[Eliav Lieblich is an Assistant Professor at the Radzyner Law School, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya; his book, International Law and Civil Wars: Intervention and Consent, has been recently published by Routledge]
While opinions are split whether U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to bring, in his recent efforts, any progress to the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems that Israel has recently decided to take the conflict back to the 19th century – at least legally. This time, we are talking about the revival of none other than age-old maritime prize law – a traditional body of the international law of war dealing with the belligerent capture of vessels and cargos.
The importance of maritime prize law peaked in the American Civil War, and steadily declined through the two World Wars into virtual disuse in the last decades. However, on the last week of December, the District Court of Haifa, sitting in its capacity as the Admiralty Court of Israel, held a first hearing in prize proceedings initiated by the State of Israel against the Estelle, a Finnish vessel, intercepted by the Israeli navy while attempting to symbolically breach the Gaza blockade in late 2012 (see the story, in Hebrew, here). The state requests the court to condemn the Estelle, which carried cement and toys, based on jurisdiction derived from the British Naval Prize Act of 1864 (!), and conferred to prize courts in Mandatory Palestine by the British Prize Act of 1939. At the time, Britain was interested in conferring such jurisdiction to courts in its colonies, protectorates and mandates in order to facilitate the condemnation of Axis maritime prizes captured in nearby waters. This power was never before exercised by Israel, which inherited the mandatory legislation upon its creation in 1948.
While the British prize laws are in essence jurisdiction-conferring rules, and deal mostly with procedure, the substantive norms of international prize law are derived from customary international law. Here lie the interesting aspects of the case. It is common knowledge, among those dealing with the nitty-gritty of IHL, that the process known as the “humanization of international humanitarian law” – as famously put by Theodor Meron – has generally not trickled to the law on maritime warfare. Prize law is perhaps a key example for this phenomenon.
For instance, while in ground warfare (and occupation) private property cannot be seized or destroyed absent pressing military necessity (for instance, Articles 23(g) & 52 of Hague Convention IV), private ships can be captured and condemned through proceedings in front of the seizing state’s prize courts, just for flying the enemy state’s flag. Essentially, thus, prize law doesn’t differentiate between the “enemy” state and its individual citizens, as modern IHL otherwise purports to do. In addition, “neutral” vessels can be condemned for carrying “contraband” – defined unilaterally by the capturing state – or, as in the case of the Estelle, for attempting to breach a blockade (for an attempt to state the customary international law on these issues see Articles 93 –104, 146, of the 1994 San Remo Manual). It should be added that the concept of blockade in itself seems like an outlier in contemporary law, since it can be looked upon, through a human rights prism, as a form of collective sanction against civilians.