x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Israel pulls out all the stops to prevent Freedom Flotilla from sailing

Activists from at least seven countries insisted yesterday they would go ahead with their voyage to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli blockade, and said that as many as a dozen ships could depart from European ports in the coming days.

Activists' signs express their feelings at a press conference in Athens yesterday in favour of the flotilla. Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP
Activists' signs express their feelings at a press conference in Athens yesterday in favour of the flotilla. Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP

TEL AVIV // Israel said yesterday that it is "determined" to prevent a planned protest flotilla from challenging its siege of the Gaza Strip, as the convoy's organisers claimed the country was pressuring European allies to halt the ships' departures.

The Israeli security cabinet convened yesterday for a second straight day to debate how to approach the flotilla amid concern that Israel could face a torrent of international condemnation should the protesters' mission result in a violent clash with the Israeli navy.

A statement from the office of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the cabinet had instructed the foreign ministry to step up its diplomatic bid to halt the ships from sailing. At the same time, it also ordered its navy to aim for "minimal friction" with the passengers. The ministers also decided in the closed-door meeting that while the vessels would not be allowed to reach Gaza's shores, they would be permitted to transfer their aid cargo to the enclave after checks in Israel's Ashdod port or Egypt's El Arish port.

The Israeli preparations come more than a year after a similar Gaza-bound, six-boat mission ended with the killing of nine Turkish activists by Israeli naval commandos who boarded their ship. Israel has mounted a diplomatic offensive to convince allies such as Greece to stop the vessels from sailing from their ports and its military has carried out drills simulating a the takeover of boats.

Activists insisted yesterday they would go ahead with their demonstration and that as many as a dozen ships could depart from European ports in the coming days.

Some 350 activists from countries including the US, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland and Greece are set to participate in the so-called "Freedom Flotilla II". Media reports have said about seven of the ships are already docked in Greece and will be joined by several others in the coming days.

Ann Wright, an American activist, told reporters in Athens yesterday that Israel was mounting a "tremendous diplomatic offensive" to stop the flotilla, including pressuring Greece to forbid the ships from leaving, the Associated Press reported. Organisers urged the Greek government not to "become complicit in Israel's illegal actions by succumbing to this pressure."

The protest mission is facing legal hurdles, too.

Organisers of the so-called US Boat to Gaza, also known as The Audacity of Hope - named after the title of a book written by Barack Obama before he became the US president - said Greek authorities have detained their boat after an Israeli group filed a complaint against it.

The boat's leaders said yesterday that they had raised US$400,000 (Dh147,000) from individuals in the US to fund the costs of the Delaware-registered vessel's repairs, fuel and crew.

But it remains unclear whether the ship will sail. The Israel Legal Centre, a non-governmental organisation based in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan, said yesterday that it had contacted Greece to demand that The Audacity of Hope and other boats be detained.

"We explained that these boats are violating international law as well as Greek law, which does not allow any hostile actions against states friendly to Greece," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the group's director, in an interview.

She added that Greek authorities are so far preventing The Audacity of Hope from sailing after finding licensing problems and determining that the boat's engine was not powerful enough to carry the number of passengers slated to board the vessel, which media reports have said would number about 35.

Leslie Cagan, the New York-based coordinator of The Audacity of Hope, yesterday called those claims "frivolous" and added that the boat's capabilities had been "signed off" by an independent surveyor as well as tested at sea.

The Israel Legal Centre has also tackled other venues in a bid to hinder the protest.

According to Ms Leitner, her group warned maritime insurers against insuring the boats because such an act may "be liable to aiding and abetting a terror organisation." She referred to Hamas, the Islamic organisation that rules Gaza and which is viewed by Israel as a terrorist group.

She added that legal action was also being taken against the London-based Inmarsat, one of the biggest providers of satellite services to the maritime industry, after the company rejected its demand to halt the supply of communication equipment to the boats.

Such diplomatic and legal efforts are being compounded by attempts by some Israeli officials to limit media coverage of the protest.

On Sunday, the Israeli government press office threatened that foreign journalists who board the Gaza-bound ships may be banned for up to 10 years from entering the country.

Amid condemnation at home and abroad, Mr Netanyahu's office yesterday backtracked from the threat.

Nevertheless, reporters such as Joseph Dana, an American-Israeli journalist who is in Greece to board one of the boats to write about the protest for the US-based The Nation magazine, appeared intent on continuing their coverage.

Mr Dana, asked in a telephone interview of Israel's possible military actions to stop the flotilla, said that he was "quite fearful of the Israeli reaction."