Amid the economic and social upheaval of Greece’s beleaguered capital city, where demonstrators have been protesting government-imposed austerity measures, forty activists from across the United States began training this week to nonviolently confront the Israeli military blockade of Gaza. The Americans are part of a flotilla of ten ships—from France, Ireland, Canada, Norway, Greece, Sweden and other countries—planning to set out for Gaza’s main seaport in the next week to relieve the siege.
With an age gap of sixty years between the youngest and oldest passenger, the diverse group of Americans have taken over a hotel in a trendy Athens neighborhood for days of nonviolence training and preparation.
Israel has stated that it will enforce its naval blockade by any political, military and economic measures at its disposal. This week it submitted an urgent request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking for international cooperation in stopping the flotilla. Ban embraced the Israeli government’s position, arguing in a public statement that aid should be delivered to Gaza only through “legitimate crossings and established channels,” all of which are controlled by Israel. Ban added that the flotilla is not helpful in assisting the economy of Gaza and encouraged organizers to cancel their voyage.
According to flotilla organizers, who are reticent about their sources, Israel has been meeting with Greek officials in a bid to persuade them to block Gaza-bound ships leaving from their ports. Israel, organizers say, could use economic incentives at a delicate time of EU-imposed austerity to put pressure on Athens. In recent years Greece and Israel have expanded trade ties, have carried out joint air force exercises and have begun discussions on a joint pipeline project that would exploit vast new Israeli natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Israel has pulled out the stops in trying to get the flotilla to stop before it begins by threatening the Greek economy,“ said Ann Wright, a retired State Department official and former Army colonel who is the main organizer of the US boat to Gaza. Sitting in the lobby of the noisy Athens hotel, she added, “Greece is caught in the middle. There is tremendous public support for the flotilla, but the government is getting pounded by the Israelis.” Not naming her sources, Wright, visibly exhausted from a year of organizing for the flotilla, contended that “Israel is going to try to sink the Greek economy if they allow the flotilla to sail from Greek ports.”
In response to the growing pressure, the Greek foreign ministry released a public statement on June 22 regarding its own citizens sailing with the flotilla. According to the statement, the ministry “urges Greek citizens as well as Greek-registered vessels not to participate in the new flotilla headed for the Gaza port.”
“Everything is explained in great detail,” foreign ministry spokesman Georgy Delavekouras told me over the phone from his office in Athens, referring to the statement. However, the statement is vague and does not say whether Greece will stop Gaza-bound ships registered in other countries.
Confirming that meetings between Greece and Israel have taken place recently over “many issues, including the flotilla,” Delavekouras said the Israeli government has not applied economic pressure. When pressed on the nature of the Israeli-Greek discussions, he simply referred to the statement.