The U.S.-flagged ship "The Audacity of Hope" left a Greek port today bound for Gaza, but the status of the 10-boat flotilla remains uncertain. At least one boat has already pulled out due to sabotage, another is still being repaired. All 10 ships were supposed to set sail earlier this week but the Greek government — already facing a financial crisis and public uproar over austerity measures — blocked the ships’ departure under international pressure. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is entitled to stop the flotilla as part of its “full right to operate against efforts to smuggle” weapons into Gaza. Democracy Now! Producer Aaron Maté and videographer Hany Massoud are in Greece covering the journey of “The Audacity of Hope.” They were there Thursday as it was publicly unveiled. They spoke with novelist Alice Walker, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and others.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, to our first segment the Freedom Flotilla seeking to reach the Gaza Strip is in limbo under the weight of Israeli/U.S. pressure, unrest in Greece and acts of sabotage targeting its ships. A number of vessels remain moored in Greek ports stranding hundreds of passengers and the humanitarian cargo their hoping to bring to Gazans living under an Israeli blockade. The ships were supposed to set sail this week, but the Greek government already facing a financial crisis and public uproar over austerity measures has blocked the ships departure under international pressure.
Meanwhile an Irish ship moored in Turkey was pulled out of the flotilla after its engine was badly damaged in an act of sabotage. Another ship is undergoing repairs in Greece after unknown vandals damaged its propeller. Flotilla organizers blamed the Israeli government.
AMY GOODMAN: Israel has denied involvement, but is openly celebrating the flotilla’s setbacks. On Thursday, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is entitled to stop the flotilla as part of its "full right to operate against efforts to smuggle weapons in to Gaza". We’re going to be speaking with the Israeli Consul General in New York in our next segment, but right now we turn to Democracy Now! Producer Aaron Maté, who is in Greece covering the journey of the flotilla’s U.S. flag ship, called the Audacity of Hope after President Obama’s best-selling book. Aaron was there Thursday as the ship was publicly unveiled. He filed this report.
AARON MATÉ: After more than a week of being stranded in Athens, amidst Israeli government pressure, U.S. government warnings and a political crisis in Greece, that certainly weakened the Greek government’s ability to withstand international pressure, passengers aboard the Audacity of Hope, the U.S. boat to Gaza, gathered at their ship for the first time.
ANN WRIGHT: If the Israeli government really does not want us to sail and doesn’t want us to sail again and again and again, then they need to end the blockade of Gaza.
AARON MATÉ: Flanked by her fellow passengers retired U.S. Army colonel Ann Wright held a news conference discussing the challenges that face this ship in trying to reach Gaza.
ANN WRIGHT: The government of Greece, tragically is being complicit with the Israeli government, it’s being pounded by the Israeli government not to let these boats sale. It is part of the diplomatic offensive that the Israeli government has been moving on for the last three months, to prevent the flotilla from sailing, a flotilla of unarmed civilian ships filled with unarmed civilian people.
AARON MATÉ: Greek authorities blocked the ships’ departure following a complaint from an Israeli group. Other flotilla ships are in a similar bind and two have been sabotaged while moored in their ports.
ANN WRIGHT: Our boats are being surveilled, they are being watched, and in some cases they have been sabotaged. A Greek Norwegian-Swedish passenger boat was sabotaged just this last week. An axle to a propeller shaft was cut off, and then just yesterday, in Turkey, the Irish boat, in an incident of terrorism, this is terrorism, when you go after a boat and disable it.
AARON MATÉ: Organizers now say the Irish ship has suffered too much damage and won’t be sailing for Gaza. As their numbers dwindle, the Freedom Flotilla faces a tough choice, wait for permission and they could never leave, but if they defy orders and set sail they risk arrest and an end to their mission. For U.S. passengers the U.S. backing of the Israeli effort to stop the flotilla provokes anger. Last week, Hillary Clinton suggested Israel would have the right to use force to stop the ships. Among the U.S. passengers is author, Alice Walker.
ALICE WALKER: It is so pathetic to put it in those terms because we are carrying letters. We are carrying letters, a lot of them for children. To think that a big, strong government like Israel, which is the fourth largest military power on earth, would be afraid of the letters of children, is saying a lot, and that our government and the United States cares more about the feelings of the Israeli government than about the feelings of its citizens I think is very serious.
