The US and Canadian Boats to Gaza – M/V Audacity of Hope and M/V Tahrir, respectively – tried to make an unauthorized departure on 1 July from the Greek port they have been detained in. The Greek coast guard promptly intercepted them (don’t miss Challah Hu Akbar’s coverage at the link). This may be the final ride of the 2011 flotilla. Its prospects are certainly dimming: now that AOH and Tahrir have violated a directive from the Greek authorities, which had ordered them to remain in port pending the investigation of a complaint filed against them, the ships can be held there for as long as the Greeks see fit, and their crews might well be charged in court.
Positive as this outcome would be, it falls short of the leadership by which the Western nations should have shut down the flotilla in the first place. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there was a point at which all of the ships participating in the 2011 flotilla were flagged by North American or European nations. (A Jordanian ship has since been announced, although there has been little information about it.)
Of all the nations on earth, it ought to be the nations of North America and Europe that prevent ships under their flags from being used in such a cause. If for no other reason (e.g., that Israel is a US ally and fellow Western democracy), our concern about order in the unforgiving environment of the seas should prompt us to exercise our prerogative as flag states. There exists no “right” to attempt to break a blockade under the flag of any nation; rather, the authority of a flag state to prevent such an attempt is absolute. The flag state may not always have the means to prevent such an action. But the US, Canada, and the nations of Europe certainly do. In our case, the only question is whether the authority will be used.
The nations of the 2011 flotilla have not used it. Instead, Israel has had to mount a campaign of lawsuits and sabotage to prevent the flotilla from getting underway. To date, Greece has been induced to hold at least six ships in port because of procedural complaints filed against them; two ships have been sabotaged (the second, the Irish ship M/V Saoirse, was reported on Wednesday); and the Israeli law center Shurat HaDin has filed a lawsuit in US federal court to prevent the M/V Audacity of Hope from participating in the flotilla. (Texas Governor Rick Perry wrote on Thursday to urge the Obama administration to intercept and/or prosecute the American flotilla participants, citing Title 18 Section 962 of the US Code.)
These creative efforts get an A+ for ingenuity and determination, but they should not have been necessary. Nor should the US or any of our allies be working through covert, undeclared pressure on Greece or Turkey to prevent the ships under our flags from departing their ports to mount the flotilla operation. We should state our purpose overtly as a matter of policy. Merely warning our citizens that this is a bad idea is insufficient; out governments should be denying them the ships.
We should do so especially because of the evidence of participation in the flotilla by Hamas and IHH. Dutch media have reported this week that all the embarked Dutch journalists have pulled out of the flotilla (here and here), in large part because of the presence of a Hamas leader. One of the chief organizers of the flotilla is Mohammed Sawalha, who has extensive Hamas connections.
But the participation of IHH members, widely reported in Turkish media, is in one way even more significant. It was IHH participants who attacked Israeli soldiers during the 2010 flotilla incident, and their presence this year lends special credence to the Israeli report earlier this week that flotilla participants from the terror groups were planning another attack on the IDF. In line with this purpose, one of the American flotilla planners has forthrightly announced that the flotilla is part of
… a larger strategy, to transform this conflict from one between Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and the Arab world…to one between the rest of the world and Israel…
There can be no excuse for permitting Americans to involve the US flag in this. There is no “order” in the maritime environment without the exercise of authority by someone functioning, in essence, as a territorial sheriff. But the good news is that the enforcement of such order properly extends to preventing disorderly and escalatory acts by those operating under national flags. Individual governments are the highest authority, and in maritime terms, the US is chief among them. The Obama administration’s public passivity regarding the Americans in the flotilla and their US-flagged ship sends a significant and destructive signal about our posture on maritime order. It says we don’t care about it.
That is a dangerous signal to send in 2011, with China conducting aggressive naval operations in the Japanese islands, Iran operating submarines beyond the Arabian Sea, and US leadership ineffective against the Somali piracy problem. Maritime order doesn’t keep itself – but visibly enforcing it once can provide a lesson that lasts for decades.