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Never mind the 'Freedom Flotilla.' Is Israel's Gaza blockade legal?

Israel has laid out a meticulous legal justification for its fatal raid on a Turkish-flagged boat, which was sailing in international waters as part of the 'Freedom Flotilla.' But most countries have focused on whether Israel's Gaza blockade is legal.

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But few legal experts agree that Israel can suspend the paramount UN Charter on the Law of the Sea to expand a blockade overnight or preemptively intercept ships.

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Under the UN charter, vessels on the high seas are subject to the jurisdiction of the flag state of that vessel. No one can board. Exceptions include: a vessel that doesn’t fly a flag, a vessel suspected of being pirated, or vessels suspected of violating international sanctions, such as North Korean ships thought to carry nuclear materials. Even carrying weapons at sea doesn’t violate international law.

That’s why most international jurists say Israel cannot legally justify the boarding of a sovereign ship protected under the charter. “In legal terms, the Turkish ship [the biggest in the aid flotilla] was Turkish territory,” argues former British Ambassador Craig Murray, a fellow at the University of Lancaster School of Law.

Marcelo Kohen, a law professor at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Studies, agrees that the requirements needed to claim a San Remo justification were not complete. “Hamas is not a state," he says. "There is also at present a cease-fire on Gaza," whereas San Remo is assumed to be relevant in a state of war, says Kohen.

"Under [Israel's] logic one could maintain a maritime blockade unendingly," he adds. "It only requires one party to consider itself as being in a ‘state of war.’ ”

Gaza specialist Sara Roy at Harvard University, an author and frequent critic of Israeli policy, argues that legal questions can distort more basic issues: “After its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Israel claims no longer to be an occupier. It claims no responsibility, but acts with total control. Meanwhile, the international community pays the bills and feeds the people.”

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