‘The blockade has moved to the ports of Greece’


Published On Sat Jul 02 2011 – thestar.com
The Tahrir, a Canadian boat participating in Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza, is stranded in the port in Agios Nikolaos in Crete. The Greek government has banned flotilla boats from leaving.

The Tahrir, a Canadian boat participating in Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza, is stranded in the port in Agios Nikolaos in Crete. The Greek government has banned flotilla boats from leaving.

Jim Rankin/Toronto Star

Jim Rankin Staff Reporter

ABOARD THE TAHRIR, AGIOS NIKOLAOS—They’re prepared for tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and worse in the event of a boarding by Israeli forces.

But it is politicking and paperwork that have left the pro-Palestinian activists aboard a Canadian boat and other ships in Freedom Flotilla II stuck in Greek ports this weekend, stranded by a government edict they say was issued under pressure from Israel.

The 22 Canadians aboard the Tahrir, along with delegates from Australia, Belgium, Denmark and Turkey, spent Saturday pondering their options in the Cretan seaside town of Agios Nikolaos.

Greek MP Mihalis Kritsotakis, a member of the Coalition of the Radical Left, met with them aboard the Tahrir. He intends to raise a question Monday in Greece’s parliament regarding the edict, which is preventing the flotilla from sailing off to test Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza.

Asked by a reporter if Israel is outsourcing enforcement of the blockade to Greece, Kritsotakis said: “Greece of this moment is a member of Israel foreign policy. They do whatever they ask.”

Greece has offered no formal justification for the edict, issued Friday by the Ministry of Citizen Protection.

In a news briefing earlier Saturday, David Heap, a University of Western Ontario professor and part of the Canadian boat’s steering committee, said: “The (Gaza) blockade has moved to the ports of Greece.”

Israel imposed the blockade in 2007 to stop weapons reaching the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza. The Islamist group has been branded a terrorist organization by the West.

Activists describe the blockade as illegal and inhumane for the residents of Gaza. In the wake of Egypt’s recent easing of restrictions at its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, activists have called for greater pressure on Israel to end the sea blockade.

The first Freedom Flotilla, which set sail for Gaza in May 2010 hoping to deliver humanitarian aid, ended with nine activists on a Turkish ship dying as Israeli commandos intercepted the small fleet. Each side accused the other of starting the violence.

This year’s flotilla began with about 10 boats, but several have dropped out, with up to six now stranded in ports in Crete, Corfu and Athens. Another boat, from France, is somewhere “safe” outside Greek waters, organizers say.

The plan is to meet in the high seas and proceed east to Gaza. But it’s not known when this will happen or how many boats will make it.

A U.S.-flagged boat, The Audacity of Hope, made a run for international waters Friday but was intercepted by the Greek coast guard.

Its American captain, John Klusmire, was jailed Saturday. A judge said the boat was not carrying proper safety equipment and charged Klusmire with “disturbing sea traffic and endangering passengers” and disobeying an official directive

Despite these delays and setbacks, no delegates aboard the Tahrir have dropped out, and by Saturday afternoon they were having some fun.

The youngest, Nick Wallwork, a 23-year-old Australian, and Robert Lovelace, a professor at Queen’s University and former chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, paddled out of Agios Nikolaos harbour in a kayak with a tiny cargo of medical supplies.

They did not make it the nearly 800 kilometres to Gaza; but nor was the symbolic gesture halted by the Greek coast guard, which is guarding the harbour mouth.

To make the stunt more dramatic, the Tahrir fired up its engine as the kayak set off and the delegates cheered loudly. Greek naval officers, who are watching the Tahrir around the clock, didn’t approach but they did get on the phone and eventually things settled down.

Whether the Tahrir, which also has 11 journalists aboard, ever gets to Gaza is in doubt. But its message is getting out.

Four of the Canadians are from the Toronto area: Lyn Adamson, 59, (Quaker activist and chair of Canadian Voice for Women for Peace), John Greyson, 51, (filmmaker and York University professor), Kate Wilson, 69, (publisher and advocate for children’s mental health) and Markham accountant Mohammad Mujahid, 24.

Mujahid is a late addition to the voyage, which is his first protest. He is bracing for a backlash for taking part but has no fear, he said.

Others here, however, have received personal threats. If their profile weren’t public before, they are now.

The Tahrir is carrying $30,000 worth of medicine reportedly in short supply in Gaza, fitted into 20 small boxes. The amount is symbolic, as could be this attempt to deliver it.

But the activists’ purpose is clear. They indeed want — as critics and Israeli officials have charged — to be provocative.

“There have been too many words,” said David Milne, 65, a retired social worker from Belleville. “We have to take action and to be seen to be taking action, to be seen as credible. Our little group by itself can’t do that, but we can be part of it.”

Milne has been involved other peaceful Canadian protest actions and has worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.

Asked about media pundits labelling the Tahrir a “ship of fools,” he chuckled.

“I think we should embrace that,” he said. “I just like the sound of it.”

The other Canadians include artists, professors, a doctor, a lawyer and an engineer. All are committed to non-violent protest.

The oldest is Mary Hughes-Thompson, 77, who helped found the Free Gaza Movement and successfully sailed with aid to Gaza in 2008, temporarily breaking the blockade. She wishes to once again see the people of Gaza greet the boat.

“I imagine them gathering on the shore,” she said.

While there is hope they will make it, there is apprehension that there could be deaths, although many believe Israel could not afford a repeat of last year’s violence aboard the Mavi Marmara.

The Mavi Marmara, a passenger ship capable of carrying hundreds, was originally part of Freedom Flotilla II but withdrew.

Among those on the Tahrir is Kevin Neish, 54, of Victoria, who was aboard the Turkish ship last year.

Neish, who with his trimmed white beard resembles Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and actually does Lenin impersonations and tributes, is here both for the Palestinian cause and for the nine Turks who died on the Mavi last year.

During a week of delegate training in Agios Nikolaos, which included realistic mock boarding scenarios that left many delegates with their hearts thumping in their chests, Neish would close his eyes at times.

“I’ve got blood and dead bodies coming around in my head,” said the retired marine engineer.

Is he scared this time?

“Oh f—, yeah,” he said, his blue eyes widening.

For updates on the Tahrir, go to thestar.com. Follow reporter Jim Rankin on Twitter: @jleerankin.

With files from Star wire services




In Pictures

Album | The Mavi Marmara Massacre

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