Tuesday, June 01, 2010

On the high seas

The Israeli attack on the aid flotilla to Gaza has the potential to revolutionize the politics of the Middle East. This is such a big topic that I am tempted to leave it to the experts, advocates and agitators. But keeping in mind past and future students in my Islamic Civilization class, I have decided that I should reproduce here a few posts that touch on points I think are important, notably the relationship/alliance between officially secular Turkey and Israel, and the legality and consequences of the Israeli action.

Craig Murray, a former British diplomat, disagrees that the attack was piracy. The legal position, unless you strongly support the legality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, is more complicated:

A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place
on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody's territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.
Over at the US political news site Talkingpointsmemo.com is this comment on relations between Turkey and Israel:

Allies can make up after almost any coming to blows if they want to. But that's the key. This isn't the first blow up in Israel-Turkey relations. Turkish opposition to the Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead) has been at the center of the dispute going back to 2008. But even that doesn't really fully explain the decline in relations.

The Israelis, under the foreign ministry headed by the far-right Avigdor Lieberman, have on their side managed to repeatedly snub the Turks over recent months. Sometimes in response to deteriorating relations that both sides played a part in. But other cases seemed like gratuitous and self-destructive provocations by the Israelis. With the political vision of someone like Lieberman, who embodies the ugliest trends in Israeli politics, the alliance with Turkey isn't so much a bridge toward an opening to other Arab or Islamic countries but a distraction or an impediment.

On the other side of the equation though, it's not clear that the AKP government of Turkey, which is probably more accurate to call Islamic-rooted rather than 'Islamist', really wants the alliance with Israel in the first place -- quite apart from the Gaza War or the Flotilla incident. Their roots as a party and their diplomacy have all seemed directed at deepening ties with nearby Islamic countries who in most cases have either cool or downright hostile relations with Israel. And in that context the Turkey-Israel alliance, which has historically run very deep, seems like a liability.

More or less as an American VP said a while ago, this is a big deal. I'll pass on discussing the effects on US foreign and domestic politics; you will soon be able to find an infinity of commentary on those subjects.

Image: The USS Liberty, attacked on the high seas in 1967. A lot of people are bringing that incident up today. Look it up.

1 comment:

  1. Does any one actually still think that the whole incident was not planned and staged right down to the last detail?