WASHINGTON — Israel apparently was relying on the inherent right of self-defense when it ordered its warplanes to intercept an unarmed Libyan civilian aircraft Tuesday, but experts in international law said that the Israeli legal position is very weak.
"There is no basis in international law for it," said Charles Maechling Jr., a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace and a former State Department official and University of Virginia law professor.
John H. Barton, a Stanford University professor of international law, said that the Israelis apparently have "fewer equities on their side" than the United States did when it intercepted the EgyptAir airliner carrying the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro last October.
In the EgyptAir case, he said, the United States had firm information that wanted criminals were aboard the aircraft, while the Israelis, as it turned out, had no such information.
The Israeli military command said it intercepted the aircraft because it believed leaders of terrorist groups were aboard--but the wanted men were not on the plane. If they had been, legal experts agreed, the Israelis would have had a better case under international law--although even then the action might have been illegal.
"Every country is entitled to take measures in its own defense," Maechling said. "You can intercept in international waters if there is an imminent threat to your own territory or your vessels of war or even your merchant vessels. But an intercept of this sort is contrary to international law.
"It should be pointed out that they were looking for two known leaders of terrorist movements," he added. "If they had forced the plane down and found them, then they could have detained them."
Under international law, combatants, in time of war, are entitled to board ships in international waters to prevent contraband from reaching their enemies.
Technically at War
Both Libya and Syria are technically at war with Israel because neither nation agreed to a peace treaty with Israel after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. However, Maechling and Barton said this technical state of war does not appear to be relevant.
There are, of course, no international policemen or criminal courts that can enforce international law. Nevertheless, most states try to avoid clear violations.
Barton said that the Israeli action is sure to have "certain effects on public opinion." Also, he said, the interception could increase the danger of international air travel because "the more effectively you obey the standards of international air safety, the easier it is to maintain those standards for future travel."