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Was Israel's raid on Gaza Freedom Flotilla legal?

Israel says its raid on the so-called Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, which left nine activists dead, was a justified defense of its economic blockade of Gaza. Legal scholars aren't so sure.

By Correspondent / June 2, 2010

Israelis demonstrate in support of Israel following a deadly raid on the aid Flotilla bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip, in the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel, Tuesday.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP

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Days after Israel’s lethal raid on the Turkish-led Gaza "Freedom Flotilla," international law is being wielded as a means of either justifying the operation or calling it outright piracy.

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On one side, a Turkish draft resolution at the UN Security Council described the attack as a violation of international law. On the other, Israel’s foreign ministry insists that international maritime law prohibits boats from entering an area subject to a maritime blockade and that vessels attempting to violate this may be captured or even attacked.

The debate is focusing global attention on the Israeli economic blockade of the Gaza Strip like never before, with questions being raised about the morality and legality of a three-year old blockade that Israel says is vital to its security but has led to medicine shortages, power outages, and, critics say, unnecessary deaths in the impoverished strip.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

“The real question is: “Is the blockade itself lawful?’” says Douglas Guilfoyle, a specialist in international and maritime law at University College London. "Everything else turns on that."

Mr. Guilfoyle says that under the international Law of Armed Conflict a state that has legally established a blockade can enforce it by boarding vessels in international waters that it reasonably expects might breach the blockade.

But a blockade itself is illegal, he says, "if it will cause excessive damage to the civilian population in relation to the military advantage gained... so therefore intercepting a vessel on the high seas to support or enforce the blockade would not be lawful.”

Israel says the blockade is necessary to protect if from rocket fire, but it has also led to economic collapse in Gaza, where the employment rate is now over 40 percent and the quality of medical care is deteriorating. Gazans say they can't see how prohibiting the import of fishing lines or canned goods – two of the items on Israel's banned list – enhances Israel's security, and conclude instead that a policy of collective punishment is being pursued against Gaza's people for having elected the Islamist Hamas movement to govern them.

Turkish role

Another issue is that the Mavi Marmara, on which at least nine people (including four Turks) died after Israeli troops stormed the vessel, was flying under a Turkish flag.

“Since the ship was flying a Turkish flag it was only subject to Turkish jurisdiction,” says Daniel Machover, a co-founder of the London-based lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights (LPHR). He says that while the Geneva High Seas Convention permits warships to interfere with ships flying the flag of another state in limited circumstances, such as if the vessel is engaged in the slave trade or piracy, no such factors apply in this case.