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July 12, 2011

Anchoring the flotilla

In June, ten ships carrying some 200 activists from 20 countries were to take part in what came to be known as “the second Freedom Flotilla”, whose goal was to break through the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.

Israel began its campaign to keep the vessels from reaching Gaza by warning journalists on June 26 they could be banned from entering the country for ten years if they travelled aboard the aid flotilla.

The Israeli government also said journalists could also have their equipment seized, in addition to other sanctions placed on them.

Jay Bushinsky from the Foreign Press Association in Israel questioned the constitutionality of the Israeli government’s warning, and said it could be overruled by Israeli courts. He told Al Jazeera: ”If the steps are taken, it will reflect an unwise policy and a losing proposition.”

Israel backtracked and retracted the warning.

The next day, June 27, activists aboard the Swedish ship Juliano reported their vessel had been sabotaged by divers. In a statement, they said, ”hostile divers had destroyed the propeller house and cut the propeller shaft”.

At approximately the same time, Israel escalated a media campaign that was geared towards demonising flotilla activists. According to Tel Aviv daily Yedioth Aharonoth, military sources said participants of the flotilla were planning to pour chemicals, such as sulphur, on Israeli soldiers, and senior Israeli officials claimed that ”radical elements” among the flotilla activists had stated an intention to ”spill the blood of Israeli soldiers”.

Then on June 30, three days after the Juliano was sabotaged, the Irish ship Saoirse had to abandon plans to set sail, because of what it called Israeli sabotage. Activist Huwaida Arraf told Israel’s Army Radio that the ship’s engine was damaged while in port and could have led to deaths on board.

“When the engine was started, it completely bent,” Arraf said. “While out at sea, if this would have happened, if it would have bent in this way, the boat would have started taking on water and it could have led to fatalities.”

The alleged sabotage occurred at the Turkish coastal town of Gocek where the Saoirse has been berthed for the previous few weeks, according to organisers.

Israel refused media requests for comment on both allegations.

Also in late June, an anonymous private legal complaint was filed against the Freedom Flotilla. The complaint alleged that the US boat, The Audacity of Hope, was not seaworthy and therefore was unfit to sail. In response, the harbour master in Athens, Greece, where the boat was docked, told the crew that he could not allow them to leave until the complaint was resolved.

Two days later, the Israel Law Center, Shurat Hadin, accepted responsibility for the complaint, that, while baseless, was a very successful exercise in legal harassment that kept the boat docked. Shurat Hadin is a Tel Aviv-based law centre that, according to its website, specialises in lawsuits against ”terrorists”.

This, coupled with mounting pressure from the Greek and US governments, kept most of the boats moored in Greek ports. Under the watchful eye of the Greek coastguard, when the US and Canadian boats tried to sail, they were both commandeered by coast guard personnel who brought the captured vessels back to port. The captain of the US vessel was jailed for three days, before eventually being released.

Activists with the US boat claimed that Israel had threatened economic sanctions if Greece did not cooperate in preventing the flotilla from leaving Greek ports.

Khalid Tuhraani, an American-Palestinian activist whose ship was stuck in the port of Corfu, told Al Jazeera: ”Many of the Arab countries have, like Greece now, become hostages of the political will of the United States and Israel.

“We chose Greece because this country has a history of support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom,” he said. “Unfortunately we did not expect the Greek government to just roll over and die. But the Middle East Quartet issued a statement against our flotilla, so I think the pressure on the Greek government just might have been too enormous for it to bear.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu publicly acknowledged Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou’s cooperation in efforts to stop the flotilla.