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ATHENS -Tension is building here as a possible showdown between the flotilla and the Greek government looms.
Already facing massive social upheaval over cross-the-board austerity cuts, along with a series of general strikes called by unions for next week, it appears that the Greek government is a central target of an Israeli diplomatic offensive to stop a flotilla of ships to Gaza from setting sail.
As power outages from electrical strikes role across Athens, turning homes into sauna's, this is the type of diplomatic hardball that could burn Greece where it's most vulnerable. "They are blackmailing the Greek Government in any way they can," says Dimitris Plionis, a lead organizer of the Greek boat who has been meeting with members of the Greek parliament.
Slowly dragging on cigarette, he leans back in his chair on a sidewalk café here in the neighborhood of Exarqia, the leftist hub well known for vibrant counter culture and fierce clashes with police, adding that although some in Parliament are angered by the threats "the government accepts this logic."
Late Thursday night a private complaint was filed against the American boat, currently docked in Athens with authorities refusing to let it leave port. The official reason given is that flotilla vessel is not sea worthy, however "The Audacity of Hope" as the sea ferry is named (after the title of US President Obama's book), has already been out on test sails.
Israel upgraded its relations with Greece following the last flotilla and its relations with the Turkey (a long time rival of Greece) souring. Now, Plionis says, Israel is threatening to pull the plug on the commitments it has made. "[Israel is] saying there will be a major political crisis," he contends.
For their part, following a cabinet shuffle and surviving no-confidence vote earlier in the week, the Greek Foreign Ministry released a statement warning Greek nationals and vessels not to set sail for Gaza. Citing a position that has some similarities to Canada's NDP, that aid should be sent through official UN channels, the statement named no consequences for defying the warning. (The NDP does not endorse the flotilla but respects the right of peaceful protest).
When I ask Greek foreign ministry spokesperson Gregory Delavekouras on the phone whether the government would take any action to stop the boats, he refers me back to the statement. He acknowledges that the Greeks and Israeli's have spoken about a wide spectrum of issues including the flotilla and the economy, but denies any economic threats were made.
It's a position that doesn't surprise former U.S. diplomat and army Colonel turned Code Pink activist and flotilla organizer, Mary Ann Wright, who says that it's highly embarrassing for a government to acknowledge they are being bullied in this fashion.
"The Greek economy is going down the tube and [here's] a trading partner that threatens you if you don't keep some ships in port," she tells me following an intense training in non-violent resistance in the basement room of the Thai Boxing gym amidst the overpowering smell of feet. "I hope Wikileaks finds something, because it's there," she says wryly.
Israel has been meeting with governments of countries whose citizens intend on launching boats, calling on them to stop their nationals from taking to the Eastern Mediterranean sea towards Gaza. Stephen Harper's government has already called on Canadian's not to challenge Israel's blockade and on Thursday the U.S. Secretary of State came out against American's trying reach Gaza by sea, following the state department issuing a heightened travel warning in the region.
However, Greece is the only country in the civilian sea convoy that Israel has economic leverage over, while the Irish government is the only one that has called on Israel not to use violence in intercepting the boats.
The first ship in the convoy left from a port in France on Saturday while the rest of the 10 ships and 1000 activists are preparing to set sail at the end of June in a bid to break Israel's blockade of the occupied coastal strip.