Paul McGeouge / Sydney Morning Herald – 2010-05-31 03:01:21
Tension Builds as Flotilla Approaches Gaza
Paul McGeouge / Sydney Morning Herald
ABOARD MV BLUE MARMARA, Mediterranean Sea (May 31, 2010) — The protest business requires patience — especially with a plan as audacious as crashing a fleet of ships through Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
Inevitably, the slowest boat sets the pace for all. Days at sea can be lost to mechanical failure or efforts to pressure governments into making it difficult for celebrity activists and supporters to get on board.
Organisers of the Free Gaza flotilla have experienced it all in the past few days. First three boats, then five, of a planned fleet of nine assembled in international waters south of Cyprus. Late yesterday they were expecting to be confronted by the Israeli navy some time today.
The government of Cyprus admitted that it was protecting its “vital interests” — including economic ties with Israel — when it blocked the ferrying of 19 European MPs to the flotilla from the Greek side of Cyprus. But an appeal by flotilla organisers to Istanbul resulted in the delegation exiting Cyprus through the Turkish-controlled north of the island.
At the same time the Free Gaza Movement hardened its language on sabotage as a possible cause of mechanical problems in two boats — even as it managed to have one of the damaged boats rejoin the flotilla early yesterday.
Greta Berlin, one of the organisers, told reporters that an Israeli official had suggested the boats be picked off, one at a time, before they joined the fleet. “As far as I’m concerned, there is a suspicion that this is what happened.”
So the plan had to be under constant review.
In what appeared to be its final form, a reduced fleet of six cargo and passenger vessels was due to head to Gaza late yesterday. Two of the stragglers had been abandoned and the third, the flagship, which was sailing from Ireland, was days behind schedule.
The flotilla remains an internationally backed and funded operation, put together despite great odds by a coalition of Palestinian support groups.
But the no-shows have significantly altered its complexion, shaving it back in appearance, at least, to a dramatic new flashpoint in the steadily deteriorating relationship between the erstwhile allies Turkey and Israel.
Originally the MV Rachel Corrie, named in honor of an American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to halt the demolition of a Palestinian home, was to lead the fleet into Gazan waters. The small ship was bought with Malaysian funds, readied for sea by Irish support groups and backed by the Dublin government.
In its absence, the lead vessel will be the big Turkish registered and organised MV Blue Marmara, with next biggest the two Turkish-registered cargo vessels, funded by support groups in Algeria and Kuwait. Behind them two much smaller Greek-registered vessels, a cargo ship that is a joint venture between Swedish and Greek support groups and a Greek-sponsored passenger boat.
The baby of the fleet is the Malaysian-purchased, US-flagged MV Samoud, carrying about 20 activists. About half of the activists and supporters on board the ships are Turkish.
Subtle perhaps, but these changes make a “who’ll-blink-first” showdown between Ankara and Jerusalem seem inevitable.
Turkey has become a strident critic of Israel and of the Gaza blockade in particular. At the same time, it has argued that the flotilla is a private venture.
But if Israeli forces commandeer the ships and, as announced, detain all on board and force the unloading of their cargo of 10,000 tonnes of emergency supplies at the Israeli port of Ashdod, it seems likely that Turkey will respond.
When the president of the Turkish non-government organisation IHH, Bulent Yildirim, called a press conference aboard MV Blue Marmara there was an expectation that he might shed some light on what he expected to happen in the coming days. Instead he was tight-lipped, almost a tease.
But he got it right in his assessment of what was at stake for Israel — probably damned in some quarters internationally if it did seize the flotilla; almost certainly damned domestically if it did not.
One who does not care is His Grace Father Hilarion Capucci, a one-time Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem who has lived in exile for 32 years, after the Vatican struck a deal with Israel for his early release from a prison term for weapons smuggling.
He tried to return last year as a passenger on a single-boat effort to break the siege of Gaza which failed when all aboard the boat were arrested by Israeli forces.
“They warned if I tried to return again they would lock me up for the eight years of the jail sentence which I did not serve,” he told the Herald. “I would prefer to be in a small jail in Palestine than in the bigger prison of exile.”
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