Thursday, September 01, 2011

Palmer Report: The blockade is legal

Here is a slightly condensed version of the legal reasonings of the Palmer Report as to how they concluded that Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is legal.

70. ...The naval blockade is often discussed in tandem with the Israeli restrictions on the land crossings to Gaza. However, in the Panel’s view, these are in fact two distinct concepts which require different treatment and analysis. First, we note that the land crossings policy has been in place since long before the naval blockade was instituted. In particular, the tightening of border controls between Gaza and Israel came about after the take-over of Hamas in Gaza in June 2007. On the other hand, the naval blockade was imposed more than a year later, in January 2009. Second, Israel has always kept its policies on the land crossings separate from the naval blockade. The land restrictions have fluctuated in intensity over time but the naval blockade has not been altered since its imposition. Third, the naval blockade as a distinct legal measure was imposed primarily to enable a legally sound basis for Israel to exert control over ships attempting to reach Gaza with weapons and related goods. This was in reaction to certain incidents when vessels had reached Gaza via sea. We therefore treat the naval blockade as separate and distinct from the controls at the land crossings. ...

71. The United Nations Charter, Article 2 (4) prohibits the use of force generally, subject to an exception under Article 51 of the Charter for the right of a nation to engage in self-defence. Israel has faced and continues to face a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. Rockets, missiles and mortar bombs have been launched from Gaza towards Israel since 2001. More than 5,000 were fired between 2005 and January 2009, when the naval blockade was imposed. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians live in the range of these attacks. As their effectiveness has increased some rockets are now capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Since 2001 such attacks have caused more than 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The enormity of the psychological toll on the affected population cannot be underestimated. In addition, there have been substantial material losses. The purpose of these acts of violence, which have been repeatedly condemned by the international community, has been to do damage to the population of Israel. It seems obvious enough that stopping these violent acts was a necessary step for Israel to take in order to protect its people and to defend itself. ...

72. The Panel notes in this regard that the uncertain legal status of Gaza under international law cannot mean that Israel has no right to self-defence against armed attacks directed toward its territory. The Israeli report to the Panel makes it clear that the naval blockade as a measure of the use of force was adopted for the purpose of defending its territory and population, and the Panel accepts that was the case. It was designed as one way to prevent weapons reaching Gaza by sea and to prevent such attacks to be launched from the sea. Indeed there have been various incidents in which ships carrying weapons were intercepted by the Israeli authorities on their way to Gaza. While the attacks have not completely ceased since the time of the imposition of the naval blockade, their scale and intensity has much decreased over time.While this decrease might also be due to other factors, a blockade in those circumstances is a legitimate exercise of the right of self-defence. ....

73. The Panel now turns to consider whether the other components of a lawful blockade under international law are met. Traditionally, naval blockades have most commonly been imposed in situations where there is an international armed conflict. While it is uncontested that there has been protracted violence taking the form of armed conflict between Israel and armed groups in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the characterization of this conflict as international is disputed. The conclusion of the Panel in this regard rests upon the facts as they exist on the ground. The specific circumstances of Gaza are unique and are not replicated anywhere in the world. Nor are they likely to be. Gaza and Israel are both distinct territorial and political areas. Hamas is the de facto political and administrative authority in Gaza and to a large extent has control over events on the ground there. It is Hamas that is firing the projectiles in Israel or is permitting others to do so. The Panel considers the conflict should be treated as an international one for the purposes of the law of blockade. This takes foremost into account Israel’s right to self-defence against armed attacks from outside territory. In this context, the debate on Gaza’s status, in particular its relationship to Israel, should not obscure the realities. The law does not operate in a political vacuum and it is implausible to deny that the nature of the armed violence between Israel and Hamas goes beyond purely domestic matters. In fact, it has all the trappings of an international armed conflict. ...

74. Israel was entitled to take reasonable steps to prevent the influx of weapons into Gaza. With that objective, Israel established a series of restrictions on vessels entering the waters of Gaza. These measures culminated in the declaration of the naval blockade on 3 January 2009. There were a number of reasons why the previous restrictions were inadequate, primary among them being the need for the measures to be legally watertight.

