Flotilla sequel goes kerplunk thanks to Greek authorities

jerusalem  |  On the face of it, the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla seemed to be a bust.

Greek authorities, apparently with help from lawyers and others in Israel, blocked most of the boats from setting sail for the Gaza Strip, and others had technical problems that rendered them unseaworthy. One ship set sail July 4 only to be seized by the Greek coast guard minutes later and returned to port near Athens. Another ship, seemingly on its way to Gaza on July 6, made it only to another Greek port.

But if the true aim was to achieve a public relations victory rather than to deliver aid to Gaza — as Israeli authorities charged and flotilla participants themselves acknowledged — then the thousands of news reports about the flotilla’s plans, problems and participants succeeded by at least one measure: getting attention.

“Given the tremendous obstacles placed in the way of the flotilla, we should not for a moment think this work has been in vain,” Leslie Cagan, coordinator of the U.S. boat, the Audacity of Hope, wrote this week on a website. “We have called greater attention to the urgent need to end the Israeli blockade and siege of Gaza, as well as the overall occupation of the Palestinian Territories.”

The Audacity of Hope was one of several ships that Greek authorities kept from leaving port. photo/jta/ustogaza.org

Reveling in the attention, pro-Palestinian activists talked to reporters about their next stunt: a planned “fly-in” to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel beginning Friday, July 8, to protest Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Hoping to disrupt airport operations, the activists reportedly are planning to declare “Palestine” as their destination upon landing in Israel; they have said they will stage demonstrations if denied entry.

The Israeli public security minister called some of them “hooligans” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a show of reviewing security agencies’ plans at the airport before flying to Romania July 6. Expecting hundreds of activists arriving on some 50 flights from throughout Europe, Israeli police said this week they would reinforce security at the already heavily fortified airport.

This year’s flotilla was organized to mark the anniversary of last year’s flotilla to Gaza, which set sail from Turkey before being intercepted by the Israeli navy on May 31, 2010. When one of the vessels refused to heed Israeli warnings to desist, Israel Defense Forces commandos boarded the boat, the Mavi Marmara, and nine Turkish passengers were killed amid the fighting. The incident prompted an international outcry and sent Turkish-Israeli relations to a nadir.

The 2011 effort had trouble merely getting started, as it slogged through delays from a countrywide strike in Greece and intensive port inspections. Then, on July 1, the Greek government banned any ship bound for Gaza from leaving its ports.

“I would never have believed that to pursue my convictions and freedom I would have had to clash with a European democracy like Greece,” Alain Connan, the captain of a French ship, told Reuters.

“Most of the ships have had to back out of the flotilla because of the ‘bureaucratic difficulties’ they are encountering, mainly lack of insurance,” according to the website of Sharut HaDin–Israel Law Center. “We have been hard at work, round the clock, with our legal campaign to obstruct the Islamic militants and anti-Israel activists.”

The website pointed to a press conference of flotilla organizers in Athens in which they ”moaned that Shurat HaDin had unfairly filed complaints with the Greek authorities and Coastal Police against their boats. Lawfare  apparently isn’t as much fun when it’s aimed back at the Israel haters.”

John Klusmire, the captain of the Audacity of Hope, tried to leave port last week but was arrested on charges of setting sail without permission and endangering the lives of passengers. On July 5, a Greek court freed him and dropped the charges.

That same day, Greek officials arrested three people associated with a Canadian boat, the Tahrir, that was seized and taken back to the port of Perama, near Athens. One person was arrested on charges of sailing illegally; two others were arrested for using kayaks to block a coast guard vessel from trying to stop the Tahrir.

The Jerusalem Post reported that participation overall was lacking. Flotilla organizers had hoped for some 1,500 people to set sail, but “a mere” 350 were on hand, the Post reported.

On July 5, a small pleasure boat from France, the Dignite-Al Karama, with eight passengers and two crew reportedly on board, made it from the port into international waters by eluding the Greek coast guard, according to a spokesman for a French activist group. It reportedly was waiting at sea for other vessels to join it.

A day later, the Juliano, flying a Sierra Leone flag and with Swedes, Norwegians and Greeks aboard, raised activists’ hopes when it left Perama, but it only managed to get further south, to the Greek port of Palaia Phokia, with the approval of port authorities, the French news agency AFP reported.

In the midst of everything, leaders of the flotilla rejected an offer by Greece to deliver the ships’ cargo — allegedly aid to Gaza — to the coastal strip either through Egypt or Israel, a deal to which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly had agreed.

Greece’s approach to the flotilla was held up as a sign of the renewed friendship between Greece and Israel. In the year since last year’s flotilla incident, Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou have exchanged visits, and Israel has offered military assistance to Greece.

If any ships were to get past Greek authorities, Israel’s Cabinet issued an order for the IDF to prevent any boats from reaching Gaza.

Israel said the flotilla is illegal and that military action to keep ships from arriving in Gaza is legitimate. Its partial blockade of Gaza is necessary, Israel says, to keep weapons from flowing into the strip, which is controlled by the Islamic terrorist group Hamas. Also, the blockade of Gaza is designed to maintain pressure on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be in Gaza.

The blockade has eased significantly since last year’s flotilla incident, when Israel came under heavy international pressure to loosen the embargo.

Two of this year’s flotilla ships were victims of what organizers called deliberate sabotage; the Irish-flagged Saoirse was seriously damaged on June 28, and the propeller of the Juliano was discovered to be broken. Organizers blamed Israel for the problems.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials denied the charge, according to the Jerusalem Post. The flotilla activists must feel they are in a “James Bond film,” a spokesman said, according to the paper.

The inability to set sail put activists into motion on solid ground. On July 5, for example, activists from the Spanish-sponsored boat reportedly occupied the Spanish Embassy in Athens.

Many pro-Israel supporters praised Greece for its handling of the situation — including Jewish groups such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council.

“We wish to express our deepest gratitude for the efforts of the Greek government to prevent vessels from sailing from your nation’s ports to Gaza as part of an effort to break the lawful naval blockade,” said a letter delivered to the Greek consulate in San Francisco. It was signed by the JCF’s Jennifer Gorovitz (CEO) and Nancy Grand (president), and the JCRC’s Rabbi Doug Kahn (executive director) and Jerilyn Gelt (president). “The State of Israel has the right to enforce this blockade to ensure the safety and security of its people.”

Associated Press reporters Derek Gatopoulos in Piraeus, Greece, Christopher Torchia and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greg Keller in Paris and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.