Confrontation Begins Before Gaza Flotilla Sets Sail

ATHENS — Activists are engaged in a harsh confrontation with Israeli authorities days before the international “Freedom Flotilla II — Stay Human” sets sail toward the Gaza strip in an attempt to break the naval blockade Israel has imposed since 2007.

The flotilla will include 10 ships that have already reached Athens. Two are cargo boats carrying medical aid and construction material. The rest are passenger ships carrying hundreds of people, among them politicians, writers, religious leaders, people from the fields of art and culture, as well as 10 members of the European Parliament and 10 MPs from France, Norway, Sweden, and Spain.

“There is enormous pressure exerted on the Greek government by Israel and the United States. It is by now certain that they are going to use all technical and administrative means to discourage us. Their plan will not work. We are ready, and we will begin in a few days,” Vaggelis Pissias, a member of the coordinating committee who was physically abused during the previous trip by Israeli authorities but prepares to sail again, told IPS.

Over the last few days Greek authorities have raised problems for two of the Greek boats participating in the flotilla. One was declared not seaworthy because of an engine problem. Activists paid a 10,000- euro repair sum to circumvent this problem. The second is not allowed to sail because of debts of a previous owner to the state.

On Sunday the propeller of one of the Greek passenger boats was critically damaged while the boat still remained at the dock; the ship is likely to miss the trip to Gaza. The boat’s captain has spoken of sabotage.

Serious backstage talks between Israel and Greek authorities have been continuing, including communication between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. The Greek government has openly expressed concern that the flotilla could compromise the strategic rapprochement of Greece and Israel that Papandreou has pursued over the last year and a half. Last week the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly advised Greek citizens not to board the flotilla.

After similar talks with the Turkish government two weeks ago, Israel has managed to cancel the participation of the Turkish Islamic organization the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) in the flotilla. IHH was preparing to send back the MV Marmara boat. During the previous flotilla in May 2010, the Israeli navy attacked the boat, killing nine Turkish civilians.

Meanwhile, Israel has been putting pressure on all fronts. An Israeli government spokesman has warned journalists that joining the flotilla will mean a 10-year ban on entering Israel.

Jane Hirschman of the U.S. delegation told IPS an anonymous complaint was filed when their boat docked in Athens. “Someone, using only a Greek first name, reported to the Greek Coastal Guard that our ship is not seaworthy, meaning that now we are expecting them to carry out an inspection on our boat. We managed to collect info and trail the source of the report, and it is sure it came from the organization called ‘Israeli Law Center.'”

In a similar case, Cherna Rosenberg, a 68-year-old citizen of both Canada and Israel, filed a complaint on June 2 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto against the Canadian Boat to Gaza. The complaint charges the initiative with collecting funds for and providing material support to Hamas, which governs Gaza and was declared a terrorist group by Canada in 2002.

Pissias says these are results of an Israeli propaganda campaign to distort the real aim of the flotilla by projecting it as a radical religious initiative against Israel. “People should not consume this propaganda. The flotilla is not an Islamist initiative against Israelis or Jews. It is an action fulfilled by citizens of all religions and many nationalities.”

Manuel Tapial, a Spanish activist planning to sail to Palestine, has condemned his government’s approach toward the flotilla. “Spanish government complicity with Israel is disturbing,” he told IPS. “Some of the people involved have faced short-term rendition by police. They were questioned and evidence of their documents was withheld because they are involved in preparations for the Freedom Flotilla II.”

This pressure has not stopped activists from reaching Athens, and according to Tapial, it is not going to stop them from sailing to Gaza. “We will go, by all possible means.”

(Inter Press Service)