Flotilla to Hamas
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|Martin Barillas||July 2nd 2011|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
Greek authorities, showing "unusual maritime courage at a moment of high national stress," according to one State Departmernt source, have arrested the civilian captain of a US-flagged ship bound for the Gaza strip and aimed at challenging Israel's maritime blockade of the Palestinian territory bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Israel's blockade has been held to be legal under international law, and numerous governments--from Washington to Europe--have warned flotilla organizers they face arrest should they pursue this challenge. That is what happened.
According to the organizers of the voyage, John Klusmire, an American citizen and captain of The Audacity of Hope, was jailed on July 2 charged with disturbing sea traffic, endangering the lives of those on the ship, and disobeying a police order to remain at dock. Klusmire is due in court on July 5. The vessel and crew were also seized and remain at the Port of Pireaus near Athens, following their attempted departure from Greece.
A State department source, not authorized to speak on the record, declared, "Now that was unusual maritime courage at a moment of high national stress for the Greeks."
The Greek Coast Guard continues to monitor “the broader maritime area” of the eastern Mediterranean for flotilla ships. About 30 protesters gathered at the Port of Aghios Nicolaos on the island of Crete when the vessel Tahrir was banned from sailing. They later dispersed peacefully.
The flotilla website, UStoGaza.org, says that most of the 36 passengers remained on the ship “in solidarity with the captain and crew.” Among those participating are: Alice Walker, the renowned author of The Color Purple, former US Army colonel and State Department official Ann Wright, and various human rights activists. Jane Hirshmann, one of the ship’s organizers, said of the arrest and seizure, "This is intimidation," adding, "They're making an example of our captain to stop other boats in the flotilla from trying to sail." "Monday will be a day of action where we plan to continue sailing," Adam Shapiro, one of the organizers, told reporters in Athens.
The Greek government said on July 1 that none of the other nine other boats in the flotilla bound for Gaza will be allowed to depart because of the dangers involved. While organizers of the flotilla accuse the Greek government of buckling to pressure from Israel, on June 28 the Israeli government said flotilla participants had threatened to kill Israeli military personnel should their vessels be boarded. Flotilla participants are alleged to have stockpiled sacks of sulphuric acid onboard to deter boarding by Israeli personnel.
The flotilla is meant to commemorate a May 2010 incident in which Israeli troops boarded Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that brought 700 activists from various countries. Nine people died as activists attacked Israeli Navy boarders enforcing the blockade. On June 30, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said if the organizers of the current flotilla insist on challenging the Gaza blockade, it too will be intercepted by the Israeli Navy, and the organizers will be responsible for any injuries or damage. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said this week that Israel will not stand by as the flotilla seeks to breach the “Hamas terrorist enclave” of Gaza.
Israel insists the naval blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from reaching the Palestinian militant group Hamas that rules Gaza. Israel has been joined by the United States and the United Nations in urging the flotilla to sail to Israeli or Egyptian ports and transfer its cargo legally to Gaza over land. Participants in the flotilla claim that both Greece and the US are being pressured by Israel to ward off the flotilla.
Flotilla organizer Medea Benjamin dismissed the allegations as ludicrous saying, "They see this nonviolent, rag-tag group of ships as such a threat they're using their entire propaganda apparatus and their diplomatic and economic clout to try to stop 300 peace activists. It's pathetic." Flotilla organizers hope to depart Greece soon, while claiming that they are bringing humanitarian aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israel vows to prevent the flotilla from reaching its planned destination. Most of the flotilla is docked in Greece, where some vessels are wrangling over red tape, while at least one vessel is said to be bound now for Gaza. About 300 people plan to join the flotilla, including journalists, politicians, writers and religious figures from the US, Canada, Spain, and Palestine. One ship each from Ireland and Sweden have dropped out after having reported engine problems. Organizers are blaming Israel for what it is being deemed as “sabotage,” a charge which Israel vehemently denies.
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat stationed in Greece. He currently edits Speroforum.com.