Athens – As the 10 ships of the Freedom Flotilla II – Stay Human make their final preparations to set sail for the Gaza Strip, purported acts of sabotage have been added to threats from Israel.
The flotilla, which will attempt to break through Israel's blockade of Gaza for the second year in a row, includes two cargo vessels carrying more than 5,000 tons of humanitarian aid, such as construction materials and medical and educational supplies.
One of the two participating French boats, the Dignity/Karama, is already in international waters, having set out from a port in Corsica on Jun. 25 to meet up with the rest of the convoy.
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After the international coalition that is organising the flotilla gave a news briefing Monday Jun. 27 in Athens to journalists from around the world to announce its plans to depart on Thursday or Friday, the passenger boat Juliano belonging to the Ship to Gaza movement was sabotaged in the southeast Greek port of Piraeus.
Divers cut the propeller shaft and destroyed the prop house, Ship to Gaza said, adding that its own divers had documented the sabotage on camera and that an initial inspection had been carried out with a view to repairing the damage before the planned departure date. “It's one thing for a foreign power to press the Greek government to delay our voyage with red tape. It is quite another thing for enemy agents to operate on Greek territory,” said Ship to Gaza Sweden spokesman Mattias Gardell.
“It is high time for the international community to put their foot down and say: Enough!” he said in a statement issued by the group.
The Juliano, which is jointly owned by the Ship to Gaza organisations in Sweden, Norway and Greece, is named after Israeli actor and director Juliano Meir Khamis of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, who was murdered Apr. 4 in that West Bank city.
Israel started tightening its stranglehold on the Gaza Strip after the radical Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, and imposed a full blockade in subsequent years, especially after the Operation Cast Lead military offensive launched in late 2008.
Israel argues the blockade is necessary for security reasons, while human rights groups counter that the siege amounts to collective punishment of Gaza's 1.5 million mostly civilian residents and that it is illegal under international law.
The Free Gaza Movement, which is organising the second flotilla, said Monday that Israel's threats will not stand in the way of the humanitarian convoy.
“We will not be frightened by Israel, and we are going to continue. Our friends from all around the world are with us, and we are all going to Gaza,” said one of the flotilla organisers, Dror Feiler, an Israeli-born activist and musician from Sweden.
Greece is under pressure from Israel to keep the boats from setting sail, at a time of great vulnerability for the southern European country due to the spiralling economic and political crisis.
Vangelis Pissias, an organiser with the Greek delegation, urged the Greek government in a statement not to “become complicit in Israel's illegal actions by succumbing to this pressure.”
“Israel’s best efforts to stop our boats at port, including pressure on governments, threats against insurance and communications companies, intimidation of human rights defenders, frivolous lawsuits and other underhanded tactics, have thus far failed,” the Free Gaza Movement said in a communiqué.
On Monday, the Israeli security cabinet ordered the navy to stop the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement that forces would be ordered to do so “with minimal confrontation, as far as possible, with those on board the ships.”
Israeli public radio reported that the government had reached an agreement with Egypt to allow the flotilla to unload its cargo of humanitarian aid at the port of El Arish, to later be taken by land to Gaza after undergoing security checks.
Senior Israeli officials claim to have received information that there are “extremists” participating in the flotilla who intend to “shed the blood of IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers” using chemical substances, when Israeli troops attempt to board the ships.
They also say that despite earlier reports, the ships will be carrying members of the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), which organised last year's flotilla, and members of Hamas – both of which Israel considers terrorist organisations.
The Israeli government's statements came the day after Foreign Ministry officials informed the cabinet that there was no information about members of “terrorist groups” planning to take part in the flotilla.
Israel used similar arguments before and after the May 31, 2010 assault launched by IDF commandos on the Mavi Marmara, the first freedom flotilla's flagship, in international waters as it headed towards Gaza. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the military operation, and over 50 of the civilians on board were injured.
A representative of the relatives of the victims killed on the Mavi Marmara, which this year pulled out of the flotilla for “technical reasons,” will travel in the Spanish boat Gernika along with 45 Spanish activists, political representatives and journalists.
“Gernika will carry the spirit of our murdered companions,” Manual Tapial, coordinator of the Rumbo a Gaza initiative in Spain, told IPS. “It's a show of solidarity with those who aren't able to travel this year.”
Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Trinidad Jiménez urged the Israeli authorities to act with “prudence and restraint” towards the second flotilla.
The flotilla will carry 50 journalists from around the world – including this reporter – who were warned Sunday by Israel that they would face a 10-year ban on re-entering that country, although later the government backtracked on the threat.
The countries where participating activists are from include Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
A boat carrying participants from several Arab nations may also join from Jordan in the next few days.
Some 500 activists and civil society personalities are ready to sail. But there are worries that the Israeli forces will assault the boats using tear gas, water cannons, taser guns, stink and sound bombs and attack dogs.