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Greece puts halt to Gaza flotilla in a win for Israel

The Greek coastguard escorted a US boat seeking to join the Gaza flotilla back to port and said it will stop all other attempted departures. It looks like a big diplomatic victory for Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Staff writer / July 1, 2011

A pro-Palestinian activist plays a trumpet as others hold banners on their boat named 'Audacity of Hope' moored in Perama, near Athens Thursday.

Darko Bandic/AP

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A boat carrying a contingent of US activists seeking to join a flotilla of protesters against Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip were turned back by armed Greek commandos about 30 miles out of Athens today, in a major blow to the group and an apparent diplomatic victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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The US boat was carrying about 50 Americans, among them Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. As of the late evening in Greece, the boat was being detained at a Greek coastguard port.

Last year, a larger effort challenging the Gaza blockade ended in tragedy, when Israeli soldiers killed eight Turkish activists and one Turkish-American when they boarded the Mavi Marmara in international waters near Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent its Islamist rulers, Hamas, from getting weapons that could be used against Israel. Activists argue, however, that the blockade constitutes collective punishment and must be lifted altogether.

Last year's deaths were a political black eye for Israel, stirring global outrage and contributing to a chill in Israeli-Turkish relations. This year, Israel has been determined to head off the flotilla before it even takes to the sea. The Turkish Islamic charity IHH, which owns the Marmara, pulled out of this year's effort. Most activists believe that was due to pressure from the Turkish government, eager to get its relationship with Israel back on track.

This year about 500 activists on nine boats, mostly from the US and Europe, were planning to participate. They've been stalled in Greece for over a week. An Irish boat hoping to sail from the Turkish port of Gocek pulled out after what it's crew alleges was Israeli sabotage, and a Swedish boat in a Greek port also said its propeller was sabotaged.

Departure had also been delayed by a complaint against the seaworthiness of the boat, which one of the US activists said was made by an Israeli legal group. As things stand now, repairs are the least of the activists' worries.

"What we’re experiencing is a microcosm of what the people in Gaza experience every day. They aren’t allowed in or out and can’t get any materials in the country unless Israel allows it," says Jane Hirschmann, one of the American group's organizers, speaking by phone from Greece. "The people in Gaza are not free so what we’re hoping is that the public around the world will see what’s happening, that the US and Israeli government have outsourced the occupation and dragged Greece into enforcing it."

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