/ 3 July 2011

Gaza flotilla says ‘Monday will be a day of action’

A pro-Palestinian flotilla hopes to leave Greece early next week to challenge Israel’s sea blockade of the Gaza Strip despite the arrest of the American captain of one of the vessels, organisers said on Saturday.

The convoy of cargo and passenger boats carrying volunteers from countries including the United States, Canada, France and Spain was due to depart at least a week ago but has been held up amid allegations of sabotage sponsored by Israel.

“Monday will be a day of action where we plan to continue sailing,” Adam Shapiro, one of the organisers, told reporters in Athens.

A boat ferrying mostly American activists, “The Audacity of Hope”, tried to leave left Perama port near Piraeus on Saturday.

It was turned back by the Greek coastguard, which said the captain, John Klusmire (60) had been arrested and would appear before a court on Tuesday to face felony charges.

Just over a year after nine activists were killed when Israeli marines stormed another pro-Palestinian flotilla, Greek authorities said on Friday that ships destined for Gaza were prohibited from leaving Greek ports — even though they would be sailing into international waters. Greece has offered no formal justification for the move.

Israel says its blockade of Gaza is aimed at stopping weapons from reaching the enclave’s rulers, Hamas — an Islamist group that is branded a terrorist organisation by the West.

Palestinians and their supporters call the closure illegal and a collective punishment for Gaza’s 1.5-million residents.

“I asked the Greek government and all other governments not to stop the flotilla, not to stop the ships,” Palestinian deputy Mustafa Barghouthi, who was in Athens for a meeting of Socialist governments, told the news conference.

No explanation
“The response we got is that they will not allow any ship that’s says it’s going to Gaza to sail,” he said.

At the United Nations in New York, the “Quartet” of Middle East peace negotiators issued a statement saying such flotillas should be discouraged.

The Quartet — the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations — said it “remains concerned about the unsustainable conditions facing the civilian population in Gaza but notes that efforts have improved conditions over the last year”.

It urged those wishing to deliver goods to Gaza to let their cargo “be inspected and transferred via established land crossings” and called on all governments concerned to “discourage additional flotillas, which risk the safety of their participants and carry the potential for escalation”.

Greek coastguard spokesperson George Economou said the US captain had been arrested for having no permission to sail and for exposing passengers to possible danger. “The captain will appear before an investigator on Tuesday,” he said.

Jane Hirschmann, one of the organisers of the US action, dismissed the accusations.

“This just a stalling tactic. This is really intimidation,” she said.

Organisers said 10 ships including The Audacity of Hope, with 350 volunteers, were ready to take part.

But most vessels were blocked in ports in Crete, Corfu or Athens, and Twitter updates from journalists who had planned to join the trip suggested some were leaving out of frustration.

“We are feeling very offended by the stance of the Greek government, which has in reality accepted to move the siege of Gaza to Greek shores,” said organiser Demetris Pleonis.

One French ship was “in a safe place that cannot be disclosed” outside Greek waters, he said. A boat of Irish activists was in Turkey — disabled, its passengers said, by suspected Israeli frogmen.

Israel has similarly been accused of tampering with the propeller of a Greek-Swedish-Norwegian passenger ship in Athens.

Israel denied the allegations and denounced the flotilla as a provocation.

“These people seem to be living in a world of conspiracies and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’,” said Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. “It’s time someone told them to get back to reality.”