the Mavi Marmara was killed. But failure to build on this success in a determined and sustained way in the international propaganda war threatens to waste a marvelous political and diplomatic opportunity. This in turn runs the risk of limiting Israel’s ability to act in the future.

Jon Dyson

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