Israeli campaign stops Gaza flotilla leaving port

Efforts by pro-Palestinian activists to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza appeared increasingly doubtful yesterday amid reports that Greece was preventing several ships from leaving port to join a convoy bound for the Palestinian territory.

Greek authorities have delayed the departure of five or six boats, according to the Israeli news site Ynet, as Israel lobbies governments to warn their citizens against joining the flotilla.

About 350 activists on 10 ships had planned to sail for the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza in an effort to challenge Israel's land and sea blockade, which they say is illegal and inhumane. But those numbers could now be much smaller if the ships, some of which are carrying humanitarian supplies, are prevented from leaving Greece.

The campaign, Freedom Flotilla II, was dealt a major blow recently when IHH, the Turkish group that led last year's convoy with the ship Mavi Marmara, pulled out, apparently at the bidding of Ankara.

Israel drew international opprobrium last May when a deadly assault mounted on the Mavi Marmara in international waters resulted in the death of nine Turkish activists. In the ensuing row, Israel bowed to pressure to ease the conditions of its then three-year blockade of Gaza, aimed at weakening Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the tiny coastal strip.

Problems initially arose with the remaining flotilla participants last week when Audacity of Hope, a US-owned ship, was barred from leaving Athens for a Greek island after suggestions that it was not seaworthy.

It later emerged that an Israeli legal group, Shurat HaDin, had submitted a complaint stating that the ship was not fit to sail, obliging the Greek authorities to inspect the ship before allowing it to leave.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, said yesterday that the group was acting independently of the government. But now several other ships are facing delays to their departure following complaints submitted to the Greeks, according to Jane Hirschmann, an activist with the Free Gaza Movement.

"They [Israel] are trying to stop the boats through administrative hurdles," said Ms Hirschmann, an American Jew sailing on the US boat. "Nobody really knows [what's going on]. We don't have much clarity. But everybody is determined to leave for Gaza."

Meanwhile, a French boat and the Irish ship Saoirse have managed to leave port.

Israel has mounted an international diplomatic offensive to halt the convoy, which includes among its participants politicians, writers and an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor. A number of countries, including the United States, have warned their citizens not to take part.

Israel also warned foreign journalists based in the country that they would face deportation and a 10-year ban from the country if they took part in the flotilla, a threat described by the Foreign Press Association as "chilling".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday retracted that threat, urging his government to find a special formula to deal with foreign journalists on board the convoy.

Israel has warned activists that it has a right to self-defence. The navy has been instructed to prevent the convoy from entering Gaza's territorial waters while avoiding casualties.

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