Why Doesn’t Israel Have a Floating Skunk Tank?

It’s best to withhold judgment on the clash between the IDF and pro-Palestinian activists until we know the facts; in the meantime, it does seem that Israel was completely unprepared to handle the situation.

I realize that this doesn’t fit into the already accepted narratives, but before making judgments, it would be wise to understand precisely what happened in the clash between the Israeli Navy and the pro-Palestinian activists in international waters a few hours ago.

The activists, of course, claim that they were entirely peaceful, and that the Israelis just boarded and started firing.  The IDF can be stupid, but at least at this stage I’m incredulous that it was that stupid.  The Israelis claim that they boarded, and encountered violent resistance: some reports say that those aboard the ship start firing with light weapons.  Others say that they attacked with clubs and stones.

One important question to answer is whether there are any other means short of forcible boarding to enforce a blockade.  Obviously, you can shoot, but that would be worse than what the Israelis tried.  I have no experience in this, but it would seem that the logical thing would be to have frogmen cut holes in the base of the boats.  The boats would take on water, and then the Israelis would be in the position to rescue them.  Readers who know more about such matters should comment on other options.

Israel had a few days to figure out how to respond.  It seemed unprepared to do so.  The analogy would be if there was a protest march, and the only response Israel had was soldiers with live ammunition.  On land, the IDF is using options such as the “skunk tank“; consider me skeptical that naval technology is so primitive that there is nothing short of firing on the ship or using commandos to seize it.

UPDATE: Mark and I posted at the same time.  Although I think we should withhold judgments, I agree completely that Israel was at least quite stupid.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

17 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t Israel Have a Floating Skunk Tank?”

  1. Israel had previously said that they were fine with humanitarian aid being shipped to Gaza, as long as it went through an Israeli checkpoint. By seizing the ships instead of sinking them, they can at least demonstrate that they are letting legitimate aid through.

    Would the skunk bomb be effective while trying to seize control of a ship? I suspect that in close quarters, the commandos would be skunking themselves as well, and the activists trying to hold the ship could seal off the areas that the commandos hadn’t reached.

  2. Seth — I was being somewhat metaphorical. The point was, why doesn't Israel have measures for enforcing their blockade short of either firing on it or boarding it? An actual skunk tank wouldn't be effective because where are the blockade runners going to go? All I was saying was that there has to be SOMETHING else to do.

  3. Paul — If the ship has already declared itself hostile to you, and announced its intention to disrupt your blockade, then that's a different matter. You are right to question the decision to seize in international waters.

  4. I heard they went in with paint ball guns, and only resorted to lethal force *after* the peace activists attacked, and couldn't be otherwise subdued. So it wasn't so much a case of 'not having' an option short of live ammo, as of that option *not working*.

  5. Actually, destroying the ship would be the more illegal option. They seem to have roughly followed the appropriate sequence of actions: They determined that the vessels intended to break the blockade; they ordered the vessels to divert; they attacked the vessels when they refused to do so.

    It was bad PR, but I don't think it was a violation of international law–though that also depends on the actions (and cargo) of the aid convoy.

    The most disgusting part to me is that the IDF is claiming self-defense after blatantly launching an attack. They land 30 armed commandos to hijack a ship, and they claim they're the victims when the crew resists? They claim the crew was preparing an attack because they had knives and sticks on a boat? Does anybody actually buy that nonsense? Maybe Sarah Palin?

  6. I realize that the reports of the IDF firing first are probably people who mistook the tear gas canisters for gunfire. The tear gas, obviously, failed to subdue the crew, and the fact that they were holding the ship surely gave them a major tactical advantage that a group in the open air on land doesn't have. That's probably why the 'skunk bomb' or the like wasn't an option.

  7. The Israel apologists here and elsewhere are trying to obfuscate the fact that the aid flotilla was in INTERNATIONAL WATERS. The U.S. has fought at least three wars in defense of freedom of navigation. Attacking civilian vessels of another country in international waters is an act of war. PERIOD. The IDF has just committed an act of war against (at least) the U.S., Turkey, and Greece. While the U.S. has a history of allowing the IDF to attack our vessels at sea, Greece and Turkey do not. They would be fully justified in invoking Clause 5 of the the NATO treaty — an attack on one is an attack on all.

  8. What's to understand. The IDF made an armed attack on vessels of at three three other countries, in International waters. That is an act of war. From press reports, the vessels seized include Greek and Turkish ships, as well as U.S. While the U.S. has a history of bending over and grabbing its ankles when the IDF attacks our vessels (see e.g. USS Liberty), Greece and Turkey do not. They would be fully justified in invoking Clause 5 of the NATO treaty in response to this blatant act of war against their ships.

  9. Clause 5 only applies to attacks on military vessels, of course, as do acts of war in general. Assuming that the Israeli blockade was legal, which it seems that the world does, they were within their rights to intercept and attack the ship, after determining that its intention was to break the blockade. Many would argue that they had certain responsibilities about how to treat a humanitarian vessel, but responsibilities are not codified.

  10. Couldn't they have tangled the propeller with wire?

    It seems like it's not relevant that it was in international waters. See the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, Section V, Paragraph 67: http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/385ec082b509e76c41256

    "Merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral States may not be attacked unless they: (a) are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade."

  11. What's not to understand? If you're not trying to either provoke an incident, or smuggle arms to Hamas, you don't send aid to Gaza by a naval convoy to Gaza. You send it by way of either Israel or Egypt, and it gets searched for munitions. That's the starting point for understanding this: The purpose of this convoy wasn't to get aid to Gaza. It was to have a confrontation with Israel.

    So, they got what they wanted. Why have any sympathy for them?

  12. Brett,

    While I think it was a stupid decision.

    You fail to understand the limitations that Israel puts on goods that can be imported.

    Israel would have confiscated a great deal of the supplies that were on the ships.

    There's a list of banned items that Israel denies exists.
    For example the "activists" were bringing chocolate. But that wouldn't have been allowed.

    Not saying they're right but Israel needs to come clean about what is and is not permitted and why?

    and if it's collective punishment, then admit it and take their lumps.

  13. "There’s a list of banned items that Israel denies exists."

    So, here's a list of items some people claim are banned, but Israel insists are not. Ok, so let's assume that the claims, and not the denials, are true. So? Send your chocolate to Gaza by way of Egypt. Why does everyone pretend Gaza doesn't have a border with Egypt? Because it becomes hard to pin all the blame on Israel if you notice that?

    The unavoidable fact was, this was not an attempt to get aid to Gaza. It was an attempt to produce some anti-Israeli headlines. If they'd wanted to get aid to Gaza, they'd have done something different.

    This was organized by an ally of Hamas. One presumes the long term goal is to end the blockade, so that shipments can reach Gaza without being searched for munitions. I don't see why this is a goal anybody with a sense of moral proportion would approve of.

  14. It's fun to watch Brett drop that libertarian act: "I heard they went in with paint ball guns, and only resorted to lethal force *after* the peace activists attacked,…."

    So apparently when defending oneself against government agents, the goodness depends on the government in question, and Brett seems to hold the government of Israel more holy than the government of the USA.

  15. Divers can operate on the hull of a ship in a relative current up to about 5 knots, IIRC. "Slow ahead" for a RO-RO ferry would do that; cruising speed would be 12-15 knots. Worse idea than boarding; you'll end up with the divers in the water somewhere astern of the ship without their kit, if no-one gets sucked into the propellers.

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