This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed in McClatchy News, July 6, 2010.

The misuse and abuse of language is yet another obstacle to obtaining peace in the Middle East. In recent weeks the media, government officials and commentators have so garbled the use of the words “blockade” and “embargo” to describe events in Gaza that understanding what is occurring, the legal implications, and developing a reasonable policy are almost impossible.

An embargo is when one nation establishes a policy not to trade with another nation and not to allow its own ports or territory to be used for commerce with that nation. Establishment of an embargo is the prerogative of any nation. For decades the United States has had an embargo on trade with Cuba. This is a policy decision which has been made by the Government. The policy may be wise or foolish, but nations are clearly within their rights to establish embargos.

Similarly, Israel and Egypt have a right to embargo trade with Gaza. If Egypt or Israel believes the Government in Gaza poses a threat to its stability or security, they have a right to place an embargo on Gaza. What that means is that trade with Gaza is restricted through Israeli and Egyptian ports and territory. Nations have the right to secure their borders and the Israelis and the Egyptians are exercising that right.

A blockade is totally different. A blockade is closing to international commerce by military force the coast of another entity. A blockade prevents third parties from undertaking normal commercial activity. A blockade is an act of war rather than merely exercising one’s own prerogatives.

In 1967, when the Government of Egypt closed the straits of Tiran to Israeli or third party commerce with the port of Eilat, they established a blockade. The Egyptians, thus, initiated a war with Israel. The Israelis were, therefore, justified in launching their military operations against Egypt in June 1967. The Egyptian blockade of the straits differed significantly from the Arab League policy of boycotting Israel. Blockading the straits crossed the line from a confrontational policy to an act of war.

The Cuban missile crisis was a crisis because the Kennedy Administration indicated to the Soviet Union that they were prepared to change their embargo of Cuba to a blockade of Cuba by forcefully intercepting Soviet ships with missiles on board. The US clearly indicated that they were prepared to go to war over this issue. The Soviet leadership avoided testing the American will by recalling its ships. No one doubted that in moving from an embargo to a blockade a state of war would exist.

In the case of Gaza, the land borders between Israel and Gaza and Egypt and Gaza have been restricted by embargos, legal actions by each country well short of going to war. The Egyptians are not blockading Gaza and have never done so. They have had only an embargo.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have both an embargo and a blockade. Both were established in 2005 when the Israelis withdrew from Gaza. The embargo varied in its intensity depending on circumstances. In 2007, following the forceful takeover of Gaza by Hamas the Israeli embargo became more stringent making life for Gazans more difficult. Nevertheless, no matter the scope of the embargo, Israel has a right to impose it.

The Israeli naval blockade is an entirely different issue. It is an act of war with significant consequences for the international community as well as Israelis and Gazans. International ships that attempt to enter the sea around Gaza are entering a war zone. They are blockade runners. Blockade runners have historically been treated harshly.

Since the Israeli naval blockade was established as soon as they withdrew their forces from Gaza in 2005, a state of war has existed between Israel and the Gazans. Rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and the capture of Gilad Shalit should be considered as acts of war, rather than acts of terrorism.

Statements by the Government of Israel indicating they intend to ease their embargo of Gaza should be welcomed. Easing the hardships of the people of Gaza is necessary on humanitarian grounds. Easing the embargo does not, however, move the region closer to peace. Ending or modifying the naval blockade, however, would be a step toward peace.

Peace will only be attained when all acts of war cease. The stopping of rockets being fired into Israel, other hostile acts, and the release of prisoners are essential, but they do not take precedence over ending the naval blockade of Gaza. All acts of war must cease, if peace is to be attained. The naval blockade of Gaza cannot be an exception.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.