ATHENS - On Thursday, the passengers of the Audacity of Hope, the US boat in the “Freedom Flotilla 2” to Gaza—a convoy of ten boats, two cargo ships and some 300 civilians—emerged from their hotel on the edge of an Athens turned upside down. The air was heavy from the stench of garbage and tear gas, after two days of a general strike and fighting between police and demonstrators protesting the latest austerity measures. But the dramatic urban landscape barely caught the passengers’ attention as they boarded a chartered bus to a distant Athenian port, kept secret until then due to security concerns.
Standing in front of more than seventy journalists from around the world, the thirty-five passengers called on the Greek government to allow their boat to sail. The idea was that if the government were to continue its efforts—coming after intense Israeli lobbying—to prevent the boat from sailing, it would be forced to do so in front of the world media, and thus might back down. But just one hour before the press conference was set to begin, the captain of the US boat announced that he was abandoning the mission, saying that he risked losing his maritime license and could face jail time if he didn’t. But this was only the latest setback for the flotilla.
The day before the US press conference, the Irish ship in the flotilla, the MV Saoirse, announced that it had been sabotaged at its dock in Turkey. The boat’s propeller had been tampered with, sustaining more than 20,000 euros in damage. And two days before that, the propeller of the ship jointly sponsored by organizers from Greece, Norway and Sweden had also been sabotaged, allegedly by underwater divers while in port in Athens, according to the Irish Times.
Allegations by flotilla organizers, as well as others, of Israeli sabotage can’t be confirmed, but in the past Israeli officials have themselves hinted at such operations. In June 2010 the Guardian reported that an unnamed Israeli military official had briefed the Knesset about the existence of “grey operations” against two boats in the May 2010 flotilla, the same flotilla that included the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was attacked by Israeli commandos, who killed nine passengers. The Challenger One and Challenger Two, which had been preparing to sail to Gaza from Greek ports and join the Mavi Marmara, both malfunctioned under mysterious circumstances.
This year’s sabotage came after strongly worded Israeli government threats against the flotilla, with military officials stating on more than one occasion that the IDF would use any means necessary to prevent it from reaching Gaza. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided some US diplomatic cover for Israeli actions against civilians on the high seas when she stated last week that the flotilla organizers have created a situation in which Israel “has the right to defend itself.”
Israeli officials claim the mission is an “anti-Israeli public relations stunt.” If that’s the case, then the PR battle has resulted in largely positive exposure for the flotilla organizers, who have maintained the upper hand in the media war. Careful not to leak any sensitive information, the US organizers have been inconsistent in dealing with journalists planning to travel on their boat. And the gulf between the Israeli government’s organized media campaign and the haphazard and largely disorganized campaign of the US organizers has been evident. But the bellicose Israeli strategy has helped to publicize this story in ways the flotilla organizers could never have orchestrated themselves.
Last Sunday the Israeli Government Press Office took the bizarre step of openly threatening journalists with a ten-year travel ban to Israel if they accompany the flotilla. Immediately decried as an attack on press freedom by Israel’s Foreign Press Association, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rescinded the ban the day after it was published, but he did not comment on whether press would be allowed to keep footage they filmed on the boats (Israel has come under fire for confiscating press and activist footage from last year’s flotilla).
Central to the Israeli strategy have been efforts to associate the passengers with violence. On Monday the Israeli press reported that flotilla passengers planned to use chemical “substances” against Israeli soldiers sent to intercept their ships. These unsubstantiated rumors attributed to “military sources” were presented as fact in the Jerusalem Post as well as in Yediot Ahronot, the most popular daily. Some military officials publicly challeged the accusations the day after the story entered the news cycle, but the damage had already been done.
The US boat has not been free of sabotage attempts. On Friday, June 24, an anonymous complaint was filed against the Audacity of Hope over its “seaworthiness.” On Sunday the Israel Law Center (Shurat HaDin), known for representing Israeli victims of Palestinian terror attacks, took responsibility for the complaint in the Israeli press. The organization, which receives funding from American evangelical pastor and Christian Zionist leader John Hagee, also sent letters to the passengers of the US boat saying that their voyage could be a violation of US criminal law.
Greek authorities, whether in response to that complaint or because of Israeli government pressure, have been rigorously inspecting the US boat since that Friday. Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and anti-occupation refusenik and activist who is a crew member of the Audacity of Hope, argued, “It is clear that this complaint is not about seaworthiness but is an attempt to stop the boat from leaving port in Athens.” Speaking to an Israeli Air Force graduation ceremony on Thursday, Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked his Greek counterpart for his help in preventing the “flotilla provocation.”
Over the past several weeks the US boat has been tested at sea several times with excellent results, according to organizers. David Smith, the boat’s engineer and a former Greenpeace activist who has ample experience in dangerous sea missions, said, “The boat is in top sea shape and is a perfect choice for this type of mission.” Passengers have been sleeping in shifts on the boat to thwart sabotage attempts.
