ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Organizers of a flotilla to challenge Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip say they'll sail any day now, but are struggling to overcome delays that they blame on Israeli pressure. They have held regular news conferences to talk up their campaign, but are so cautious that they refuse to say where their boats are docked.
Dire warnings and diplomatic sensitivities shadow the politically charged plan to deliver aid to the Palestinian territory. The looming fear is a reprise of a similar mission a year ago that ended when nine activists on a Turkish vessel died in a raid by Israeli commandos who rappelled on board from helicopters in the pre-dawn darkness.
Several hundred activists, many of them from Europe, Canada and the United States, plan to board 10 boats, including two cargo vessels carrying medicine and other aid, for a journey of several days across the Mediterranean to Gaza.
Israel's military has warned it will thwart any attempt to breach the sea blockade of the Palestinian territory, and says it has trained for an operation that would minimize the potential for casualties.
Activists view Israel's blockade of Gaza as a human rights violation, while Israel says the restrictions prevent weapons from reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants who violently seized control of the Palestinian territory in 2007. Egypt also had a blockade on Gaza since 2007. After last year's high seas confrontation, Israel significantly eased restrictions on cargo crossing into Gaza by land, and this month Egypt decided to reopen its Rafah passenger crossing with Gaza.
The Israeli government on Monday dropped a threat to issue lengthy deportation orders against journalists on the flotilla. A day earlier, Israel's Government Press Office sent a letter warning that any journalist caught on board the flotilla would be violating Israeli entry laws and could face deportation and a 10-year ban from the country.
Flotilla organizers said at least 30 journalists, some of them freelancers, would be on the boats. Passengers also include Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple," an acclaimed novel that addresses themes of racism and sexism; Olivier Besancenot, a leftist who ran in the French presidential election in 2007; and Trevor Hogan, a former Irish rugby player.
At a news conference in Athens, the loose coalition of activists' groups said it was ready to sail for Gaza in the next few days but gave no specific departure date. They complained that Greece was throwing up "administrative obstacles" in response to pressure from Israel.
"We call on the Greek government to let us sail," said Ann Wright, a former U.S. State Department official who plans to sail with several dozen other Americans on a vessel named The Audacity of Hope after the title of a book by President Barack Obama.
The American boat is in a port in Greece, the base of flotilla operations. But organizers have been secretive about exact locations, saying they are concerned about security and also seek to deflect government pressure on their activities.
Greece has traditionally close ties with the Palestinians and Arab nations, but has recently boosted ties with Israel, keen to gain more overseas investment to offset its financial crisis. The two countries are holding preliminary talks on potential energy deals involving newly discovered Israeli offshore natural gas deposits that include fields near Gaza.
Greece says it opposes the Gaza blockade but has urged Greek citizens and Greek-registered vessels not to participate in the flotilla, noting the risk of violence. The Greek Coast Guard has said it is taking steps to ensure the safety of crews and passengers of vessels involved in the flotilla, including "intensive searches."
Activists blamed the Israel Law Center, a group of Israeli lawyers, for lodging "frivolous complaints" to hold up their boats.
The law center said it told the Greek Coast Guard that the flotilla violates international law as well as Greek law, which does not allow hostile acts to be conducted from its territory against a friendly state. The center said it provided the names of the boats and their registration numbers to Greek authorities, and asked them to check licenses and insurance papers.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israeli law center, said her organization also warned maritime insurance companies they could face legal action if they provided insurance to the flotilla. She said she had been informed that Greek authorities had "detained" some boats and there was a "high chance" the flotilla has insurance problems.
The Obama administration has stepped up pressure on American activists planning to join the flotilla, warning they face action from Israeli authorities and may be violating U.S. law.
Organizers said the flotilla vessels were roughly divided among the nationalities of its participants, with two French boats, and one each from Spain, Ireland and Canada. Activists from Sweden, Norway, Italy, Belgium and Netherlands, along with about 50 Greeks, were also involved.
IHH, an Islamic aid group in Turkey, said 20 of its members were joining the flotilla, but not on their own boat. The activists who died in the 2010 clash with Israeli commandos had been on an IHH ferry named the Mavi Marmara, but the group dropped plans to send the ship again this year.
This past weekend, one boat left the French island of Corsica to join up with other flotilla vessels in Greece, and French organizer Thomas Sommer-Houdeville hailed its departure as a victory.
"The French government didn't prevent us from going," he said. "We sailed officially and legally."
The earlier Israeli warning to journalists sparked an outcry from foreign journalists and was debated prominently in the Israeli media. After that, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered authorities not to apply the government's regular policy against infiltrators and to find a formula for reporters on a flotilla that violates Israel's entry laws.
His office said the government also agreed to let journalists on Israeli navy ships "in order to create transparency and reliable coverage of the events."
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said journalists on the flotilla would be released by Israel and not be subject to deportation.
The Foreign Press Association, which represents hundreds of journalists in Israel and the Palestinian territories, had sharply condemned Israel's original threat, as did Israel's own association of journalists.
Late Monday, the FPA welcomed Netanyahu's decision.
"We are pleased to see that Israel has recognized the value of allowing reporters to cover an important news event and understands that journalists should be treated differently from political activists," the group said.
Aron Heller contributed from Jerusalem.
- Palestinian territory