Israeli Army's Advocate General Defends Legality of Gaza Flotilla Raid

Israel’s top military legal authority defended the country’s maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip and said that Israel didn’t violate international law when it raided an aid flotilla outside of its territorial waters.

“The question of acting against the flotilla in international waters was raised,” Major General Avichai Mendelblit, the advocate general, told a government probe into the incident today. “I said it was possible to act in international waters and recommended that the action take place as close to Israeli waters as possible,” he said, referring to discussions before the raid.

The commission was established after the May 31 raid, which left nine Turkish citizens dead, generated international criticism and led Turkey to suspend diplomatic and security cooperation. Turkey was once Israel’s closest ally in the region.

Israel has also agreed to take part in a United Nations probe of the incident in which six ships tried to breach its naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The Israeli panel, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel, is looking at the interplay of political and military decision-making behind the raid. An Israeli military inquiry concluded July 12 that faulty planning and intelligence failures contributed to the violence.

Israeli officials have said that commandos who boarded one of the ships were attacked by activists and were beaten, stabbed and shot after hitting the deck.

Forensic Scientists

The Turkish activists said the soldiers instigated the violence and acted with disproportionate force. Turkish forensic scientists found that the nine victims had been hit by a total of at least 31 bullets, Istanbul-based Yeni Safak newspaper reported on June 26, citing the forensic report. It said one of the activists was hit by five bullets including at least one shot to the head fired from close range.

Mendelblit said he would only comment behind closed doors when asked about the legality of using lethal force to stop the boats.

Mendelblit, whose testimony followed that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said the maritime blockade was necessary for security reasons.

“There is a huge military advantage to the blockade, while on the other hand lifting it will mean the import of arms and terrorists to Gaza,” Mendelblit said. “The damage it causes Gaza residents is zero. It’s not like they had a flourishing port and we closed it down.”

Territorial Blockade

Israel and Egypt imposed a territorial blockade on Gaza after Hamas ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and seized full control of the territory in 2007. Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.

International law experts, such as Robin Churchill, a professor at the University of Dundee in Scotland, have said the legality of the blockade hinges on two issues: Whether Israel’s conflict with Hamas is a full-fledged war and whether the military benefit is proportionate to the suffering imposed on the civilian population.

“I can’t even contemplate a situation where we would starve 1.5 million people,” Mendelblit said. Palestinians, backed by the United Nations and human-rights groups, have said there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The Israeli government said June 20 it would loosen the blockade for shipments by road so that all food will be let in and only weapons and items with a possible military use are kept out.

According to the army, supplies from 1,055 trucks were transferred into Gaza last week, which Oxfam said in an e-mailed statement was about 37 percent of the pre-blockade weekly average.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net

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