Headed for Gaza, Flotilla Must First Fight Greek Ban

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Darko Bandic / AP

Activists from the U.S. stand on their boat named The Audacity of Hope moored in Perama, near Athens, Greece, Thursday, June 30, 2011.

The way the pro-Palestinian activists on the Freedom Flotilla II see it, Israel has managed to extend the sea blockade of Gaza to Greece.

First, there was the anonymous safety complaint that docked the U.S. ship, The Audacity of Hope, and prompted Greek authorities to conduct a still-ongoing investigation of its seaworthiness. After that, there was the mysterious damage to the propeller shaft of a Greek-Swedish-Norwegian passenger boat. Then, on Friday, the Greek government forbade all ships bound for Gaza from leaving Greek ports. When The Audacity of Hope sailed anyway, the Greek coast guard stopped it only 20 minutes after it had left the port of Perama near Piraeus, near Athens, and arrested the ship's captain, John Klusmire. Klusmire is set to appear in a Greek court on Tuesday on felony charges. "Everything that's been done to this group has not been normal," says Jane Hirschmann, a psychotherapist from New York City and one of the national organizers of the flotilla that aims to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinian in Gaza. "Israel has managed to outsource the siege of Gaza to Greece."

Israel, which doesn't deny trying to stop the ships, says the flotilla is a provocation and has dismissed the activists as conspiracy theorists. The country says it is blocking entry into Gaza to prevent the shipping of weapons to Hamas, the party which was elected in January 2006 to govern the strip and which is viewed by the West as a terrorist organization.

Officially, Greece maintains that Israel must lift its blockade of Gaza and improve the conditions of the people living there. The Greek Foreign Ministry says Greece imposed the ban on its ports for Gaza-bound ships because of concerns about safety and to keep in line with the positions of the European Union and the United Nations. But the Israeli press reports that Greek officials have a hand in the stopping the flotilla from sailing: according to the daily Haaretz, the ban on Gaza-bound ships from Greece was the result of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Haaretz claims have a close friendship.

Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras declined to respond to any specific press reports, but he was adamant in stating that the Greece's position discouraging the flotilla from sailing is "plain and simple a position of principle. This is a position that has been adopted by the United Nations, by the countries in the region and by the entire international community. We are primarily concerned about the safety of those involved in the flotilla and for the stability of the region."

The hundreds of activists, including Jews, taking part in the Freedom Flotilla II spent a year raising money for their trip to the Gaza strip. Along with the eight ships housing the activists, there are also two cargo ships carrying construction materials, medicine and food supplies. Melissa Lane, 32, a nonprofit worker based in Washington, D.C. and a passenger on The Audacity of Hope, is one of many who have devoted themselves to fighting what they see as Israel's policies of apartheid toward Palestinians. Lane says she became involved after traveling to Gaza in 2005. "We were shot at [by Israeli soldiers] while visiting an orphanage," she says. "And that was paid for by my tax dollars," she adds, referring to the $3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Israel. "It's outrageous."

In the hopes of avoiding last year's bloody confrontation, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists aboard the lead flotilla vessel, the Mavi Marmara, the Freedom Flotilla II activists spent the days before their planned departure undergoing training in non-violent resistance. "Fear is real, but so is love," says Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and one of the activists on The Audacity of Hope. "It's understood that when our government doesn't work to stop injustice, citizens have to." Michalis Tiktopoulos, a 65-year-old civil engineer from Athens, participated in last year's flotilla and says he was attacked with a taser when Israeli commandos boarded the Greek ship on which he was traveling. But that hasn't stopped him from signing up to go back this year, on the boat Eleftheri Mesogheio (Free Mediterranean). "I don't know what might happen this year, but for me it is an obligation to go," he says.

On Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed a proposal by the Greek government to ferry the flotilla's supplies on its own boats with the help of the U.N. "It could help reduce tensions in the region and ensure much-needed aid is delivered to those who need it in Gaza," a U.N. statement said of the proposal.

But the flotilla activists and at least one Palestinian official are not impressed. They say the proposal only bypasses the problem: that the sea blockade of Gaza is unjust. "We have dedicated time and money to break a blockade that's inhumane and traps the people of Gaza in a world of poverty and isolation," says Dimitris Plionis, a retired airline administrator who helped organize the flotilla. And Saeb Erakat, a chief Palestinian negotiator, released a statement saying that "the situation in Gaza is not about border crossings. It is about the illegally denied and internationally recognized rights of the Palestinian people to dignity, freedom and self-determination."

For the moment, the flotilla participants are waiting in ports in Greece and other areas in the Mediterranean. They say they won't wait much longer. At daily press briefings on the terrace of the Exarcheia Hotel, in the heart of a central Athenian neighborhood with a deep history of activism, the organizers have told journalists that they're determined to sail. Plionis says they might try to skirt the ban by sailing for a port outside of Greece before heading on to Gaza, and they are also considering a legal challenge against the Greek ban on their ships. "Right now they won't even let us move one meter from the ports in Greece," he says. "But we will find a way to get to Gaza."
With reporting by Nikolas Leontopoulos / Athens