Flotilla organizers, speaking anonymously, believe that Israeli agents are behind the attacks. “They are watching everything we do,” one organizer told me. “A number of our cellphones have been stolen from our passengers while in Athens. I’m sure the Israelis are listening to our communications and tracking our whereabouts.”
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In an air-conditioned conference room of the Stanley Hotel in downtown Athens, 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and Pulitzer Prize–winning author and activist Alice Walker sang and clapped with the other US passengers as they rehearsed the nonviolent tactics they plan to use when Israeli commandos board their ship.
“We are in a waiting mode that could a take a day or two or three, but we are determined to get to Gaza,” Epstein remarked after an exhausting day of training. Swarms of Greek policemen, bused in from the countryside to assist with crowd control in an Athens rocked by the anti-austerity protests, gathered in the hotel lobby where Epstein quietly sat.
Questioned about Israeli threats of military interception and possible attack, Epstein smiled shyly but was defiant. “I have never been afraid of what the Israelis might do to us because I believe that there is always a chance to reach the humanity inside a soldier,” she said, adding after a brief pause, “but I have learned that they might bring attack dogs, and you can’t reach the humanity of a trained attack dog. And that is terrifying.”
Many passengers believe they have already achieved a major goal of their mission: to raise awareness about conditions in Gaza. Robert Naiman, a US boat passenger and policy director of the Washington, DC, think tank Just Foreign Policy, said, “The fact of the matter is that we have already won. The international press is talking about the blockade and Gaza. The contradiction between the world of the Israeli military officials and the world in which the rest of us live is exposed for all to see.”
The sabotage and propaganda campaign against the Freedom Flotilla culminated just as demonstrations rocked central Athens, when a broad section of Greek civil society took to the streets in clashes with riot police. Amid the clouds of tear gas, Molotov cocktails and bonfires on Athenian streets, some passengers from the US boat, wearing black T-shirts with the words “Unarmed Civilian” written in white letters, walked the streets in solidarity with the Greek people.
“Get ready for this type of tear gas on the boats if the Israelis board us,” one passenger remarked as a group watched Greek anarchists clash with police. As the US passengers looked on nervously, demonstrators set ablaze three cartons in front of an ATE Bank and then threw Molotov cocktails inside the blown-out windows. As the bank started to burn, to the visible excitement of thousands of protesters, most of the US passengers had had enough and began to head back to their hotel, five blocks from the front lines.
Many passengers on the US boat have spent summers in the West Bank and Gaza with pro-Palestinian groups like the International Solidarity Movement. One of them noted that the demonstrations in Athens felt safer than similar ones in the West Bank. She remarked, while choking on tear gas, “You can’t predict what the Israeli soldiers will do to you. They could fire a tear-gas canister directly at your head in [the West Bank village of] Bil’in, but that will not happen here.” (In the spring of 2009, American ISM volunteer Tristan Anderson was critically wounded when Israeli soldiers fired a high-velocity tear-gas projectile at his head in the West Bank village of Ni’ilin.)
The anti-austerity protests in Athens provided an outlet for flotilla passengers frustrated with the delayed departure of the US boat. “There are going to be serious clashes tonight,” said one passenger, wearing swimming goggles and a Palestinian kaffiyeh over his face for protection. “We have a planning meeting tonight about how to get out of here, and as soon as it’s done I’m running back to the streets to see this historic event.”
For most on the US boat, the flotilla’s mission is about civil society connecting with civil society, against the oppressive pressure and influence of government. The energy of the protests in Athens, and the popularity of the Gaza flotilla mission among Greek activists, was a potent source of encouragement. Flotilla activists have addressed Greek protesters camping in front of the Parliament in Athens, and Greek activists have used their prominence in the media to demand that their government allow the boats to sail. The Greek harbor masters where flotilla boats are waiting in port have supported the mission; in fact, one organizer connected to the US boat said the harbor masters are ready to allow the boats to sail even if the government orders them to stay in port.
Alice Walker has become an icon and anchor of this diverse crew of Americans willing to risk their lives to highlight Israeli control over Gaza. At the flotilla’s only international press conference held so far in Athens, she expressed a widely shared sentiment when she said, “My government has failed us, and is ignorant of our own history.” Visibly exhausted from the last week in Athens, she added, “When black people were enslaved for 300 years, it took a lot of people from outside our community to help free us. This is a fine tradition—going to help people who need us anywhere on the planet. I look at you in the room; if we have salvation as humankind, it is in this room.”
Finally, on Friday afternoon, July 1, after a week of delay, the Audacity of Hope set sail, with thirty-five passengers, five crew members and eleven journalists. After only an hour at sea, however, we were stopped by the Greek Coast Guard, which told the boat, “You are forbidden to leave Athens. Return to port now.” The battle continues.