flotilla - Reuters - June 18 2011
Swedish branch of organization Ship to Gaza pose for a group photo at a news conference in Stockholm, June 18, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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GREECE - The organizers of the flotilla to Gaza yesterday remained vague about the date it would set sail and its ports of call. The unexpected delays are worrying the organizers although they are trying not to show it.

At a press conference yesterday in Athens, they promised that despite the open and covert pressure by Israel and other governments, about 10 ships - among them two cargo vessels - will set sail this week to Gaza. They also stressed that the departure of a French ship from the port of Corsica on Saturday is proof that there is a limit to the pressure Israel can exert.

The press conference was held before it became known that Israel had decided to backpedal on the Government Press Office's threat Sunday that foreign journalists who took part in the flotilla would not be allowed into Israel for 10 years. The speakers at the press conference called on the free press to prove that it is indeed free and not to be frightened by Israeli threats.

The uncertainty about the date the flotilla will set sail is not detering hundreds of activists, who are already in various locations throughout Greece and are set to board the ships. Dozens of activists attended yesterday's press conference, armed with well-made signs and rhythmic calls that sometimes turned the press conference into a pep rally.

But the organizers of the briefing did not share the various reasons for the delay. A few days ago, the Greek port authority required the Greek-Swedish cargo ship to undergo repairs, soldering work and the addition of equipment that its crew said were completely unnecessary. As for the American ship, an anonymous complaint had been lodged that it was not seaworthy. According to Army Radio, the group behind the complaint is Shurat Hadin, the Israeli Law Center.

Yesterday, a port authority inspection team checked out the American ship. Also yesterday, a surprise "stricter than usual" inspection was made of the Canadian vessel, the Tahrir. According to information that reached the organizers Sunday, a similar inspection is planned for the Italian ship.

Delaying tactics

Prof. Vangelis Pissias, a member of the flotilla's steering committee, told me that the Greek government has not acceded to the call by an extreme right wing Greek political party, LAOS, to prevent the flotilla to Gaza for reasons of "national interest," but it has meanwhile taken various administrative steps to delay it.

Pissias also said the fact that officials in Israel were able to report "the prevention of the departure of six ships anchored in Greece," even before the organizers of the flotilla knew about it, shows Israel's involvement. The surprise and meticulous inspections of the ships a few days after they had already been inspected and vetted as seaworthy, are the "technical" version of an outright prohibition on sailing.

At the press conference Pissias said the Greek government is under pressure not only from the Israeli government but by other governments as well. But Pissias also said that, at the same time, popular pressure is being applied that's making it hard for Greece to give in to Israel.

Dror Feiler, the spokesman for the flotilla and chairman of European Jews for a Just Peace, explained how popular support is expressed: Today and tomorrow, a general strike will be held in Greece against the austerity steps the government intends to adopt at the behest of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. But the port workers' union announced that in solidarity with the flotilla to Gaza, the stevedores who would be loading the flotilla vessels had been exempted from the strike.

Also, in Syntagma Square in Athens, where daily protests are being held against Greek government policies, the protesters - supporters of direct democracy - voted to support the flotilla and to install a giant screen so they could follow the progress of the ships.

Pissias also said that in the end, the Greek government would not be able to break the law and prohibit the ships from departing. That was also the message the government conveyed indirectly - through members of parliament that support the flotilla - to its organizers.

The French representative at the briefing, Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, said the French government had received "advice" (he did not specify from whom ) on how to prevent the departure of the flotilla. Right wing groups in the Jewish community also demonstrated against the flotilla, he said. Nevertheless, on Saturday the flotilla's French ship set sail for Greece (another French ship is already in Greece ). That is proof, Houdeville said, that there is a limit to Israel's ability to apply pressure, and that Israel cannot decide who has the right to sail the Mediterranean.

A French participant in the flotilla told Haaretz that representatives of the flotilla's organizers had met with government officials who "advised" them on how to hamper the ships by various technical means, but that the advice was rejected.

The African-American author Alice Walker said at the press conference that she would sail on the American ship because, when African-Americans were slaves and during the fight for civil rights, they were helped by outside communities. Walker said this was a noble tradition that defined people as human beings. Walker complained that U.S. President Barack Obama had forgotten this tradition when his government opposed the flotilla.

The Swedish author Henning Mankell, who took part in last year's flotilla and is joining the currently planned one, said at the press briefing he imagined there were people in the room who would report directly to the Israeli government and the Shin Bet security service. He said he asked that the report say that the actions of the flotilla was not a declaration of war, but a declaration of peace.