The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is recognized as customary international law. Article 88 of the Convention affirms that the high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes, and Article 110 provides that a warship that encounters a foreign ship on the high seas can only board the ship if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that it is participating in unlawful activities such as piracy or the slave trade. The Gaza flotilla was made up of civilian ships carrying humanitarian aid. There were no reasonable grounds for boarding the ships, much less for killing civilians on board.
In the event of genuine security concerns, Israel should have contacted the flag-bearing states to express their concern with the flotilla, and insist upon the boats’ retreat. Regarding use of force, the extent of Israel‘s actions should have been to divert the flotilla once it had reached territorial waters. Even then, once ensuring that the flotilla contained only humanitarian goods, Israel, as the Occupying Power in Gaza, would have been duty-bound to facilitate its passage. By intercepting and boarding the ship in the high seas, Israel has acted in egregious violation of customary international law.
Furthermore, the use of live ammunition to kill and injure civilians on board, even in circumstances in which there may have been some resistance to the take-over of the ship, was a disproportionate response to the situation and a violation of the civilians‘ right to life, as set out in Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Finally, Israel was not acting in self-defense when it attacked the flotilla, which posed no threat to Israel other than, in the words of Israeli military officials, a ‘provocation made to de-legitimize Israel.’ Speaking prior to the attack on the flotilla, Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman, acknowledged Israel’s public relations concerns: “If we let them throw egg at us, we appear stupid with egg on our face. If we try to prevent them by force, we appear as brutes.” It is clearly impermissible for states to launch violent and disproportionate assaults on civilian ships on the high seas on the basis of concerns about threats to their legitimacy. Israel made a premeditated decision to use force against the flotilla, without making any pretence for respect for human rights or international law.
Israel‘s duty to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza
Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, now in its third year, has created a large-scale humanitarian crisis. The blockade is recognised in the Goldstone Report as amounting to collective punishment, and is in violation of Israel, the Occupying Power‘s, obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure that the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza are met to the fullest possible extent. The assault on the flotilla, widely publicized to be carrying essential humanitarian aid to Gaza, contravenes Israel‘s duty to facilitate the passage to humanitarian aid to territory it occupies.
Disparaging statements made by Israeli officials have attempted to discredit the flotilla, with Deputy Minister Danny Ayalon calling it “an armada of hate,” and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stating “there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” In the context of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the failure to allow humanitarian aid, combined with reproachful statements made against those attempting to provide assistance, appears to indicate an Israeli government committed to the devastation of Gaza.
The Palestinian Human Rights Council salutes the flotilla crews and acknowledges the sacrifice they have made in attempting to ensure the rule of law and respect for universal human rights by breaking Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza. The flotilla’s dedication in light of the failure of the international community to alleviate the plight of Gaza or to ensure accountability for the commission of international crimes by Israel in Gaza is to be commended.
In light of the declared intention of Israel to continue the siege of Gaza, and its persistent violation of Palestinian rights, the international community must act immediately to hold to account those responsible for both the attacks on the flotilla and the unlawful siege of Gaza.
The Palestinian Human Rights Council calls for the following action:
The High-Contracting parties to the Geneva Conventions, and the international community as a whole, to ensure that Israel respects the Geneva Conventions by enforcing sanctions against Israel until such time as ends the siege of Gaza and the occupation of the occupied Palestinian territory;
The EU to suspend or cancel the EU-Israel Association Agreement given Israel‘s long-standing breach of Article 2 of the Agreement, which stipulates that the Agreement is predicated on a respect by the parties for human rights;
Israel must accord all those it has taken captive and under its jurisdiction their full human rights, and all the ships of the flotilla, their crew and passengers, who have been subject to unlawful violence and detention on the high seas must be immediately released;
The UN must act immediately to implement the recommendations of the Goldstone Report. Crimes such as those witnessed today are only possible in the prevailing atmosphere of impunity where Israel is not held to account for its unlawful actions.
Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association
Al Dameer Association for Human Rights
Al Mezan Center for Human Rights – Gaza
Defence for Children International - Palestine Section
Ensan Center for Human Rights and Democracy
Jerusalem Legal Aid Center
Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies
Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling
 See http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/05/31/gaza.protest/index.html
 See http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/05/201052791958545391.html
 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/10195838.stm
 See http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/hamas-flotilla-shows-whole-world-opposes-gaza-siege-1.292789