Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stephen Zunes Tries His Hand at Law

Huffington Post blogger Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and the chair of Mid-Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is not a law professor, and never has that been clearer than in his latest blog post for the HP, in which he tries to act like one and falls on his face. His article is really long, so I'm not going to analyze the whole thing, but will instead take a look at key paragraphs. If anyone feels I have missed something important, take a look at the link above for the original text. We'll start by his (typical for the HP) misleading account of the flotilla raid:
"Israel's attack on an unarmed flotilla of humanitarian aid vessels in the eastern Mediterranean -- resulting in more than a dozen fatalities, the wounding of scores of passengers and crew, and the kidnapping of 750 others -- has so far not proven any different."
Unarmed? No. A dozen fatalities? Maybe, but not according to the HP and other major news outlets. Kidnapping? More like overblown rhetoric. Let's get to the international law part:
"The bottom line is that under no circumstances does Israel, or any other country, have the right to board humanitarian aid vessels, guns blazing, in international waters. By most definitions, this is piracy, pure and simple. International maritime law gives the crew of ships attacked in international waters the right to defend themselves. Certainly it would have been better if the largely Turkish crew of the ship where most of the fatalities took place had not fought back. But it was well within their legal right to do so."
 Actually, Mr. Zunes, what Israel did is not piracy, and here is why. As for the question of "did Israel have the right to do what it did," let's take a look here at the Same Remo Manual:

"48. Vessels listed in paragraph 47 are exempt from attack only if they: (a) are innocently employed in their normal role;
(b) submit to identification and inspection when required; and
(c) do not intentionally hamper the movement of combatants and obey orders to stop or move out of the way when required."

98. "Merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured. Merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked."  [thanks Richard Landes.]

The flotilla was committing a military act by attempting to breach the blockade (don't tell me they weren't) and they ignored Israeli demands to stop, change course, or submit to inspection. Therefore, anything goes. Israel had every right to stop and search them, no matter where they were. Clearly, Mr. Zunes is not a law professor or else he would have known all of this already.

As for Mr. Zunes admitting that the activists were within their legal rights to defend themselves, that's a slippery slope. Because if the activists were justified in using force to defend themselves, then the soldiers were in turn justified in using force (even deadly force) to protect their own lives and the lives of their comrades. If Mr. Zunes wants to come away from this incident with the conclusion that both sides had acted legally, that is more than fine with me. But as he showed from his thesis, he wants to claim that Israel was wrong and the activists were right. Unfortunately, international law doesn't agree.

 Zunes continues:
"Israel's actions raise a number of questions. Why didn't the Israelis simply disable the rudders and guide the ships to port? Why did they have to board the ships with the guns blazing -- according to eyewitnesses, before some members of the crew picked up their "weapons" of wrenches and poles -- unless they intended to kill people?"
 Why didn't they "disable the rudders?" How exactly would that work? The ships were moving too quickly to use divers so they would have to use....I don't know....torpedoes! Can you imagine the headline?: "Israel Fires on Unarmed Humanitarian Ship." That's not exactly a whole lot better, Mr. Zunes.

As for his claim that Israel boarded "with guns blazing" before the crew was ready that has been thoroughly debunked by video evidence as well as other witness testimony. Like many other HP bloggers, Mr. Zunes isn't doing his research before he put his pen to paper. If he had he wouldn't have tried to pass such a deliberate distortion by his audience. Too bad for him.
"However, apologists in Washington for Israel's right-wing government are already repeating the Israeli line that the nonviolent activists were "terrorists" and that they had "weapons" they found on board, such as a wrench, a come-along winch, and other items commonly found on ships."
Does that include slingshots? Gas masks? And knives? Dozens of them?

Mr. Zunes continues with a long-winded diatribe about how the Obama administration is not being harsh enough, Israel committed piracy, yadda yadda yadda. All in all, just another Huffington Post blog entry: Anti-Israel, low on facts, high on loaded terminology. What else is new?


  1. As Richard Silverstein, Tony Judt, Norman Finklestein, Naomi Klein, Phil Weiss et al ad nauseum go, so does Zunes; he's of the same school of thought and has the same soft spots and hard heart for certain ME groups and individuals (one can easily surmise the specifics from his ideas and company). So the fact that he A) wrote this and B) sounds like an idiot is C) not surprising.

  2. Israel has the right to sink belligerent vessels at sea. It should do so for the same price leveled at it in international condemnation. There is no reason to risk Israeli soldiers' lives in taking over a hostile vessel.