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Flotilla to sail 'very soon' despite snags

June 30, 2011 9:46 A.M. (Updated: July 1, 2011 10:32 A.M.)
ATHENS, Greece (Ma'an) -- Organizers of a US boat participating in the Gaza-bound flotilla said Thursday afternoon that they hoped to sail "very very soon," with some expecting an immanent departure.

Speaking to reporters and passengers alongside the ship, organizer Anne Wright said "we will sail to challenge the naval blockade of Gaza ,we have ten ships, we have passengers aged 22-87 ... we have carpenters, retirees, acupuncturists; these are the people that the state of Israel fears."

Organizers stressed, following a press inspection of the ship, that the 3,000 letters from Americans to the Palestinians in Gaza were not "very dangerous cargo."

Pulitzer prize winning writer and ship passenger Alice Walker read out some of the letters. One read: "Stay strong and don't give up on your freedom, there are millions of people who love you, love Elvira," adding ""very dangerous material, yes?"

Wright, addressing concerns from NGOs that aid from the ships abdicated Israel of its responsibilities in Gaza, said the flotilla was a "symbolic, a political act," explaining that if Israel wanted to stop the voyage - amid promises from the Israeli Navy that the ships would be halted - that they need to lift the blockade of Gaza.

World outcry against the deaths of nine activists aboard a 2010 flotilla resulted in the easing of the blockade, though reports have since found that the majority of the promises made by Israeli officials to ease restrictions were not implemented.

Until the blockade is over, Wright said, the flotilla aimed to "to let the Gaza people know that they have friends who care," and galvanize international support.

Earlier in the day, organizers from an Irish boat also set to sail to Gaza said their ship had been tampered with.

Wright said the damage would cost some $25,000 to fix.

Agence France Presse reported frustrated volunteers milling helplessly around Athens and cited organizers as saying they were making little headway with the Greek government over getting the necessary permission to sail.

"We have a dock order on us now," Wright told passengers, "but we hope to sail very very soon," and called on the Greek government to "stand tall" and facilitate the voyage.

The problem with the Irish boat Saoirse - Gaelic for freedom - followed Monday's news that the propeller on the Juliano boat, belonging to Swedish activists, had been cut.

Organizers of the US boat said they were still waiting for the go-ahead from Greek inspection officials, after a complaint was lodged to the port authority in Athens alleging that the ship was not seaworthy. The statement said the complaint was made by an Israeli group.

An inspection was carried out Monday to verify the claims, which were allegedly made by a right wing Israeli group according to its website.

"We have not yet received notification of their findings nor a copy of [the Greek government's] report [on the allegations], but we are certain that our boat is up to code," a statement from the group said.

Officials noted the ship was also having problems with its insurance and blamed the complications on the US government, which they said was "placing great pressure on Greece" to prevent them from leaving.

US boat invites inspection of goods

Organizers called "outrageous" recent allegations that passengers on the flotilla had packed bringing chemicals for militant groups in Gaza.

"There are radical elements on board the American boat who have said they want to kill Israeli soldiers," said Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz on Tuesday.

"We also know that one of the boats is carrying dangerous incendiary chemicals that these human rights militants want to use against Israeli soldiers," she said.

"We are confident that such an inspection will show that our boat is 'sulfur-free' and ready to sail," organizers wrote, re-stating that the ship would carry the personal possessions of the 36 crew members and passengers, as well as some 3,000 letters to Gaza from people in the United States.

"I invite the media to ask us anything, inspect anything, taste our food, look inside our bags" activist and passenger Gale Courey Toensing said on behalf of the passengers in a news statement.

"Our voyage is totally transparent and we have nothing to hide. All we want to do is sail to Gaza with our cargo of letters from Americans to the people of Gaza," Toensing said, in an attempt to counter further allegations from Israeli officials that boats to Gaza posed a threat to the country's security.

A long wait

Almost a week past its original sail date, some activists have said they are running out of time and money, and may not be able to see out the voyage if it is delayed much longer. Organizers have told some US boat passengers, however, that if they're low on cash, they should speak to organizers who do have a slush fund to keep the group going.

Despite fears that activists will begin to pull out of the flotilla, organizers dismissed calls for those boats that are cleared to leave to set sail ahead of the others.

"We need to stick together. We're not going to jump the gun by setting off in just a few of the boats before the others are ready," said Leostic.

"Even if we can't leave in the end, it's not a defeat. Just getting this far has been a political victory," she added.

Initially scheduled to sail on 26 June, the Audacity of Hope and nine other ships from 22 countries including Canada, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain, hope to reach the Gaza City Port in a symbolic challenge to Israel's years' long blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave.

Home to 1.6 million Palestinians, Gaza has been under siege for five years. Israel all but closed its borders with Gaza, preventing movement of people and goods between the Strip and the West Bank, cutting off families, friends and trade. Pressure on Egypt also kept closed the Rafah crossing Gaza shared with the country to the south, though the ouster of its former President Hosni Mubarak allowed some Palestinians to travel.

A single commercial crossing remains open, strictly monitored by Israel, and solely for the import of what has risen in the last year to what UN observers say is 40 percent of pre-siege levels of goods. Imports remain banned.

Fishing limits are enforced three nautical miles off the Gaza coast by Israeli naval ships, firing on fishermen who venture out of the zone, and all but stiffing the fish market.

Since August 2008 ships have attempted to break the blockade by sea. Three voyages were successful, but nearly ten others were prevented from reaching Gaza by Israel's military and naval forces. In Mary 2010, a fleet of six ships was apprehended in international waters by Israeli commandos, who shot nine passengers in an attempt to gain control of the largest vessel.

Reporting by Mya Guarneri, and AFP
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