Israel and Egypt have imposed an embargo on the importation of weapons and certain dual-use items into the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israel has allowed regular convoys of humanitarian supplies into Gaza, provided Palestinians access to medical care, continued to provide most of Gaza’s electricity, and transferred funds for the ongoing activity of international organizations and to pay the salaries of Palestinian Authority workers. Photos that appeared in a Palestinian newspaper showed bustling marketplaces full of consumer goods and fruits and vegetables.378
Hamas has nevertheless allied with various critics of Israel to promote the idea of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza for the purpose of embarrassing Israel and stimulating international pressure on Jerusalem to end its blockade. The latest provocation involved the mobilization of a flotilla of ships, which was advertised as an aid mission, but behaved in a manner that showed their true interest was to achieve a propaganda victory through a public confrontation with Israeli forces.
In the days before the ships left Turkey, the Israeli government informed the organizers of the mission that they would not be allowed to enter Gaza because it was a closed military zone. They were told that they would be welcome to dock in the Israeli port city of Ashdod where, after inspection to ensure no weapons or prohibited articles were included in the cargo, the goods would be handed over to the UN for delivery to Palestinians in Gaza. The organizers of the mission refused. They made clear that this mission was not about delivering aid, but was in fact a political demonstration to “break the siege on Gaza.”379
One of the organizations that organized this “humanitarian mission” is a radical Islamic, Turkish organization called IHH. This organization has publicly supported al-Qaeda and has ties to Hamas, the terrorist organization that has taken control of the Gaza Strip, calls for the destruction of Israel, and launched thousands of rockets and mortars onto Israeli civilians.
When six ships approached Israeli waters off the coast of Gaza in the early hours of May 31, 2010, Israeli naval forces met them in international waters. The ships were again told that they would not be allowed to sail to Gaza. If they attempted to continue on their course, they were informed they would be boarded and redirected to Ashdod.
When confronted with the Israeli naval blockade, five of the six ships complied and sailed on to Ashdod after being boarded by Israeli naval personnel. As an Israeli journalist witnessed, and videos confirmed, when Israeli naval personnel boarded the Mavi Marmara, however, they were ambushed by passengers on deck, wielding clubs, bats, pipes, and knives.380 The naval forces that boarded the ship, carrying non-lethal paintball guns as their primary weapons, were savagely beaten. Though they were carrying live-ammunition handguns as their secondary weapons, they were instructed not to use them, unless met with deadly force. The passengers wrestled one of the Naval commandos to the ground, stripped him of his handgun and threw him over the side, where he landed on a lower deck, 30 feet below, and suffered serious head trauma. At this point the commandos asked for permission to open fire if attacked. They fired on passengers who attacked them, some of whom had handguns that they had taken from commandos. One passenger opened fire with a rifle. Only after 30 minutes of melee and gunfire was exchanged, were the Israelis able to get to the bridge and take control of the ship.381 Nine passengers were killed in the fighting and seven Israeli soldiers were wounded.
It is clear the purpose of this mission was not to deliver goods to Gaza, but rather to initiate a violent confrontation with Israel. As the flotilla left Turkey, the passengers chanted songs about reaching martyrdom and the murder of Jews.382 On May 27, Greta Berlin, a spokesperson for the flotilla stated that “this mission is not about delivering humanitarian supplies, it is about breaking Israel’s siege.”383 Israeli soldiers found crates of weapons aboard that ship from which passengers armed themselves in preparation of Israelis coming aboard.
Israel’s soldiers sought to avoid a confrontation from the outset by offering to take the aid from the ships and make sure it reached the Palestinians. They also took every precaution to try to avoid violence and none transpired on five of the six ships; it was only in response to being attacked and their own lives put in danger that the soldiers responded with live fire. Tragically, lives were lost, but this could have been easily avoided if the passengers had not attempted to lynch Israel’s soldiers. Whether Israel could have handled the situation differently, or been better prepared for an ambush, were questions raised by Israelis immediately after the incident. There is no doubt, however, about the necessity of preventing Hamas from obtaining weapons through unfettered access to the Gaza Strip.
If a flotilla of ships from a foreign nation showed up on America’s shores with humanitarian aid for impoverished Americans, it would not be allowed to simply land anywhere it wanted and unload its cargo. The ships would probably also be stopped by the U.S. Navy and its cargo certainly inspected. Israel has even greater justification for its naval embargo, as Israel and Hamas are in an ongoing state of conflict. International law provides for the right to impose and enforce an embargo and to do so, if necessary, from international waters.384 Smugglers have often tried to bring weapons to Hamas by way of the sea and Israel has the right to prevent this. The embargo is literally a matter of life and death for Israel, whose citizens endured three years of rocket and mortar attacks which originated in Gaza, perpetrated by Hamas.