The US Boat to Gaza left the Athens Port at 4:50 p.m. on Friday, expecting to be stopped by Greek authorities in the country’s coastal waters on its way to meet a French ship that had already left port.
Shortly after it sailed the US boat was intercepted by Greek officials, at the same time organizers of the Canadian boat to Gaza said the coastguard surrounded their vessel and prevented it from leaving.
At sea, the US ship attempted to secure passage through coastguard ships – one with armed soldiers aboard – which demanded it return, following the passage of a decision by the Greek Cabinet that afternoon, which according to organizers mandated that “no boat will sail for the Gaza Strip from Greece.”
“The Greeks declared that there would be no boats leaving from Greece to Gaza, no boats at all,” organizer Ann Wright told reporters as the ship was being escorted back to shore, where coastguard officials said the activists would not likely be arrested, but were being kept on board the vessel.
“If we did not comply with what we said they would board us,” she said, confirming that the decision to turn around was made by the captain and seconded by organizers.
“Confronting the Israelis is one thing, but here in Greek waters, that is not what we are about,” Wright said, though activists on board said they had hoped for a confrontation to “expose the violence of our opponents.”
Wright, however, stressed agreements made between passengers on safety, saying “safety is our first priority beyond challenging the blockade, when they have M16s, live ammunition aimed at us — those were not tear gas launchers — that’s not the fight that we want.”
She said the ship was being taken to the a new harbor, adding that activists planned to stay on board until more information was available.
“I am extremely thrilled with what we have done, we have gotten international attention for the flotilla, we have broken out from Greece. We didn’t get as far as we wanted — all the way to Gaza — but we are the only boat that has tried this,” Wright said, adding that organizers intended to challenge the cabinet decision.
Speaking with Ma’an, one flotilla passenger said, “This is going to be a long drawn out struggle, we have put the focus of the world on this issue, we want to keep trying, if not this boat it will be another boat and another boat until we release the Israeli blockade of Gaza.”
Greek waters extend an average of six nautical miles from the coastline, after which are international waters, where the ship hoped to rendezvous with a boat of Jordanian activists who sailed from France earlier in the week, and are reported to be en route to Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla II.
Amid the din of celebratory music as the US ship left port, organizer Anne Wright told Ma’an that any attempt to stop the ship would be “pure evidence of the might of the Israeli government,” who allegedly threatened to cut economic ties with Greece over the flotilla.
“I appeal to the people of Greece to protect and support this civilian to civilian initiative, and call on them to demonstrate in support,” she said.
Organizers once again called on the people of Greece to protest against the government decision to halt the ship, with Americans slated to sail on other flotilla ships saying they were preparing to stage a demonstration in Athens’ main square.
The US boat was the only ship from the 10-boat flotilla to leave port on Friday, with reports saying that a Canadian vessel might also attempt to leave, while a Spanish boat had tried and failed.
A statement from Canadian organizers on Twitter said that “Even though we weren’t attempting to sail at the time, we are challenging this latest political attempt to stop the Tahrir,” the ship named after the square in Cairo where millions of Egyptians demanded the ouster of now former Egyptian President Hosni Mubatrak in January.
Organizers of the US boat said that by leaving the Athens port, they were defying a Greek police order to remain at the dock until an inspection process was complete, following a complaint made by an Israeli organization alleging that the ship was unfit to sail.
At sea, the ship’s captain said that the ship had undergone inspection at port. Organizers earlier expressed impatience for the time it was taking Greek officials to process the inspection and declare the ship ready to sail.
Greece, whose government is facing regular strikes and protests over austerity measures that the European Union say are a must if the body is going to provide a second assistance package to the indebted nation.
Wright said both the Canadian and Spanish boats are tied up in similar paperwork, but noted that she hoped the audacity of the US crew would encourage others to follow suit.
Ten boats were set to sail from ports in Athens and Turkey, with an Irish ship forced to withdraw after damage done to its propeller rendered it unfit for sail, with activists crying sabotage. A group of Jordanian activists announced Thursday that they would join the Freedom Flotilla II, and purchased a ship in Greece for the purpose.
All ships were bound for the Gaza Strip, in an effort to break Israel’s five year siege on the Palestinian coastal enclave.
Reporting by Mya Guarneri onboard the US Boat to Gaza.