ATHENS — With the propeller shafts of two ships mysteriously damaged, Greek authorities holding other vessels in port on government orders and an American boat turned back by the Greek Coast Guard just 20 minutes off the coast Friday, the international flotilla to Gaza has stalled.
Organizers say they see the long arm of Israel behind their improbable woes, and while Israeli officials have dismissed such accusations as so much conspiracy mongering, they have declined to deny them outright.
One year after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara during an earlier flotilla, organizers had hoped to once again challenge the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip on the open seas, off the Gaza coast. It appears decreasingly likely, however, that the eight boats now preparing to sail will ever be able or allowed to leave port.
Echoing a majority view among participants here, Johnny Leo Johansen, a ponytailed Norwegian photographer and activist, put it this way: “It’s like they’ve moved the blockade from Gaza to Greece.”
The coast guard stopped the American boat, “The Audacity of Hope,” about one mile out to sea, quashing the initial excitement of the passengers, who were surprised to have been allowed to leave the harbor at all.
“We could see the handwriting on the wall, that they were going to try to shut down all the ports across the Mediterranean,” said Ann Wright, the lead organizer of the American boat.
After a complaint about improper documentation filed by an Israeli advocacy group, the boat had been held in port outside Athens on police orders. Inspectors visited it a week ago Friday, but the results of their inspection had yet to be provided. Without them, the ship could not legally set sail.
On Friday, the Greek Ministry of Citizen Protection decreed that all vessels in Greek ports were prohibited from sailing toward “the maritime area of Gaza.” No explanation was given, and ministry officials could not be reached for further comment.
The Americans decided to leave just the same. After chasing them down, a smiling, youthful coast guard captain leaned out his window and requested the ship’s inspection papers. Passengers leaned over the upper-deck railing of the American boat, chanting, “Let us sail to Gaza!” Others held a cardboard sign asking, “Is it Poseidon or Netanyahu?” (That is, a passenger explained, “Who is the king of the Aegean?”)