Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in the streets of Tel Aviv last weekend against their right-wing government's attack on an unarmed humanitarian aid flotilla sailing in international waters. International condemnation of the raids continued in foreign capitals. Meanwhile, in Washington, Democratic congressional leaders were lining up alongside their Republican colleagues to defend the Israeli assault. Countering the broad consensus of international legal scholars who recognize that the attack was in flagrant violation of international norms, prominent Democrats embraced the Orwellian notion that Israel's raid, which killed at least nine activists and wounded scores of others, was somehow an act of self-defense.
The offensive by the Democratic leadership has been led by Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who serves as House Democrats' unofficial spokesman on Middle East policy from his position as chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee on the Middle East. According to Ackerman, the killings were "wholly the fault and responsibility of the organizers of the effort to break through Israel and Egypt's legitimate closure of terrorist-controlled Gaza." According to Rep. Ron Klein (D-FL), due to the determination of activists on the ships to deliver humanitarian aid to the people of the besieged Gaza Strip, "Israel was left with no choice but to ensure the safety of its people." Similarly, Democratic majority leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) insisted that in attacking an unarmed flotilla carrying humanitarian aid in international waters, Israel had simply "invoked its right to self-defense."
To rationalize what virtually the entire international legal community recognizes as an act of war, congressional Democrats have engaged in a series of falsifications and radical reinterpretations of international law. The first involved a radically overextended notion of maritime sovereignty. The attack took place in international waters, roughly 85 miles from the Israeli coast. International maritime law has long recognized that territorial sovereignty extends only 12 miles out to sea. A Libyan effort in the 1980s to extend its claim of sovereignty into the Gulf of Sidra beyond the 12-mile limit led to a series of deadly clashes between U.S. and Libyan armed forces in order, according to then-President Ronald Reagan, to enforce America's "global Freedom of Navigation program" to defend "our rights on and over the high seas under international law." At the time, congressional Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in defending the use of force to challenge Libya's illegal overreach of its maritime boundaries.
However, congressional Democrats are quite willing to grant allied governments in the region far more latitude in extending their claims to Mediterranean waters. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) argued that responsibility for the violence lay with the organizers of the flotilla, not with "those who defended Israel's borders." Rep. Michael McMahon (D-NY) made a similar argument that the Israeli action was justified because Israel "has the right to maintain and defend its own borders." The flotilla was aiming directly toward the port of Gaza, not toward any area close to Israeli territorial waters, and no country recognizes the Gaza Strip as part of Israel. Nevertheless, Rep. Kendrik Meek (D-FL) insisted that Israel's assault on the flotilla was justified because the ships were "on the verge of breaching its sovereign borders." Similarly, Klein insisted that the ships were "threatening to breach Israel's defenses of its coastal border," and therefore "Israel was left with no choice but to ensure the safety of its people" by attacking the flotilla.