x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Greece becomes the European face of Israeli blockade

This year's "freedom flotilla" never got out of Greek waters. It seems that as part of Greece's response to its financial crisis, the country has sold at least this aspect of its foreign policy, to Israel.

Leaving Greece on Friday, after three weeks covering the attempted "freedom flotilla", I tried to appear as innocuous as possible in the hopes of getting through passport control without a conversation.

"Canada, eh? What do you like better, there or here?" asked the young officer.

"I like the weather better here," I responded with a faint smile.

"Ah yes, the sun," he said reflectively. "One of the few things we haven't sold yet." He slammed the exit stamp onto my passport.

His sentiment encapsulated what I had seen in Greece since my arrival. The country has been caught in economic and social turmoil with a cabinet reshuffle, angry street demonstrations and the passage of austerity measures that will pull $40 billion (Dh 147bn) from Greeks' pockets over five years, under an IMF and EU "structural adjustment" scheme.

But Greece has yielded control of more than its economy under the bailout scheme. Part of the country's foreign policy might be said to have been "sold" as well. For three weeks, Greek authorities systematically stymied every attempt by the flotilla to leave Athens's port to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

As a result of this complicity with Israeli policy, I was having a conversation with a Greek border guard instead of flying home from Egypt. Following the deadly commando raid on last year's international flotilla that tried to run the Gaza blockade, Israel moved this year from the military to the diplomatic arena to silence public condemnation of its repression of Palestinians.

Relations with Turkey have soured since the last flotilla, and so Israel has upgraded its economic partnership with Turkey's longtime rival Greece, which has a long history of partnership with Arab countries and support for Palestinian liberation.

But Israel has called in the debts of its economic partnership. While the details are still hazy, reports of back-room deals indicate that Israeli diplomats may have threatened to cancel long-term joint projects including gas exploration under the Mediterranean. Greece buckled.

The meaning of all this became clear on July 4 when Greek coastguard commandos stormed the Tahrir, the Canadian vessel in this year's flotilla that I was aboard, as the ship made its run for open international waters.

Twelve kilometres from the Greek port of Agios Nikolaos, from which two vessels of the 2010 flotilla had departed for Gaza without problems, the coastguard sprayed the side of the ship with a water cannon while soldiers armed with M16s broke through barricades and took the wheel house at gunpoint.

Three days earlier, the US ship named The Audacity of Hope (after President Barack Obama's book) had been blocked by the coastguard as it tried to make its own run. Audacity was hauled into a port under a ministerial decree blocking all vessels destined for Gaza.

When I first arrived in Greece, no one had expected that the government's first act of structural adjustment would be to break its own maritime laws and change its foreign policy in order to help Israel enforce the blockade.

Activists had spent weeks preparing for a showdown, expecting their ships, carrying letters and humanitarian supplies, to be taken by well-armed Israeli soldiers. Few had expected that the language of the orders barked at them would be Greek.

In Athens at the end of June it appeared as though the spirit of the Arab Spring, which I saw emerging in the Occupied Territories when I left the Middle East at the end of March, had crossed the Mediterranean.

In demonstrations across from the Greek parliament, I saw people talking about alternatives to austerity and how they could a build a future based on economic self-determination.

On the flight to Greece, a Canadian activist had told me: "We have an Arab Spring but what we need is a Global Spring."

Three weeks later, sitting in the cabin of the Tahrir after it had been impounded and was under the watchful eye of the Greek coastguard, I got a sense of the same sentiment when passengers from the Spanish ship occupied their embassy in Athens.

Also blocked in by the coastguard, the activists aboard Guernica (named after a Pablo Picasso painting of a Basque town bombed during the Spanish Civil War) unfurled Palestinian flags from the embassy roof and occupied its front rooms.

The people on the Tahrir - from Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Turkey, Germany, Denmark and Belgium as well as Canada - followed the news on Twitter.

There was a significance to this flotilla, and the idea that whatever happened, supporters of the Arab Spring would have to respond. Some did, such as the Egyptian newspapers that called for the flotilla to use Alexandria as a base.

But the lesson that I didn't expect to be reinforced on this trip was that when push comes to shove, embattled governments will unite in repression.


Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist who covered the flotilla from aboard the Tahrir