75. As required, the naval blockade was declared and notified. The Israeli authorities issued a “Notice to Mariners” through the appropriate channels, setting out the imposition of the blockade and the coordinates of the blockaded area. In addition, the notice was broadcast twice a day on an emergency radio channel for maritime communications. There is no contest about this. The suggestion that because the blockade was stated to be imposed “until further notice” means that the notification’s content is insufficient and the blockade thus invalid does not seem to us to be persuasive. The notice does specify a duration. Given the uncertainties of a continuing conflict, nothing more was required. Likewise, a limitation to certain groups of prohibited items in the blockade’s notification was not necessary. It lies in the nature of a blockade that it affects all maritime traffic, given that its aim is to prevent any access to and from a blockaded area.

76. There is nothing before the Panel that would suggest that Israel did not maintain an effective and impartial blockade. Ever since its imposition on 3 January 2009, Israeli authorities have stopped any vessel attempting to enter the blockaded area. At the same time, there is no suggestion that Israel has hindered free access to the coasts and ports of other countries neutral to the conflict.

77. Important humanitarian considerations constrain the imposition of a naval blockade. For one, it would be illegal if its imposition was intended to starve or to collectively punish the civilian population. However, there is no material before the Panel that would permit a finding confirming the allegations that Israel had either of those intentions or that the naval blockade was imposed in retaliation for the take-over of Hamas in Gaza or otherwise. On the contrary, it is evident that Israel had a military objective. The stated primary objective of the naval blockade was for security. It was to prevent weapons, ammunition, military supplies and people from entering Gaza and to stop Hamas operatives sailing away from Gaza with vessels filled with explosives. This is regardless of what considerations might have motivated Israel in restricting the entry of goods to Gaza via the land crossings, an issue which as we have described above is not directly related to the naval blockade. It is also noteworthy that the earliest maritime interception operations to prevent weapons smuggling to Gaza predated the 2007 take-over of Hamas in Gaza. The actual naval blockade was imposed more than one year after that event. These factors alone indicate it was not imposed to punish its citizens for the election of Hamas.

78. Perhaps a more difficult question is whether the naval blockade was proportional. This means to inquire whether any damage to the civilian population in Gaza caused by the naval blockade was excessive when weighed against the concrete and direct military advantage brought by its imposition. As this report has already indicated, we are satisfied that the naval blockade was based on the need to preserve Israel’s security. Stopping the importation of rockets and other weapons to Gaza by sea helps alleviate Israel’s situation as it finds itself the target of countless attacks, which at the time of writing have once again become more extensive and intensive. On the other hand, the specific impact of the naval blockade on the civilian population in Gaza is difficult to gauge because it is the land crossings policy that primarily determines the amount of goods permitted to reach Gaza. One important consideration is the absence of significant port facilities in Gaza. The only vessels that can be handled in Gaza appear to be small fishing vessels. This means that the prospect of delivering significant supplies to Gaza by sea is very low. Indeed, such supplies were not entering by sea prior to the blockade. So it seems unrealistic to hold the naval blockade disproportionate as its own consequences—either alone or by compounding the restrictions imposed by Israel on the entry of goods to Gaza via its border crossings—are slight in the overall humanitarian situation. Smuggling weapons by sea is one thing; delivering bulky food and other goods to supply a population of approximately 1.5 million people is another. Such facts militate against a finding that the naval blockade itself has a significant humanitarian impact. On the contrary, it is wrong to impugn the blockade’s legality based on another, separate policy.

...80. As a final point, the Panel emphasizes that if necessary, the civilian population in Gaza must be allowed to receive food and other objects essential to its survival. However, it does not follow from this obligation that the naval blockade is per se unlawful or that Israel as the blockading power is required to simply let vessels carrying aid through the blockade. On the contrary, humanitarian missions must respect the security arrangements put in place by Israel. They must seek prior approval from Israel and make the necessary arrangements with it. This includes meeting certain conditions such as permitting Israel to search the humanitarian vessels in question. The Panel notes provision was made for any essential humanitarian supplies on board the vessels to enter Gaza via the adjacent Israeli port of Ashdod, and such an offer was expressly made in relation to the goods carried on the flotilla.

81. The Panel therefore concludes that Israel’s naval blockade was legal.