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.