ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's decision last week to block activists from trying to sail to Gaza with an aid shipment in defiance of Israel's sea blockade took many by surprise.
After all, Athens has been a traditional ally of the Palestinians and Arab states, and only established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1990.
But Greece has quietly been building economic and political bridges to Israel for years. And now that Turkey — Greece's traditional rival — has cooled to its role as the Jewish state's best friend in the Muslim world, the debt-wracked Greeks have an even greater incentive to cozy up to its rich Mediterranean neighbor.
The activists' boats have been officially confined to Greek ports since Friday. Vessels trying to leave have been stopped by armed coast guard officers after Greece issued its blanket ban on any vessel sailing to the Palestinian territory.
Four people have been arrested so far in short-lived attempts to set sail: an American captain, two Canadians and an Australian.
Athens said it issued the ban for security reasons, pointing to a similar blockade-busting effort last year that ended in the deaths of nine activists on a Turkish boat when Israeli forces stormed the vessels near Gaza.
But many see regional politics as the real reason behind Athens' stance.
The dynamics in Greek relations with the Palestinians have grown more complex. The European Union labels the Hamas militant group that seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 a terrorist organization; as an EU member Greece must stand by that view.
Israel says its sea blockade stops weapons from reaching Hamas, and had warned it would stop any attempt to break through its barrier.
Greece, on the edge of debt default and propped up by an international bailout, sees warming ties with Israel as a way to attract crucial investment. Ties have also blossomed as Israel's relations with Turkey — a traditionally strong security partner for the Israelis — have cooled.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out Athens for praise for its help blocking the flotilla, thanking "my friend, the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou" in a speech.
It's the friendship vacuum left by Turkey's troubled Israeli diplomacy that some observers see as the critical factor in Greece's new rapport with Israel.
"The main cause for the change in Greek strategy lies in the worsening of relations between Turkey and Israel," said Giorgos Tzogopoulos, research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. "Greece benefited from the circumstances, it didn't create the conditions itself for an opening with Israel."
The same is true for Israel, he said.
Tensions between Turkey and Israel grew several years ago as Turkey's Islamic-oriented government sought a rapprochement with traditional foes of Israel in the Middle East. Ties deteriorated sharply after Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza in 2009. The raid on the Turkish flotilla boat sent relations to a new low.
"I think what pushed Israel to Greece was the crisis with Turkey and in Greece it was met very positively because Greece is having troubles and Israel can help, especially militarily and also because they wanted to show Turkey that there is an alternative to Turkey in the region," said Alon Liel, former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.
"What we are seeing now with the flotilla is probably an outcome of very intensive Israeli-Greek cooperation and warming of ties over the past two years," he said.
Greece still maintains close ties with Arab countries, and Papandreou spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about Athens' offer to transport the aid of the Gaza flotilla — an offer which was greeted positively, the prime minister's office said.
The Foreign Ministry insists its relations with the Arab states will not be adversely affected. It continues to push for an improvement in the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, and supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
"All these are the steady positions of Greece," ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said, noting the situation in the Middle East was delicate.
"Greece is taking a responsible stance and dealing with a particular situation. And this situation says that there is an immediate danger to human life by participating in this attempt," he said of the flotilla attempt. "This is something that arises from experience. I think we all remember the tragic events we had last year. The region doesn't need this at the moment."
But the move has been met with anger from the activists. Some have speculated that Greek authorities imposed restrictions on them partly in response to Western pressure at a time when Greece is seeking to meet European requirements in exchange for desperately needed financial aid.
Theodore Dritsas, a Greek leftist parliamentarian, alleged that Foreign Ministry officials previously agreed in discussions with lawmakers that the flotilla could set sail. He said the government was now going back on its word, jeopardizing Greece's relations with Arab countries.
"They were accepting that this campaign is legal and has to be done," Dritsas said during a news conference by flotilla activists.
Elena Becatoros is the AP's Athens bureau chief. Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, and Derek Gatopoulos and Christopher Torchia in Athens, contributed.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
- Israel s Foreign Ministry
- Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou
- Muslim world