Gaza-bound or not?

The Canadian ship, The Tahrir, attempting to reach international waters on route to Gaza, has been intercepted by Greek coast guards and is being taken back to port.

Says NOW’s reporter onboard, Jesse Rosenfeld: “The boat has been pulled back into the port of St. Nicholas. The coast guard used water cannons on the side of the boat and boarded from the back with M16’s, taking the wheel room at gun point. Activssts chanted “you are puppets of the Israelis the Greek people don’t support this” refering to a long time relationship between Greece and the Arab world.

The following was written just hours before the take-over.

ST. NICHOLAS, CRETE – Out of all the port towns in all the Mediterranean, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come to this Greek Island. Arriving here a week ago to meet up with participants on the Canadian boat to Gaza, The Tahrir, amidst their preparation for a voyage that will run Israel’s blockade of Gaza, I was told to appear as a tourist on vacation.

My first impression of the café, bar and restaurant packed town that Greeks call Agios Nikolaos (named after the patron saint of sailors), is that I have been to few places conceptually further away from a conflict that I’d just spent the past three and a half years covering from the front lines. The town has even lacked most of the labour action and protests sweeping the country against the Greek government’s yanking of $40 billion dollars from the public sector.

The only real sign of opposition has been the anti-austerity banners strung across a downtown roundabout, across the street from the local communist party headquarters. However, behind the vacation facade, nearly 50 passengers from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Belgium, New Zealand and Turkey packed into a hotel meeting room to practice staying calm under expected military attack and to respond with non-violent, non-compliance.

All passengers were instructed by the Tahrir’s steering committee not to speak in public about what they were there for, or to publicly disclose their location. Media reps were asked to keep the same confidence.

As news started to trickle in about sabotage against the Greek-Swedish/Norwegian and Irish boats, anxiety set in. Quickly the atmosphere turned from a quasi-activist vacation into the modern reincarnation of a Casablanca-esque psychological thriller.

The activists start a 24 hour security campaign to protect their boat with groups of four to six plus a crew member on board at all times. Then at a morning briefing mid last week, news broke of suspicious conspicuous men asking locals about the flotilla in broken Greek. Soon after, the hotels and meeting room were abuzz with reports of people on rooftops snapping photos with long lenses cameras of the port and the Canadian boat.

“If anyone asks at the hotel, tell them you’re on vacation with the abcd tour group,” Tahrir owner and flotilla steering committee organizer Sandra Ruch said repeatedly over the week. Ruch, a Jewish Canadian who was on the Gaza freedom march in 2009 with the feminist, anti-war organization, Code Pink, moved to Athens three months ago to lay the foundation for the Tahriri to set sail.

Passengers desperately tried to talk about anything but Gaza, the flotilla, and their anxieties from emotionally and physically draining training sessions, but they would often guiltily catch themselves or be called out for breaking this golden rule.

Back inside the meeting room of the Coral Hotel, marathon sessions cover everything from practicing linking arms as mock Israeli soldiers charge into activists and detailed discussions of the meaning of non-violence, to media skills and the nuts and bolts of how Israel’s forced isolation of Gaza works.

These workshops could take unpredictable forms but were based around instilling what steering committee organizer and linguistics professor, David Heap, called “the red lines” these were a series of rules that all participants needed to sign onto, committing to non-violent action. The first and most prominent of these was a rule barring ” initiating physical contact with soldiers,” in event of an encounter.

The point was driven home at one particular meeting I was standing outside the training session with some of the media when Miles Howe, the ship’s cook and writer for The Dominion, charged outside the door brandishing a stick, a make-believe M16 machine gun.

“Get the fuck inside, now!” Howe screamed. “No talking,” he barked as he pushed people against walls and through the door. I started remembering many similar encounters I had had with the Israeli army, while covering demonstrations in the West Bank.

I recalled one anti-wall demonstration I reported on in 2008, in the West Bank border village of Na’lin, against Israel’s attempt to seize the majority of the town’s farmland. There, after being chased by the army from the olive groves outside town, I tried to make myself invisible by hiding out in the local medical clinic as the army entered the village, spraying the clinic and main street with machine gun fire.

Howe spotted me.”You too, get the fuck in there,” he screamed, as I put my hands over my head and quickly followed his commands. Inside the room, several mock soldiers were parading around the room, hitting people and making sure they kept in their small huddled groups organized by gender. The woman playing the commander singled out people based on sexuality for particular verbal abuse and mock violence.

Sitting in the corner, trying to be a fly on the wall I snapped photos and remembered the way soldiers would separate Israeli and international activists from Palestinian youth during demonstrations, beating and shouting insults at the Palestinians. After the two minute drill, tears and an intense discussion about the use of power and privilege ensues. After the session we are again warned not to discuss the day’s training in public, and many of us return to the touristy façade of swimming and drinking. Although less intense forms of preparation follow, the expected double life continues. Even the loading and media inspection of the $30,000 in medical supplies the boat is carrying to Gaza is done relatively covertly.

On July 1, Canada Day, as I reported earlier, the American boat made a run for open waters to start their trip to Gaza amidst increased bureaucratic railroading on the part of port authorities across Greece, backed by a government order to block all Gaza-bound ships. As it became clear that the Greeks are playing by Israel’s rules rather than their own laws and regulations, an open political fight emerged.

The atmosphere in this sleepy town, now a backdrop for low-level espionage, has changed. The locals are more sympathetic as they realize who this group of strange foreigners are (Crete is one of the Greek Communist Party’s support bases). Suddenly some the Gaza voyagers are being offered free meals at restaurants in town, while residents stop to chat with anyone wearing a flotilla shirt about Gaza and the shame they feel for their government’s newfound support of Israel’s occupation.

After all, as visiting Greek leftist MP said on Saturday, Greece has a long tradition of siding with the Arab world and supporting Palestinian liberation. Even the local police express regret for their role in helping their government enforce the blockade.

Now, with departure across the Mediterranean hours away, the question still remains will the Greek people’s belief in justice prevail over the Governments fears of Israel’s economic punishment?

Here’s looking at you, Gaza.

Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content