Israel blocks the freedom flotilla

The U.S. boat from the Gaza Freedom Flotilla 2 docked in GreeceThe U.S. boat from the Gaza Freedom Flotilla 2 docked in Greece

WITH THE Gaza Freedom Flotilla 2 stalled in ports in Greece and elsewhere, more than 200 activists staged a lively July 5 protest outside the Israeli consulate in Chicago to condemn Israel’s international pressure campaign to expand the siege of Gaza to ports around the Mediterranean Sea.

Hundreds of activists from 22 countries have spent the last several months making preparations for a voyage to break Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza–organizing boats, collecting supplies of humanitarian aid and, in the last couple weeks, assembling in Greece, Turkey and elsewhere.

The plan was to leave port at the end of June, meet up in the Mediterranean and sail to Gaza. But the extent of Israel’s international pressure campaign became evident when almost every vessel in the flotilla was prevented from even entering international waters, much less approaching Gaza. That’s what prompted activists in Chicago to mobilize their emergency response network in solidarity with the flotilla.

The Greek government stopped vessels from the flotilla, claiming alleged “safety violations” as the official reason, despite the fact that all of the boats had previously passed inspections. When boats attempted to leave anyway, including as the U.S.-flagged Audacity of Hope, they were intercepted by the Greek coast guard. Armed Greek troops impounded the U.S. craft and arrested the ship’s captain, who now faces serious charges–solidarity activists who onboard the vessel vow to continue protesting under he is released.

Earlier, two other boats in the flotilla had their propellers sabotaged by underwater divers–the Irish MV Saoirse while it was at a port in Turkey, and a joint Greek-Swedish boat at a port in Greece.

According to a statement issued by the U.S. boat to Gaza:

The Greek government’s willingness to serve as the enforcer of Israeli’s naval blockade of Gaza made it impossible for this journey to happen. But the creative and determined spirit of this team of committed activists could not be stopped or silenced.

They worked tirelessly to make the point in countless ways: they attempted to set sail knowing it might lead to a confrontation with the Greek authorities, they stood by the boat’s captain when he was arrested and jailed for several days, several people held a hunger strike for a few days, everyone marched and rallied with other flotilla activists and with the people of Athens in their own struggle for economic justice, and incredible energy went into getting the word out to people throughout this country and around the world as the work with the media continued through it all.

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THE JULY 5 protest in Chicago made it clear the solidarity activists have support in the U.S. After gathering outside the Israeli consulate, the crowd chanted, “End the siege of Gaza now” and “Athens, Cairo, Wisconsin, we will fight, we will win.”

Speakers included Awad Hamdan of American Muslims for Palestine; Wael Elasady, a Palestinian activist from Portland, Ore.; Kevin Clark of the International Solidarity Movement; Eric Ruder of the International Socialist Organization; and a representative of the Chicago Committee Against Political Repression.

Several speakers pointed out how Israel and its allies in the U.S. government were taking advantage of Greece’s dire economic situation to pressure the government into acting as Israel’s cop on the beat. Activists then decided to march to the Greek consulate, located five blocks away. There, they raised chants calling for the end of the siege and pledged to return if any boat managed to set sail and was stopped by Israeli forces.

In fact, the same day as the Chicago protest, a Greek consular official in Canada confirmed the speculation about why Greece had agreed to act for Israel to stop the flotilla: diplomatic pressure and naked economic self-interest.

While meeting with a delegation of Canadian activists who came to the consulate to demand safe passage for the Gaza-bound Canadian boat, Greek official Georgios Ayfantis confirmed that Greece did not dare to jeopardize the development of an undersea pipeline carrying gas from the Israel-controlled Leviathan drilling field to a processing plant in Crete. Last year, the Leviathan field’s 16 trillion cubic feet of gas were valued at $90 billion.

When Israel attacked the last international Gaza flotilla one year ago, killing nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, it was a blow to Israeli-Turkish relations–and ultimately scuttled a plan to pipe the gas through Turkey. Building on a year’s worth of diplomacy with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and playing off of perceived rivalry between Greece and Turkey, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped push through a deal to route the gas through Crete instead.

The deal promises additional tax revenues for the Greek state, sorely needed in light of harsh austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for a bailout to keep Greece from defaulting on its debt obligations. The proposed measures, which passed Greece’s parliament last week, inspired mass protests in Athens’ Syntagma Square and a two-day nationwide general strike that brought Greece’s economy to a halt, despite police repression.

The significance of the gas deal and its connection to the flotilla effort was not lost on the protesters who struck and occupied the squares in Greece–there have been several resolutions of support for the flotilla passed at the nightly popular assemblies held in Syntagma Square. In fact, dockworkers helping to load the flotilla boats were among the only workers exempt from last week’s general strike.

As the activists who intended to sail to Gaza begin to return to their homes and the flotilla effort winds down, the frustration is palpable. But the effort has nevertheless succeeded in attracting media attention to Israel’s siege of Gaza, according to U.S. flotilla activists. The flotilla also exposed the lengths to which Israel will go to stop activists and journalists from landing on Gaza’s shores–including cynically outsourcing the siege to a desperate state against the will of its people.

But even if Israel succeeded in stopping the flotilla from reaching Gaza, the pressures on Israel continue to mount–from the mass marches on Israel’s borders in recent weeks to the planned fly-in of pro-Palestine activists to Ben Gurion airport beginning on July 8.

Israel’s central problem is that even if it succeeds in thwarting each of these efforts, it exposes itself as a serial violator of human rights and international law. In the words of one Israeli commentator, “Where Israel is concerned, a democracy that cannot bring itself to allow nonviolent protest has already turned on itself.”

( / 08.07.2011)

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