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.
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."
Earlier today, the Greek government announced a ban on all boat traffic from Greece to Gaza, after being urged for weeks by Israel to take that step. In a speech last night, Mr. Netanyahu thanked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon "and my friend Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou who have spoken and acted recently against the provocation flotilla."
Ms. Hirschmann said the boat sailed back to Greece after a period of negotiation with Greek authorities. First there was just one Greek vessel on scene, urging them to return to Athens because, the Greeks, argued, it would be safer for them there. "Our captain said no, it’s not safe at the port because they’re sabotaging our boats there... Then a second coast guard ship came by with six armed commandos who wore masks and pointed guns at our passengers and said they had to turn around so the captain thought for the safety of the passengers they must return."
Israeli officials maintain that the flotilla amounts to aiding terrorism since Gaza is run by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US, Israel, and the European Union. They say they have to maintain the blockade for their own security.
The activists, on the other hand, say they have no ties to Hamas and are trying to attract attention to the suffering of Gaza's 1.5 million people. Constraints on the flow of goods into Gaza by Israel, they say, contributes to the poverty and aid dependency of the strip. Israel says there's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza at all.
In a TV interview this week the spokesman for the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Chris Gunness, described the need in Gaza as desperate when asked if he thought the flotilla is a "provocation." UNRWA is the major aid agency for Gaza.
"If there were no humanitarian crisis, if there weren't a crisis in almost every aspect of life in Gaza there would be no need for the flotilla. If there were no blockade, there'd be no need for the flotilla. 95 percent of all water in Gaza is undrinkable, 40 percent of all disease is water-borne... 45.2 percent of the labor force is unemployed, 80 percent aid dependency, a tripling of the abject poor since the start of the blockade," Mr. Gunness said. "Let's get rid of this blockade and there would be no need for a flotilla."
The United States government has sided strongly with Israel, with both governments saying they won't stand in the way of humanitarian aid getting to Gaza and that therefore, the flotilla is unnecessary. For Instance State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the flotilla a "bad idea" today and said: "I don't think it's a freedom of navigation, freedom of the sea issue. These boats are trying to make a political statement. If they want to get assistance to Gaza there are ways to do it," Toner said at a news conference in Washington.
But the flotilla's organizers say that misses the point, that it precisely is a freedom of navigation issue, that the Gazan economy has collapsed due to the blockade, and that freedom of movement for goods and people needs to be restored.
For now, this year's effort is looking likely to peter out. A few ships are originating in countries other than Greece, and may still make the trip. But a repeat of last year, when the deaths and attendant attention led to a relaxing of Israeli import restrictions into Gaza (the shortage of building materials has since eased considerably) now looks highly unlikely.