Israel’s Old-School Naval Blockade

The U.S. and its allies still detain vessels involved in illegal weapons trade with North Korea and Iran. But the days when the great powers enforced entire naval blockades — as the United States did in the waters off Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, or the British did in Rhodesia after it declared independence ...

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The U.S. and its allies still detain vessels involved in illegal weapons trade with North Korea and Iran. But the days when the great powers enforced entire naval blockades -- as the United States did in the waters off Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, or the British did in Rhodesia after it declared independence -- are long past.

These days, the U.N. Security Council, the only international body with the power to enforce universal sanctions, has essentially ended the use of sweeping blockades and trade embargos, preferring carefully fashioned sanctions that target criminal gangs or a government's ruling elite.

"Israel's blockade is an anomaly in the sense that the Security Council is going one way while Israel's unilateral policy is going in a very different way," said Edward Luck, a part time U.N. advisor and historian of the United Nations at the International Peace Institute.

The U.S. and its allies still detain vessels involved in illegal weapons trade with North Korea and Iran. But the days when the great powers enforced entire naval blockades — as the United States did in the waters off Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, or the British did in Rhodesia after it declared independence — are long past.

These days, the U.N. Security Council, the only international body with the power to enforce universal sanctions, has essentially ended the use of sweeping blockades and trade embargos, preferring carefully fashioned sanctions that target criminal gangs or a government’s ruling elite.

"Israel’s blockade is an anomaly in the sense that the Security Council is going one way while Israel’s unilateral policy is going in a very different way," said Edward Luck, a part time U.N. advisor and historian of the United Nations at the International Peace Institute.

The ongoing debates at the U.N. over sanctions against North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs have focused on measures that would limit the hardship on ordinary people. A U.N. sanctions resolution on Iran to be adopted Wednesday will impose financial sanctions and travel bans on more than 40 individuals and entities linked to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Penalties will be imposed on the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Javad Rahiqi, and 39 organizations linked to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

The sanctions target 15 companies — including the Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters — linked to Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It imposes sanctions on 22 firms, including the First East Export Bank, involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program. And it also sanctions three entities controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, which is accused of transporting illicit military goods to Iran.

But it will not touch Iran’s broader economy, leaving its oil sector largely unscathed and permitting countries like China and Russia to continue to trade with Iran. "I hold the opinion that this resolution should … not put Iran’s leadership and Iran’s people in difficulty," Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said at a regional security summit in Istanbul.

But some observers are beginning to question the effectiveness of targeted sanctions, saying that governments can often find ways to evade narrowly targeted sanctions. "Lots of critics say targeted sanctions have a better chance of getting approved by the Security Council, but do they make much of a difference on the ground?" said Luck.

Comprehensive trade embargos came into fashion after the end of the Cold War created a moment in which the world’s governments were prepared to cooperate in restraining outlaw governments. In 1990, the Security Council imposed a crippling oil and trade embargo on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein following his invasion of Kuwait. The Serbian government in Belgrade was also hit with economic measures calculated to strangle its war economy.

But the harsh consequences of such measures — some estimates placed the human cost of Iraq sanctions in the hundreds of thousands — brought comprehensive sanctions into disrepute. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright — prompted by allegations that U.S. policies were to blame for the death of countless children — introduced a number of humanitarian fixes, most notably the Oil-For-Food program, to lessen the pain of sanctions. Her successor, Colin Powell, sensing the collapse, introduced the idea of targeted "smart sanctions" to preserve international support for Washington’s strategy of containing Iraq.

In 2006, Japan tried to marshal support in the Security Council for a trade blockade on North Korea, after it detonated an underground nuclear explosive. But the proposal was quickly ditched on the grounds that it would never pass muster with the Chinese.

When Israel first imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2007, the move received tacit support from the Palestinian authority, the United States, and some European governments, according to U.N. officials. Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, helped Israel enforce it.

Israel’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Daniel Carmon, said that Israel’s position cannot be compared with other international blockades, because it is the only one that has been imposed on "terrorists."

"Gaza is a very unique situation," Carmon said. "It is a piece of land that is governed and occupied by a terrorist entity. It is in a state of war with Israel. Legally, we have all the rights both to enforce the maritime blockade and to board ships that are trying to break the blockade."

But the Israeli commando raid against an aid flotilla, which left nine people dead, has intensified public opposition to the blockade, and not only in the Arab world. U.N. officials say that Israel faces increasing pressure to lift it.

"The long-running closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is counterproductive, unsustainable and wrong. It punishes innocent civilians. It must be lifted by the Israeli authorities immediately," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last week.

At the heart of the debate over Israel’s policy is whether there is a legal case for the Gaza blockade. Israel maintains that it is in a state of war with Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement that took over Gaza by force in 2007, and continued to shoot rockets at Israeli towns following last year’s devastating Israeli incursion. The laws of war permit the imposition of naval blockades, even allowing a state to board a vessel on international waters if it is intended to breach the blockade.

But U.N. officials maintain that Israel is not in a state of war with Gaza, and that despite its withdrawal, Israel still exercise control over the lives of Gazans and bears the legal responsibility of an occupying power to ensure civilians have access to basic goods.

"Unfortunately, practices abandoned elsewhere are maintained with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict," Andrew Whitley, the New York-based director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said of the blockade. "The naval incident and the subsequent international reaction will, in the end, act as a catalyst to rethink the wisdom of a policy that many now acknowledge is seen to have failed."

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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