Flotilla fails at sea, succeeds on the airwaves


JERUSALEM (JTA) — On the face of it, the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla seemed to be a bust.

Greek authorities blocked most of the boats from setting sail for the Gaza Strip, and others experienced propeller problems that rendered them unseaworthy. On Tuesday, a small pleasure boat with eight passengers aboard became the first vessel in the planned flotilla to elude the Greek coast guard en route to Gaza.

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. Just the opposite,” Leslie Cagan, coordinator of the U.S. boat to Gaza, wrote this week on the U.S. to Gaza 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.”

Reveling in the attention, pro-Palestinian activists talked to reporters about their next publicity stunt: a planned “fly-in” to Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv beginning Friday 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.

This year’s flotilla was organized to mark the anniversary of last year’s flotilla to Gaza, which set sail from Turkey before being stopped by the Israeli Navy on May 31, 2010. When one of the vessels refused to heed Israeli warnings to desist, IDF commandos stormed 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 flotilla came on the heels of an announcement by Israel that it would allow building materials into Gaza for 1,200 homes and 18 schools. Adam Shapiro, an organizer of the so-called Free Gaza Movement, said the announcement was a sign that the flotilla had resulted in real gains.

He attributed the change to “flotilla pressure.”

“Even this year, the concrete results of the flotilla are evident,” Shapiro wrote in a column in Gulf News, a news outlet in the United Arab Emirates.

Israel did not offer a reason for the timing of the decision, but said the construction material was for specific projects. An official with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is overseeing the projects, said the announcement on the building material came after much negotiation.

On Sunday, organizers of the flotilla rejected an offer by Greece to deliver aid to Gaza from the ships stuck in Greek harbors via either Egypt or Israel.

Many pro-Israel supporters praised Greece for its handling of this year’s flotilla, including American Jewish groups.

After delays from a countrywide strike and intensive port inspections, the Greek government on July 1 banned all ships bound for Gaza from leaving its ports.

John Klusmire, the captain of one of the ships, 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 Tuesday, a Greek court freed him and dropped the charges.

Greece’s approach to the flotilla was held up as a sign of the renewed friendship between Greece and Israel. Israel has been cultivating a closer relationship with Greece, particularly as Israel’s relationship with Turkey — a longtime rival of Greece — has faltered.

In the year since last year’s flotilla fiasco, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have exchanged visits, and Israel has offered military assistance to Greece. Last week the two countries completed a joint military exercise.

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

Israel says 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 terrorist group Hamas. The blockade of Gaza is designed as well to maintain pressure on Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in an attack five years ago and 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.

Hamas last week called on the European Union and human rights organizations to pressure the Greek government to allow the ships to sail. On Tuesday, activists from the Spanish-sponsored boat in the flotilla reportedly occupied the Spanish Embassy in Athens after meeting with their ambassador to petition the Spanish government to pressure the Greeks to allow them to sail.

Meanwhile, Greek officials are working to learn the identity of the captain of a ship that slipped past Greek authorities near Crete for a few minutes before being intercepted by the Greek coast guard. The 50 passengers aboard the ship reportedly said they were the captain when questioned by port officials.

Two of the flotilla ships were victims of what flotilla organizers called deliberate sabotage; the Irish-flagged Saoirse was seriously damaged on June 28, and the propeller of the Juliano, on which Swedish, Norwegian and Greek activists were scheduled to travel, 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.

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