ATHENS (IPS) - The French vessel Dignité-al Karama is the only boat from the Freedom Flotilla II now sailing for Gaza in an attempt to break the maritime siege imposed by Israel. At the same time, six Spanish members of the humanitarian aid mission have undertaken a hunger strike in the Greek capital.
The hunger strikers, who have occupied the Spanish embassy in Athens since 5 July, were travelling on the Spanish ship Gernika that was part of the flotilla carrying 500 activists from 45 different countries and 5,000 tons of aid bound for the Gaza Strip.
Nearly all the ships have been confined to port in Greece for the last ten days, except for the Dignite-al Karama which left from the French island of Corsica on 25 June. The ship has evaded more than once a Greek ban on sailing to Gaza and remains the only vessel of the flotilla still sailing freely.
With ten representatives of several delegations of the humanitarian coalition on board, the Dignité received permission on 9 July to sail for the island of Rhodes, Manolis Plionis, a member of the Greek delegation of the Freedom Flotilla II, has confirmed.
Free at last
From on board the Dignité, French Member of the European Parliament Nicole Kiil-Nielsen said that after having been stopped last week in the Cretan port of Ormos Kouremenos, the ship was taken to Sitia, also in Crete, by the Greek coast guard and eventually allowed to sail from there.
“We had to stop in Crete to refuel as we did not have enough fuel to reach Gaza,” Kiil-Nielsen said. “Now, the Dignité is free and we are organizing another group of passengers, probably international, to go on to Gaza.”
Manuel Tapial, coordinator of Rumbo a Gaza (Sailing to Gaza) Spain, said that “the Dignité-al Karama is heading for Gaza on its own, representing the dignity of the flotilla, and carrying representatives of the international coalition delegations.”
In addition to Kiil-Nielsen, passengers include Vangelis Pissias, the coordinator of the Greek delegation, Swedish-Israeli musician Dror Feiler and actor Guillermo “Willy” Toledo, representing the Spanish delegation.
Meanwhile, six Rumbo a Gaza activists began a hunger strike at the Spanish embassy in Greece on Monday (11 July) after medical checks. Two other members of the group participated in the protest from Madrid.
In a statement, the activists said they would fast until “the Spanish government shows some sign that it will intercede [with the Greek authorities] so that the Gernika may sail freely across the Mediterranean.”
The six hunger strikers were among a score of activists who occupied the Spanish embassy in Athens with the declared intent of remaining there until their country’s foreign ministry responded to their demands, and until their ship, held by the Greek authorities in Crete, was released and allowed to go to a safe port or return to Spain.
However, the activists said they have only received an official statement from the foreign ministry announcing its decision “not to make any public commitment to the release of the Gernika,” which prompted them to take stronger measures in pursuit of their demands.
“Spain has forsaken us”
In a letter, Tapial has upbraided the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party’s (PSOE) candidate for prime minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. “The government you represent has forsaken us, and our only remaining option is protest action to rescue the Gernika by right and with dignity,” Tapial wrote. “Mr Rubalcaba, as leader and candidate of the PSOE, speak out and call for the release of the Gernika, a ship bought with the money of thousands of people throughout Spain who believe that a project like this one is necessary to show effective support for the besieged people of Gaza. Listen, commit yourself and take action.”
The Gernika is still confined to port in Greece, in spite of having resubmitted to the authorities all the necessary documentation for permission to set sail, said Elvira Souto, one of the hunger strikers.
Eight other vessels, including two cargo ships, are still blocked in various Greek ports, while an Irish ship is in a Turkish port undergoing repairs for alleged sabotage suffered two weeks ago.
The crew of the Canadian vessel Tahrir has decided to give up plans to sail to Gaza for the moment and the US ship Audacity of Hope is still in custody in Athens. Campaigners who had planned to sail on the other French boat, the Louise Michel, the Italian vessel Stefano Chiarini, the Freedom for All, the Methimus II and the Gernika are regrouping, ready to form a new flotilla, columnist Eric Verlo wrote in his blog at www.notmytribe.com.
Pressure and propaganda from Israel
The Israeli ambassador to Spain Raphael Schutz said there was “no humanitarian crisis” or shortage of food and medicine in Gaza. The Freedom Flotilla should be seen “for what it is — a propaganda event intended to build solidarity with a terrorist group that wants to wipe Israel off the map and kill the greatest possible number of Jews and Israelis,” he argued.
In a move to exert further pressure, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman telephoned Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma and persuaded him to withdraw his country’s flag from the Swedish/Greek/Norwegian vessel Juliano, giving the Greek coast guard the opportunity to block the ship in Heraklion.
Greece and Israel are currently carrying out joint military maneuvers, the sixth held in a short space of time.
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