Gaza flotilla begins mission despite EU warning
Organisers say one ship is already at sea and 10 are to sail from Greek ports on Wednesday (29 June) or Thursday, after EU countries warned the group not to go ahead.
Claude Leostic from the Paris-based Association France Palestine Solidarite (AFPS) told EUobserver that one boat left France at the weekend and is en route to a confidential meeting point in the Mediterranean Sea.
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The flotilla, which has two MEPs on board and which organisers say is carrying humanitarian and medical supplies, aims to reach Gaza by Sunday.
Leostic noted that ships were obstructed in leaving from Spain, Turkey and the UK. The Greek contingent was to sail on Tuesday but several vessels faced last minute problems with official paperwork, putting off the departure until Wednesday or Thursday.
"When we met with the Greek authorities it was clear they were under heavy pressure. We were even told internally that the Israeli government has warned Greece they would press European countries not to give it financial aid. It's hard to resist that kind of pressure," she said.
Greek and Israeli authorities denied the report.
"That is not true," Greek foreign ministry spokesman Gregoris Delavekouras told this website. "We do not expect any impact on our bilateral relations with Israel [if the Greek boats go in the end]. The Gaza flotilla is a very specific issue."
A Turkish diplomatic source indicated the Turkish flotilla element was blocked for the sake of bilateral relations, however. "We do not want another crisis with the Israelis at this point," the contact said.
Israeli authorities noted the flotilla has no diplomatic support from the EU, the UN or the US. All 27 EU countries in Brussels on Friday signed a statement saying: "Humanitarian assistance ... [to Gaza] should be in accordance with the relevant framework and decisions of the UN and should take care not to endanger human lives."
A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton confirmed that the line should be read as a warning not to go.
Israel is preparing for a potentially violent confrontation despite the fact its soldiers last year caused international outrage when they killed nine flotilla members.
Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said: "We have developed 'soft power tactics' in order to make use of every possibility before engaging in contact with the illegal passengers. Last week, our navy held a wide training session, simulating a variety of scenarios."
With one French flotilla ship carrying national radio, TV and print journalists, Leibovich added that Israel has also made fresh plans to defend itself in the media.
"Regarding PR, although we embedded journalists last year on [our] navy ship, we intend to do it again - with a larger number of journalists. We also developed a unique system of passing footage from our ships directly to our base on land, so that we will be able to distribute it quickly to the world."
For her part, AFPS' Leostic described the project as a form of "civil disobedience" against both Israel and EU governments.
"If our governments had done what should be done [take action against Gaza's isolation] we would be sitting quietly at home," she said. "It's not that I want to go and be attacked by commandos in the middle of the Mediterranean. But we owe it to everybody. If countries refuse to abide by international law and nobody does anything, it's the duty of citizens to act. It goes beyond Palestine and Israel."
The IDF's Leibovich said it has a right to stop the boats under the maritime law, the San Remo convention. She added that three months ago a ship claiming to be carrying food to Gaza, the Victoria, had bullets, mortars and ship-to-shore missiles on board.
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS / EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT (16 June 2011) – There is a 50% chance our mission will be successful, Irish MEP Paul Murphy told EUobserver a week and a half before his departure. He is currently on the Freedom flotilla Saorise. "We're a bit delayed now because of Israeli attempts to prevent ships from leaving port", he told EUobserver yesterday (28 June) via twitter. "Confident we'll be on way by end of week."
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