The Makings of History / Warlike Acts Then and Now

On May 20, 1948, an American passenger ship called the Marine Carp entered the Port of Beirut after sailing from New York. Among the passengers were several dozen Jews, some of them residents of pre-state Israel who were headed home - including the writer and artist Oded Burla. The ship was about to continue on its way from Beirut to Haifa when the Lebanese authorities ordered all of the Jewish men to disembark, despite the fact that they carried American passports. The women were allowed to continue on their voyage. The Jewish men were taken to a detention camp in the Baalbek region. By the time they were allowed to return to America, some four weeks had passed.

Max Eitingon

The Marine Carp affair had difficulty gaining a place in the history of the major dramas of those days, but it was referred to during the armistice talks between Israel and Lebanon. The man who mentioned it was Shabtai Rosenne, then the legal counsel to the Israeli delegation, and now, at 93, a member of the committee tasked with investigating, and providing legitimacy for, the siege on Gaza.

In the minutes recorded during the talks with Lebanon, Rosenne stated that any interference with civilian maritime traffic is a warlike act. These minutes are contained in a volume of documents that was published by the Israel State Archives, edited by Yemima Rosenthal. In March 1949, London-born Rosenne, 32 at the time, described relaxed and even friendly meetings with the Lebanese. In direct talks, without the presence of the United Nations mediators, "the Lebanese would pretend that they are not at all Arabs," Rosenne wrote.

He comes across in Foreign Ministry documents as a cautious man, who says as little as possible. He once commented in the course of the talks with the Lebanese: "In the history of Zionist diplomacy of the past 20 or 30 years, we have had very bitter experiences, as a result of including superfluous things in documents."

Like Moshe Shertok, the country's first foreign minister, Rosenne was keenly aware of the need for international support. At a certain stage in the talks with Lebanon, he proposed taking a more conciliatory line than the one demanded by the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Yigael Yadin. Everyone went to see then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and the prime minister ruled in Rosenne's favor.

The UN mediator, Ralph Bunche, drew up a draft agreement, and the parties' representatives went over it with a fine-tooth comb. Rosenne demanded that the agreement include an explicit clause guaranteeing freedom of passage to ships carrying cargo and passengers to Israel, including Israeli ships. He stated that blocking the path of ships at sea is considered a hostile act under any international treaty.

To remove any doubt, Rosenne stated: "Any interference in seaborne non-military traffic must be regarded as a warlike act." He mentioned the Marine Carp by name.

Even if he has not changed his mind in the past 61 years, Rosenne will doubtless find a way to justify the IDF's operation on the Mavi Marmara, in the spirit of something David Ben-Gurion said in those days: "Law is this thing that is determined by people."

Meanwhile, in London, another historic reckoning, this time an apology for the deaths of 14 demonstrators who took part in a protest march in Londonderry, Ireland, and were shot to death by Her Majesty's troops.

It happened on January 30, 1972, which became known as "Bloody Sunday." Britain's current prime minister, David Cameron, was 6 years old at the time, but this week he stood before Parliament and said, on behalf of his people and government, that what happened was "unjustified and unjustifiable."

It was a rather peculiar and enviable spectacle. Peculiar because the apology was preceded by an investigation that went on for 12 years, cost around 200 million pounds sterling, and produced a 5,000-page report, bound in 10 volumes. Enviable because the ability to confess to a crime, even after nearly 40 years, reflects a deep moral commitment to the limits of the permissible, and an unwavering faith in good. No "ifs," "ands," "buts" or "the whole world is against us" about it. It could not have been fairer.

Shirin Ebadi is a welcoming, energetic and courageous 63-year-old woman. She was born in Iran, studied law, embarked on a career as a judge, but was removed when Khomeini's Islamic Revolution barred women from serving on the bench.

In subsequent years she frequently appeared as defense counsel in political trials, earned a reputation as a lawyer who defends the rights of regime opponents, and put herself in jeopardy more than once. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

I sat next to her at a dinner in Oslo recently. She told me about miscarriages of justice that are common practice in political trials in Iran: Frequently the verdicts are decided in advance; judges act according to the dictates of the secret services, she said.

I asked her whether the law in her country allows the prosecution to submit secret evidence to the court, which the defendant and his lawyers are not permitted to see, "for security reasons," as Israel's Evidence Ordinance allows, if it is requested by the prime minister and defense minister.

Ebadi shot me a sidelong glance, wondering whether I was kidding, and said: "We have nothing like that in Iran."