Gaza flotilla, more cat-and-mouse than crisis

AP News
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Posted: Jul 07, 2011 5:20 AM
Gaza flotilla, more cat-and-mouse than crisis

On a hotel rooftop in Exarchia, a gritty neighborhood known to breed artists and anarchists, a hodgepodge of activists plotted how to breach Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip. Soaked in Mediterranean sunshine, these warhorses of the Palestinian cause murmured in English, Greek, Arabic and other tongues.

The loose-knit network behind the stranded aid flotilla that has garnered international attention has little to tie it together except a cause, and now it is dispersing after at least two weeks in Greece. Many American activists flew home on Wednesday, and a peaceful sit-in by Spanish protesters at their embassy in Athens was dwindling in size.

Members of this genial Tower of Babel, including veterans of leftist politics, gave formal news conferences in casual attire in the past week to drum up publicity, one of the few tools at their disposal in the face of government pressure blocking their flotilla.

The movement included Dror Feiler, an Israel-born musician who moved to Sweden decades ago; Vangelis Pissias, a professor at the Technical University of Athens; and Jane Hirschmann, a psychotherapist from New York City and member of a group called "Jews Say No!"

There was also a Swedish crime writer, an Irish rugby player and a former indigenous chief from Canada.

"We are people that normally never communicate with each other," said activist Mattias Gardell, a Swedish academic who has studied religious extremism in the United States. "We disagree heavily on other subjects."

The band of more than 300 activists ran aground on a Greek ban on their departure from ports near Athens and in the islands of Crete and Corfu, amid warnings from the Israeli military that it would stop any attempt to reach Gaza by sea. As options dwindled, organizers declared victory anyway, citing the attention they drew to their cause.

The bid to bust the sea blockade, which Israel says is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas militants who might aim them at Israeli border towns, turned into a cat-and-mouse game, mostly on Greek soil or just offshore whenever flotilla boats made a break for international waters. Greek Coast Guard vessels turned them around each time.

"Maybe if we're here a bit longer, we will learn the Greek language," joked Raef El-Ghamri, a native Egyptian who now lives in Germany and helped prepare an ambulance with medicine and a wheelchair for delivery to Gaza's population. He said a cargo vessel that is supposed to carry the equipment had not been loaded, another sign of how far the flotilla was from achieving its goals.

El-Ghamri wore shorts and a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh on his head in the iconic style of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004. He and others waited for days as their plans to sail were delayed over and over, making sure to avoid heavy rioting last week in central Athens over Greece's economic hardship.

The saga of the "Freedom Flotilla" was more foam and froth than the international crisis that some feared at a time of Mideast and North African tumult. In 2010, nine activists on a Turkish boat died in an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla that went awry as commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the deck in the dark.

Each side blamed the other for the violence.

Israel declared that this year's flotilla sought another showdown to publicize their campaign, alleging its participants planned to dump sulfuric acid on its soldiers if they tried to board the vessels this time around.

The activists, who are mostly from Europe and North America, recite firebrand phrases about Israel's "siege" of Gaza's 1.5 million people, deflecting criticism that they are in league with Gaza's Hamas rulers, labeled terrorists by the West.

On the surface at least, many adhere to a Woodstock-era message of harmony that verges on simplistic at times. It would be hard to imagine a number of them engaging in lethal combat.

"Exist to Resist," is one snappy slogan. "Stay human, brother," is a rallying cry.

Ridgely Fuller, a self-described "suburban housewife," rallied outside the U.S. Embassy last week to protest the Obama administration's warning that participation in the flotilla might be a violation of U.S. law. Fuller, who has traveled to Palestinian territories, recalled teaching the "Hokey Pokey," a clapping, wiggling dance, to children there.

Another of several dozen Americans in the flotilla was 22-year-old Max Suchan, who said he recently learned how to swim with the help of friends in public pools and a lake in his hometown of Chicago.

"I basically could keep myself afloat and doggy-paddle, but I know now how to swim in a more artful, long-term manner," Suchan said earnestly.

He said he and comrades engaged in "role plays" to prepare for arrest by the Israeli military. The scenarios included "pulling people apart who were linked up" in a passive show of opposition, Suchan said. He intended to take his glasses off in the event of an Israeli boarding so that they wouldn't get broken, and he had seasickness pills for the trip over.

Some flotilla news conferences resembled religious revival meetings, with activists chanting and holding "Free Gaza" signs. On the podium, French organizer Thomas Sommer-Houdeville drew applause when he said:

"We are not terrorists, we are victims of love!"

Canadian activists, whose boat is called "Tahrir" after the square in Cairo that became a symbol of the Egyptian uprising, urged people back home to put a boat symbol in their office or home windows. They posted instructions on how to make an origami boat on their website.

As late as Tuesday, the flotilla was still trying to stage breakouts from Greek waters, or at least the appearance of them. Concerned about eavesdropping, an activist warned a journalist not to talk on the telephone, instead sending a text message that said the rendezvous was the "Skipper Bar" in a high-end marina.

There, activists huddled as part of a plan to help the "Juliano," a Sierra Leone-flagged motorboat in the flotilla, make its way out to sea from Piraeus, Greece's biggest port. On Wednesday, it finally departed with official permission _ for another Greek port, not Gaza.