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A Palestinian boy waves a Greek flag during a rally in Gaza City in support of the international Freedom Flotilla that is hoping to breach Israel's sea blockade on Gaza as it remained banned by Greece from setting sail yesterday. Mahmud Hams / AFP
A Palestinian boy waves a Greek flag during a rally in Gaza City in support of the international Freedom Flotilla that is hoping to breach Israel's sea blockade on Gaza as it remained banned by Greece from setting sail yesterday. Mahmud Hams / AFP

Gaza 'freedom flotilla' hopes on rocks after arrest of flagship's captain

After pressure from US and Israel, flotilla organisers insisted yesterday that they have not abandoned their plans to deliver humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory, despite a ruling that bars their vessels from leaving Greek ports.

NICOSIA // It looks like a mission impossible. The US captain of their flagship vessel spent the weekend in a Greek police cell while only four of 10 boats aiming to break Israel's naval controversial blockade of the Gaza Strip are now operational.

Even so, dispirited flotilla organisers insisted yesterday that they have not abandoned their plans to deliver humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory, despite a Greek government ruling that bars their vessels from leaving Greek ports.

But Israel, which has vowed to block any attempt by pro-Palestinian activists, mostly from the US and Europe, to reach Gaza by sea, appeared confident that it has torpedoed those ambitions.

Its hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, crowed yesterday that Israel's "diplomatic efforts" were responsible for repeated setbacks that have left the flotilla stranded and in disarray hundreds of kilometres from Gaza.

He boasted that Israel's "success" was because of the "fruits of intensive contacts with states in the region and the international community".

Pro-Palestinian activists said in May that some 1,500 people from about 100 countries would participate in the "freedom flotilla". That number swiftly dwindled to 300: many bailed out and returned home after repeated delays.

Israel has been desperate to avoid a repeat of last year's debacle when Israeli soldiers killed eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-US national after boarding a Turkish vessel in international waters as it approached Gaza.

That botched raid on the Mavi Marmara strained to near breaking point once flourishing political and military ties between Israel and Turkey, and provoked an international outcry that led Israel to easing its land blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Having alienated Ankara, Israel strove to bolster relations with Turkey's traditional rivals, Greece and Cyprus, whose governments responded warmly.

Greece, the springboard for the latest "freedom flotilla" Gaza mission, last week banned all involved vessels from leaving port.

Cyprus, the original launching pad for humanitarian voyages to the Palestinian territory in 2008, issued a similar ban last year. The eastern Mediterranean island's internationally recognised Greek Cypriot administration is currently working closely with Israel on tapping potentially dazzling hydrocarbon riches on the seabed between the two countries.

Meanwhile, a Turkish Islamic charity, IHH, which sponsored the mission that ended in bloodshed last year, pulled out of the latest attempt to break Israel's highly controversial blockade of Gaza.

It had reportedly come under pressure from the Turkish government, which is seemingly keen to mend relations with Israel.

Gerald Butt, the Cyprus-based author of several books on the region, including one on Gaza, said: "It's a diplomatic victory for Israel. It's clear that countries like Greece and Cyprus don't want the sort of political fallout with Israel that Turkey sustained last year.

"Greece, especially, has other more pressing issues to deal with at the moment."

Furious and frustrated flotilla activists accused Greece of caving in to diplomatic pressure from Israel and the US.

"Greece sold its body to the banks and its soul to Israel and the United States," the campaigner Dror Feiler, told the Israeli news outlet Ynet.

Hamas also condemned the Greek decision, describing it as "inhumane" and "contrary to international regulations and norms".

Other activists accused Israel and the US of extending the "siege of Gaza" well beyond the Middle East. The Israeli blockade "has been outsourced to Greece," Jane Hirshmann, a US organiser, said in an interview.

On Friday, armed Greek commandos forced the Audacity of Hope, a US vessel named after a book by President Barack Obama, to return to shore shortly after it set sail. Among some 50 Americans on board were Alice Walker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Hedy Epstein, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor.

The boat's US captain, John Klusmer, was arrested and charged with "disturbing sea traffic and endangering passengers". He is being held in "shocking conditions" with no bed or toilet facilities in his cell, activists claimed yesterday.

"And they're not giving him water or food. This is disgraceful. And what's more disgraceful is that the US embassy has not paid him a visit," Ms Hirshmann said. A second hearing for Mr Klusmer is scheduled for tomorrow.

Israel, meanwhile, denied as "ridiculous" accusations that it had sabotaged ships in Greece and Turkey which were due to join the flotilla.

The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators - the UN, US, EU and Russia - said on Saturday that it was concerned about the unsustainable conditions facing Palestinian civilians in Gaza. But it urged those wishing to alleviate the plight of Gaza's Palestinians to do so through "established channels so that their cargo can be inspected and transferred via established land crossings".

In a television interview last week, Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the UN's Relief and Works Agency described as desperate the plight of Gaza's 1.5 million people when asked if he viewed the flotilla as a "provocation".

He answered: "If there were no humanitarian crisis, if there weren't a crisis in almost every aspect of life in Gaza there would be no need for flotilla."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* Hugh Naylor reported from Jerusalem

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