The 50 passengers and crew on the U.S. boat to Gaza have converged in Athens, Greece, ready to head out to sea to join an international fleet of ships that will challenge the Israeli-imposed naval blockade of Gaza. But on Thursday, June 23, when the boat was scheduled to leave its port outside Athens and move closer to an international meeting point, the boat’s owner was suddenly served with a complaint by an unknown individual that the boat was not seaworthy. The captain, convinced that the complaint was bogus, was nevertheless told by Greek authorities that he could not set sail until they did a thorough inspection.
Also on Thursday, Greek port authorities issued an unusual warning to all ship captains to steer clear of the coordinates that correspond with Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. The advisory said there will be continuous electronic surveillance of the region to “record the movements of ships that will possibly participate in such an action.”
It appears that the Greek government is bowing to intense pressure from the Israelis—and possibly the U.S. government—to try to block the flotilla. The American passengers on the U.S. boat, called The Audacity of Hope, are pushing the Greek government to do a quick inspection, as they are convinced the ship would pass muster. “The boat we are leasing for this journey has been worked on for months by qualified technicians and is ready to sail,” said organizer and passenger Ann Wright. “We do not believe it needs to be re-inspected, but we are open to the Greek authorities doing this quickly so that there will be no further delays.”
The move to block the U.S. boat is just the latest in a flurry of recent activity designed to thwart the flotilla. Israel has publicly stated that it is pressuring countries around the world to stop their citizens from participating. Its pressure on the Turkish government was so intense that the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, the same ship that was so violently attacked last year, recently announced that it would not be joining the flotilla.
Several boats in the international flotilla are now docked in Greece. To its credit, the Greek government has taken a position that the blockade on Gaza must be lifted and many people in the government are sympathetic to the aims of the flotilla. But Greece is being battered by a severe economic crisis that has wreaked havoc within the government itself. The passengers speculate that Israel, which has extensive trade and investment ties with Greece, is callously taking advantage of the economic hardship the Greek people are experiencing right now to put the screws on the Greek government.
They also see the hidden hand of the United States behind this, as the Obama administration has been publicly railing against the flotilla, calling it a “provocative act” against Israel and issuing harsh travel warnings to Americans against any attempts to reach Gaza by boat. The U.S. passengers speculate that the Obama Administration is using economic blackmail on the Greek government. Greece's economic and political crisis is a result of extreme austerity measures imposed by the European Union and the largely U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States may well be using its leverage at the IMF over the implementation of an ongoing bailout of European banks with massive Greek debts to compel the Greek government to block the U.S. boat.
"Greece is not going to be able to meet the targets that it is pledging to the IMF and the European authorities. In this situation the IMF and therefore the U.S. government will have enormous leverage because these institutions will decide what will be acceptable benchmarks for Greece to receive future tranches of IMF/EU funding," said Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC.
Passengers on the U.S. boat are asking Greek government officials to clarify the situation. “Is our boat being blocked from leaving Greece because of an anonymous request of a private citizen concerning the seaworthiness of the ship, a situation could be easily dealt with by a quick inspection, or is this a political decision by the Greek government in response to economic pressure?,” asked passenger and political analyst Robert Naiman.
In any event, the flotilla participants remain determined to set sail. “We have overcome many roadblocks along the way and we will overcome this one as well,” said passenger and CODEPINK organizer Ridgely Fuller. “We might not have the economic clout of the U.S. and Israeli governments, but we have morality and the support of the Greek people on our side.”
Medea Benjamin is a passenger on the U.S. boat to Gaza, called the Audacity of Hope.