HEDY EPSTEIN: My name is Hedy Epstein. I think the reason for some of this is they’re afraid that if they do not support and go along with whatever Israel demands that they might be considered anti-Semitic and it’s ridiculous to have that kind of a fear. Even if you were called anti-Semitic, I am being called anti-Semitic. So? It doesn’t stop me from doing what I’m about to do or what I have done or what I will do.
RICHARD LEVY: I’m Richard Levy, I’m a passenger on the Audacity of Hope. We have got no support from the United States on this. Apparently free speech is not really for Americans if it involves Palestine, and it’s not for the Mideast if it involves Palestine. Free speech is okay in some countries. It is not okay in other countries. Our consulate has basically turned us down flat in terms of support to allow this flotilla to go forward. A great disappointment.
MISSY LAYNE: My name is Missy Layne, and I am from Washington, D.C. I think the fact that so many powerful wealthy governments are working so hard to keep us from going shows how significant it is. So much of the propaganda in the media, the mainstream media that you see, says that there is total support for Israel and they are the only democracy in the Middle east. I think that anything to negate that, to show the truth that clearly 1.5 million people in Gaza don’t hate freedom, they are desperate for freedom.
AARON MATÉ: The flotilla seeks to leave Greece as the country is in uproar over a radical austerity program demanded by international lenders. The connection is not lost on flotilla passenger Henry North.
HENRY NORTH: This country is faced with a structural adjustment program dictated by the banks, at the most profound and disruptive that’s ever happened to a first-world country. It’s the kind of thing that’s happened many times before to third world countries and it happened in Eastern Europe. It never happened before to a European country. Their living standards are being slashed. One of the things that’s got to me is hearing that on the IMF list of demands is that they privatize the port of Piraeus, the port adjacent to Athens. For 3000 years at least that port has been the outlet, Greece’s outlet to the world. We happen to be here at a moment of profound crisis for this country. The Greeks are every bit as much a victim as we are even though they are the ones who are keeping us here.
AARON MATÉ: Held back by the confluence of geopolitical imbalance and local unrest, the flotilla’s journey to Gaza is in doubt. But regardless of whether or not their ships leave port, passengers say they are already one step closer to their ultimate goal of freeing Gaza.
ANN WRIGHT: This feels like a setback, but I’ve lived long enough to see that sometimes setbacks have a better outcome than you would ever imagine. So I take the position that getting this far with getting this boat, it’s a beautiful boat, we have good food, and we have lots of water, and we have music, and we have each other, that this is a major victory in the movement forward on this issue. But also, the movement around the world of people just getting together as citizens making a decision to change a bad situation and sticking together.
HEDY EPSTEIN: With what happened in the United States in the 1960’s, the civil rights movement, you know, there were waves and waves of people. They knew they were going to get hurt, maybe they knew they were going to have dogs sat upon them. They knew they were going to be hosed down by strong water hoses, and they kept on coming until one day they won and this is exactly what we’re going to be doing. They’re will waves and waves of flotillas until we reach our goal and break the siege of Gaza.
AARON MATÉ: For Democracy Now! I’m Aaron Maté with Hany Massoud in Athens.
JUAN GONZALEZ: As we’ve reported, up to 400 National activists are waiting to set sale for Gaza aboard 10 ships leaving from Greece. However, the Israeli government is trying to prevent the ships from leaving port and has vowed to intercept them should they set sail. Yesterday, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked allies of the Jewish state, including Greece, for helping delay the flotilla’s departure.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I want to thank the many leaders in the world for speaking and acting recently against the provocative flotilla, especially the leaders of the United States and Europe, the U.N. Secretary-General and my friend the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou. Israel has the total right to act against attempts to legitimize the smuggling of missiles and rockets and other weapons to the Hamas terror enclave.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yesterday the Israeli claimed it had uncovered financial links between the Gaza-bound flotilla and the Palestinian movement Hamas. However, flotilla participants have unequivocally denied such claims, noting Israel has provided no evidence. The activists have repeatedly stated their commitment to nonviolence and they have welcomed the media to inspect their boats, interview all passengers, and even taste the food on board. This is Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat who is participating in the flotilla.
ANN WRIGHT: On behalf of the U.S. boat to Gaza the Audacity of Hope to welcome you the members of the international press and Greek press to our unveiling of our ship, the Audacity of Hope, which is named for a book that our President of the United States has written. We use it because we are challenging U.S. government policies,
policies that support the state of Israel and its naval blockade of Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ann Wright, retired Army colonel and former diplomat.