Turkish vessel 'Mavi Marmara'.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Haifa District Court on Sunday blocked the state from setting a precedent that would help it deter flotillas by legalizing confiscating captured flotilla vessels and their cargo under international law never before used in Israel.
Judge Ron Sokol issued a rare ruling, sitting in his court’s capacity as a maritime court, stating that the sea provision international law that the state wanted to apply, England’s Naval Prize Act of 1864, was too esoteric, too infrequently used – not used anywhere internationally since World war II – and too vague for an Israeli court to utilize.
The court’s ruling was a major blow to one of the state’s broader strategies for discouraging foreigners from organizing flotillas to break its Gaza blockade by making them face the risk of large monetary losses, such as the sea vessels and cargo.
Israeli maritime courts do not view themselves as having the powers of maritime “prize courts,” which could confiscate and dispense with ships and property, even of third parties who were not enemies, but tried to break a blockade, Sokol said.
The court added that it was not addressing factual issues in dispute, since it ruled that it did not have basic authority to authorize confiscation as a legal matter.
The particular ship that the state tried to apply the old confiscation laws of the sea to was the SV Estelle, which sailed from Finland on May 28, 2012, with an announced intention of breaking the Gaza blockade, only to be boarded and commandeered by the navy on October 20, 2012, as it approached Gaza.
The boat was owned by a company controlled by far-left activist Israeli Dror Feiler, who has not resided in Israel for some time.
The state filed the petition to confiscate the boat in August 2013, in a substantial delay of around 10 months, which was also part of the court’s decision to reject the request.
The ruling was even more noteworthy in light of the ongoing pressure on Israel to drop the Gaza blockade that it has had in place since 2007, after Hamas took over the Strip.
Sokol said that if the Knesset passed a law on the issue, it was possible that a new system could be put in place using aspects of England’s old prize court laws.
The Justice Ministry responded to the decision by noting that it was still considering its options on the issue.
If the ministry wants to press the issue further, its possibilities are an appeal to the Supreme Court or new legislation to circumvent the ruling.
The court also provided a detailed overview of the background of the navy’s different approaches to policing the Gaza coast in different periods, including discussion of the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident.