Greece stops Gaza-bound ships from leaving its ports

Patrick Martin – Globe and Mail June 2, 2011

Several hundred protesters participating in a flotilla bound for Gaza have suffered yet another setback. On Friday, the Greek government issued a ban on all ships in its ports sailing to the Palestinian strip on the southeast shores of the Mediterranean.

Greek officials boarded The Tahrir, a Canadian-chartered vessel anchored at an undisclosed location in Greece, and seized the ship’s registration papers.

At a port near Athens, a U.S.-sponsored boat, The Audacity of Hope, made a break for the open seas with several dozen activists on board but was overtaken by speed boats from the Greek Coast Guard and escorted back to shore.

Of the six other able vessels in the flotilla, five are believed to be in Greek ports, apparently unable to move. The sixth, a French ship, set sail from France earlier in the week and is believed to be on the Mediterranean still bound for Gaza.

Two other vessels, the Irish MV Saoirse, anchored in a Turkish port, and a Swedish-chartered ship, The Juliano, anchored in a Greek port, were disabled earlier this week when propeller shafts of both boats were damaged in what organizers say were acts of sabotage, saying they suspect the Israelis of dirty tricks.

The protesters have been hoping to run Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip – or to draw international attention while failing to do so. A year ago, nine activists on a Turkish ship in a similar flotilla were killed when Israeli commandos encountered strong resistance boarding the vessel.

If Israel learned anything from that diplomatic and deadly fiasco it was to avoid a violent confrontation this time … at any cost. To that end, Israeli officials have embarked on a campaign more akin to preparing for war than to planning how to police a gaggle of protesters. For several weeks, there’s been a full-court press waged by all of Israel’s diplomats and lobbyists, designed to persuade all countries linked to the flotilla in any way to do whatever they possibly could to deter the flotilla from setting sail.

Turkey was the first persuaded. Its vessel, the Mavi Marmara, pulled out of this year’s flotilla, as did many of the Turkish organizers.

Greece’s policy change yesterday was a direct result of the campaign too. Already embroiled in a major economic crisis, Greece needs all the friends it can get and undoubtedly saw a better return from siding with Israel rather than with the protesters.

“Israel has in effect extended the illegal blockade of Gaza to Greek ports, using the Greece’s economic difficulties to influence the government’s position,” said David Heap of The Tahrir’s organizing committee.

As part of its worldwide propaganda effort, Israel’s Public Diplomacy Ministry held a “readiness exercise” this week complete with a “situation room” from which officials practised how they would send out their public relations messages under various scenarios following a confrontation with the flotilla. As part of their related effort, Israeli missions around the world were placed on alert this weekend.

Israeli officials went a bit beyond the norm in dealing with foreign journalists. In addition to copious amounts of material on the legality of the blockade and background briefings on naval ethics, officials announced that any Israeli-based foreign journalists covering the flotilla from on board any of the boats would have their credentials revoked and be barred for 10 years from Israel. After two days of protests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rescinded that particular prohibition.

Then, in what appears to bear the hallmarks of Israel’s secretive Mossad security agency, there have been the scuttling of at least two ships from the flotilla. Israeli officials refuse to comment on that.