Mandelblit: Gaza blockade is legal

Maj.-Gen tells Turkel C'tee decisions made for protection of Israelis.

Avihai Mandelblit (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avihai Mandelblit
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The maritime blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip is motivated strictly by security considerations and is in total compliance with international law, Military Advocate- General Maj.-Gen. Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday told the panel investigating the May 31 flotilla incident.
Mandelblit told the Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of May 31, 2010, headed by retired Justice Yaakov Turkel, that he had first called for imposing a blockade in response to the news in August 2008 that a yacht planned to reach the Gaza Strip to challenge Israel’s policy of prohibiting foreign vessels from reaching Gaza’s shores.
RELATED:Eiland appears in front of Turkel CommitteeTurkel Commission: Er, where does the buck stop?
At first, the government rejected Mandelblit’s proposal, which, he said, was also supported by the attorney-general. But a few months later, during Operation Cast Lead, when the army heard that the same yacht planned to reach Gaza again, it declared a maritime embargo.
The embargo allowed Israel to prevent any ship from heading towards Gaza without being obliged to know what type of cargo it was carrying. According to international law, the blockade was to be indiscriminate and imposed on all ships.
It was still in place when the flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara attempted to reach Gaza in May.
Mandelblit maintained that those who believe that the naval blockade and the import restrictions imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip after the takeover of the area by Hamas were part of the same policy were mistaken.
Israel imposed restrictions on the overland import of goods in order to wage economic war against the Hamas after declaring that Gaza was a hostile entity in September 2007. In doing so, it wanted to pressure the Gaza government to prevent the firing of rockets by terrorist groups into Israel.
The maritime blockade was not part of this effort. Had it been, said Mandelblit, it would have been included in the measures announced by Israel in September 2007. There was no need to announce a maritime blockade at that time because Gaza did not have a port. In fact, Gaza has not had a port for many years and therefore there was no need to declare a naval blockade, he continued.
The question of a blockade came up for the first time in the summer of 2008, as a reaction to the new development in which international activists decided to attempt to sail into the Gaza Strip.
“The reason for the maritime blockade was not economic, absolutely not,” said Mandelblit.
“It was not mentioned in September 2007. It only came up in 2008 as a response to the reports that a yacht was on its way to Gaza. Our concern is a narrow, security concern, to prevent weapons and terrorists from reaching Gaza.”
Mandelblit added that the blockade applied by Israel met the standards established in the San Remo Manual of International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea and the proportionality requirement (also included in the San Remo Manual.) “In the case of Gaza, there was no injury caused to the civilian population because there was no port there,” he said. “There is no sea channel to Gaza and there never has been.”
According to this thinking, since there was no possibility to deliver goods directly to Gaza, and goods had never been delivered by sea directly to Gaza, the civilian population did not lose anything because it did not have it in the first place.
All the goods carried by the activists who tried to reach Gaza eventually arrived at their destination after being unloaded at the ports of Ashdod or El Arish and sent overland through the border crossings, he continued.
Furthermore, despite the economic war that Israel was waging against the Hamas government, there was never a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, Mandelblit asserted.
“Legally, we were obliged only to prevent the civilian population from dying from starvation,” he said. “In practice, we did much more than that.
According to the data presented to me, there has never been a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We talk about this issue at the beginning of every meeting of the General Staff.”
When one committee member pointed out that the International Committee of the Red Cross argues that Israel’s measures have lead to a humanitarian crisis, Mandelblit responded, “The ICRC’s claim, with all due respect, is incorrect.”
Mandelblit granted that “a certain degree of suffering had been caused to the civilian population.
It’s clear that the population suffered. But that does not mean that the measure was illegal.
The terrorists would prefer that we shoot back at the source of fire whenever they launch a rocket at Israel. We will not do that. We will not harm the civilian population. We will not behave like them.
“The suffering is a side effect of our policy. I regret it. It is not pleasant but it happens. It happened in Yugoslavia also when civilians suffered because of the policies of their government.”
During his testimony to the commission, Mandelblit explained that according to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority regarding Gaza, Israel had full control over the international waters off the coast of Gaza up to a limit of 20 miles. International vessels were forbidden from going beyond a 12-mile limit, while Palestinian fishermen were not allowed to sail further than six miles from shore.
Thus, although there was no blockade until January 2009, the agreement had restricted shipping to Gaza ever since 1993.