ATHENS, Greece (Ma'an) -- At a spirited news conference Monday, organizers and participants of the second Freedom Flotilla announced that recent events have not weakened their resolve to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The group also called into question American foreign policy.
While organizers remain reluctant to give an exact exit date -- saying only that the flotilla will set sail for Gaza in the next few days -- a departure seems imminent.
Members of European Parliament and a number of European politicians were present. The nine organizers and participants who spoke at the news conference sat before a white, red, black, and green banner that read, “We are breaking the blockade” in Greek.
Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, a French writer and the author of “La Flotille,” pointed out that the flotilla has already set sail as the French ship left its port in France on Saturday. He praised the French government for allowing the ship to leave and criticized both the Americans and Israelis for allegedly meddling in Greek affairs.
“The US or Israel should not be able to tell the Greek government which boat can leave from its own port,” he said.
Ann Wright, a retired US Army colonel and former US diplomat who resigned in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq War, remarked that the 22 national delegations of the flotilla sought “to challenge the policies of Israel and the United States of America.”
“We are challenging President Obama’s policies and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who has called our actions provocative. We say there is nothing provocative about carrying our cargo, which is letters, letters to the people of Gaza that say that we love them.”
Wright asked the Greek government to “let us sail.”
US Boat to Gaza passengers cheered and chanted “Let us sail! Let us sail!”
Some held signs that read, “Free Gaza” and “Let freedom ring,” a a reference to a famous speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. during the African-American civil rights movement.
“We call on the government of Israel to end the blockade,” Wright continued, closing with the words, “We say to the people of Gaza: we are coming!”
Several hundred people will partake in the flotilla, which consists of 10 passenger boats and two cargo ships. Wright is one of the 36 Americans who will be on the US Boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope. A majority of the passengers are women. Many are middle-aged or elderly. Approximately 30 percent of the activists are Jewish.
In addition to Wright, there will be several other high-profile passengers on the US Boat to Gaza: Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Color Purple”; Medea Benjamin, founder of the anti-war movement “Code Pink”; Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst and a critic of US foreign policy; and Hedy Epstein, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor.
Dror Feiler is an Israeli who lives in Sweden. The chairperson of European Jews for a Just Peace, Feiler will be on the Swedish ship to Gaza. He commented that if Israel will try to stop us and if [the Israelis] will physically stop us, they know that we will come again and again and again until the siege is lifted completely and permanently … This is the purpose of our missions to open the traffic of people and goods to make the relation between Gaza and the world normal again.”
Feiler said that the Holocaust created two kinds of Jews -- those that felt the need to protect only the Jewish people from another catastrophe and those who say, “We will not let it happen to anybody again.”
As the crowd cheered, Feiler added that there are many Israelis that fall into the second group.
His remarks reflected the sentiment that organizers have stressed -- that the flotilla is not against Israel or her citizens. The flotilla is only intended to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Referring to Israeli diplomatic maneuverings against the flotilla, Feiler criticized Israel for “trying to outsource” the blockade to the United States and Greece.
Huwaida Arraf, founder of the Free Gaza Movement, said, “Because I’m a lawyer, let me start with the legal. There is no question that Israel’s closure of Gaza is illegal.”
“A blockade is an act of war,” she continued. “Israel is occupying Gaza. You don’t declare war on a territory you occupy. Second, Israel’s policy is one of collective punishment, punishing an entire civilian population for something they did not do …”
Arraf added that the blockade’s disproportionate impact on the people of Gaza is enough to make it unlawful.
“So there’s no question that Israel’s policy is illegal,” she said. “The question is why does the international community allow Israel to continue violating international law and the rights of the Palestinian people with impunity? That is the only question.”
Her voice rose and shook with emotion as she remarked, “Now I will speak as a Palestinian. Israel’s policy to undermine the flotilla by saying that aid is getting into Gaza will not work. The flotilla is not about aid and Palestinians do not want humanitarian aid. We yearn for, we demand liberation.”
“So to [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, [UN] secretary Ban Ki Moon, and others that call on flotilla organizers to use established channels to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, we say, ‘Shame on you.’”
Famed writer Alice Walker remarked, “I am going to Gaza because my government has failed, it has failed us, it has failed to understand or care about the Gazan people. But, worse than that, our government is ignorant of our own history in the Unites States.”
“When black people were slaves for 300 years,” Walker, an African-American, continued, “it took a lot of people from outside of our communities to come to help free us. Also, during the period of the Civil Rights Movement, which was in the 1960s, again, it took people from outside our own communities to come and help us free ourselves.
She added, “This is a fine condition of going to people who need us wherever they exist on the planet. This is our responsibility. This is what we are here for as human beings.”
Walker called the blockade of Gaza and the decades of Israeli occupation, “insufferable.”
“We will not accept it,” Walker said. “We will not, as Americans with our history of enslavement of people, of segregation, of apartheid … of lynching. We will not accept this, we will not. So Gazans, especially the children, we are on our way. We are coming.”