Hazel Ward, AFP
Last updated: 6 July, 2011

Lone boat heads to Gaza as flotilla stalls in Greece

A lone French yacht with 12 people on board was on Wednesday the only vessel from a 10-ship flotilla to be heading for the Gaza Strip after the remaining vessels were tied up by red tape in Greece.

The MV Dignite/Al Karama, which left Greek waters early on Tuesday, was heading slowly towards Gaza, a spokesman for the French Boat to Gaza campaign told AFP, saying they had not yet given up hope they would be joined by others from the ill-fated Freedom Flotilla which had been due to set sail last week.

But attempts by pro-Palestinian campaigners on board a second ship, the MV Juliano, to join their French colleagues at sea failed for a second day running as the Greek coastguard once again thwarted their plans to leave.

Most of the 10 ships that had been due to join the convoy are stuck at ports in Greece after Athens imposed a blanket ban on the departure of any vessels destined for Gaza.

Another ship, the Irish-owned MV Saoirse, is currently undergoing repairs at a Turkish port after its propeller was damaged in what activists claimed was “sabotage” by Israel.

“They’re getting on very well,” Thomas Sommer-Houdeville told AFP by phone from Athens, saying the MV Dignite had begun to move slowly towards Gaza on Tuesday afternoon after waiting for several hours in international waters to see if the the Greek, Norwegian and Swedish activists on board the MV Juliano would to also manage to set sail.

“Yesterday afternoon, our Greek colleagues (on board the MV Juliano) were not able to leave, so they decided to start sailing slowly” towards Gaza, he said after speaking by phone to activists on board the Dignite.

“They are now heading for Gaza slowly so if any of the boats manage to get out, they will be able to meet up with them.

“For the time being, our desire is to go to Gaza,” Sommer-Houdeville said, admitting the activists on board would later decide based on what was possible “logistically and technically.”

“At the moment, we have one boat which has managed to break the Greek blockade and we are hopeful that there will be others,” he said.

The MV Juliano, which was to have set sail on Wednesday, said it was once again prevented from leaving Perama port near Athens, weighing anchor only to sail to a nearby port.

“It is not possible to leave for Gaza because the Greek authorities’ ban remains in place,” boat spokesman Dimitris Plionis told AFP.

Mary Norden, a Swedish MP who was to have been one of the six passengers on board, said she had “decided to return to Sweden” after failing in “the fight with the Greek coastguard.”

Greek officials turned back the boat on Tuesday afternoon, she said earlier.

Both the US Audacity of Hope and the Canadian vessel, the MV Tahrir, each of which have some 50 passengers and crew aboard, have tried to set sail since Athens imposed the ban on Friday, but were turned back.

And two of the vessels have also sustained damage, in what organisers claim was sabotage by Israeli agents.

In yet another blow to the flotilla activists, a Swiss firm said it would not be able to fulfil a 3,000-tonne cement order, worth 25,000 euros ($36,000), which was to have been taken to Gaza.

In an email to the Ship to Gaza Sweden campaign, Interbulk cited the Greek ban as a force majeure, saying it would not be able to deliver the goods and would return the payment in full.

Officials in Athens say they imposed the ban for the “safety” of the activists on board in the wake of last year’s bloody showdown. Israeli commandos raided a six-ship flotilla heading for Gaza, in a confrontation that left nine Turkish activists dead and dozens of people injured.

More than 300 activists from 22 countries had signed up to participate in this year’s flotilla, among them dozens of middle-aged and elderly Americans and Europeans.

Israel has made no secret of its determination to prevent the Freedom Flotilla II from reaching Gaza, which has been under a blockade since 2006 after militants there snatched an Israeli soldier who is still being held at a secret location.