As COMMENTARY noted yesterday, the Israeli Navy seized a general cargo vessel carrying missiles apparently to the Gaza Strip. The weapons are Syrian, allegedly shipped to Hamas by Iran. However, the vessel itself is a Panamanian-flagged ship run by a Marshall Islands shipping company.
Yet so far, no one appears to have accused Israel of violating international law by interdicting the vessel in international waters. This is odd because stopping neutral vessels on the high seas violates fundamental principals of international law, with some narrow exceptions for piracy and the like not relevant here. The United States and a few other countries have tried to carve out a further exception for WMD proliferation through by spearheading the Proliferation Security Initiative — but to the extent that targets WMDs and their delivery systems, it is not obviously relevant here.
Of course, there is another situation in which non-hostile vessels can be stopped on the high seas — blockade running. Israel maintains a naval blockade of the strip. Under international law (as articulated in the the London Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval War and the San Remo Principles) neutral vessels attempting to run such blockades can, be seized or even sunk on the high seas, or even in foreign waters.
Aside from the U.S., I am not sure any nation has endorsed Israel’s seizure. But given Israel’s armed activities certainly do not enjoy a presumption of legality from the international community, this silence comes quite close to an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the blockade.
Of course, much of the controversy over the “flotilla” incident of 2010 was premised on a denial of the validity of Israel’s blockade. Current events illustrate how Israel’s position has become increasingly accepted. It also shows how the earlier flap with Turkey was merely contrived.