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Anxious activists prepare for Gaza flotilla launch

June 27, 2011 1:01 A.M. (Updated: June 28, 2011 12:43 P.M.)
By: Mya Guarnieri
ATHENS, Greece (Ma'an) -- It has been a tense few days for organizers and activists of the Second Freedom Flotilla.

The Israelis have issued a fiery warning to foreign journalists, saying that those who cover the flotilla are acting illegally and could be barred from entering the country for 10 years.

An unknown party has filed a complaint against the US Boat to Gaza and two other ships, a move that could delay or block the flotilla’s departure.

The Greek government appears to be buckling to Israeli political pressure, with the Coast Guard warning mariners to steer clear of blockade coordinates.

And the American government has distanced itself from the 36 American citizens who will be on the US Boat to Gaza.

But the activists -- who fear that they could face anything from tear gas to live ammunition -- remain as determined as ever to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. In the words of one participant, they are “staying packed and ready to go.”

The "Audacity of Hope" will carry only letters. Participants plan to wear black t-shirts with white letters that read, “Unarmed Civilians.” As an organizer said, “The words we’re going to have are going to be stronger than the weapons they will have.”

True to this strategy, the 36 activists started Sunday’s meeting -- held in the conference room of a hotel in central Athens -- with clapping, dancing, and singing. To the tune of “This Little Light of Mine,” they sang new lyrics: “This little boat of mine, we’re gonna let it sail. All the way to Gaza, we’re gonna let it sail. Open up the waters, we’re gonna let it sail.”

Speaking to the group, Ann Wright remarked that Israeli pressure on the Greeks meant that the Israelis are "expanding that blockade all the way from Gaza to Greece.”

Wright, who is a former US army colonel and a retired State Department official, added that the group would announce their “demand that our boat be set free” at a news conference Monday.

In Washington, meanwhile, a small war of words played out as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dodged pointed questions about the flotilla and Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

One reporter pointed out at the Friday briefing that while the US has offered statements of support to Saudi women who engage in the provocative act of driving, it maligns the flotilla as provocative.

When asked if the Israeli blockade is a provocative act, Nuland responded, “I think we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go on this subject.”

She did not provide direct answers to the reporter, who repeated the question two more times.

When asked if the blockade was legal, Nuland answered, “I don’t have anything for you on legality here … we want to avoid the problems of last year, and we do believe that there are good and reliable channels for getting assistance to the people of Gaza.”

Nuland explained that the Rafah crossing represented one such channel. A reporter countered that Rafah was only opened recently.

Both the UN and human rights groups have called the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip a violation of international law.

Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, points out that the opening of Rafah is inadequate. The crossing is not equipped to handle a large number of imports or exports and a limited number of people are allowed to pass, amongst other problems.

Speaking to Ma'an, Huwaida Arraf, a co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement, remarked that Friday’s news conference at the State Department exposed the “hypocrisy of American foreign policy.”

She added that the members of the flotilla “are not interested in perpetuating a humanitarian aid dependency cycle. This is about the human rights of the Palestinian people.

The US and Israeli governments’ insistence that organizers use established channels to deliver the aid, Arraf said, “is equivalent to saying to the Egyptian youth who were in Tahrir Square, ‘Use the established channels of Mubarak to voice your grievances.’”

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