Raid on the Tahrir

Aboard the Tahrir, Agios Nikolaos, Crete – Activists aboard the Canadian boat bound for Gaza spent weeks readying themselves for the drama that unfolded July 4 when coast guard blasted the side of their vessel with water cannons, boarded and charged through protester lines to take the wheelhouse.

They just didn’t know their antagonists were going to be Greek. In the week before, organizers held marathon non-violence sessions at the port’s Coral Hotel that covered everything from arm-linking as mock Israeli soldiers charged to non-violent philosophy.

The workshops were based on what linguistics professor David Heap called “the red lines” – rules the participants had to sign onto committing them to pacifist action, the first of which is a prohibition against “initiating physical contact with soldiers” in the event of an encounter.

As it turned out, there were no Israeli soldiers in sight. Instead, Israel’s blockade of Gaza extended to this picturesque port, as local authorities moved decisively to block all Freedom Flotilla craft.

The Canadian boat, the Tahrir, loaded with $30,000 of medical supplies, was overrun just four nautical miles from international waters after it attempted a surprise getaway. It was a crushing disappointment to solidarity activists, who nevertheless were buoyed by the fact that they’ve gotten international media attention for their attempts to break the siege of occupied Gaza.

“They took the wheelhouse at gunpoint,” said Tahrir organizer Stephan Corriveau as protesters onboard stood in front of windows trying to obstruct the view of authorities taking the ship back to shore. “You are working for Israel – the Greek people don’t support this,” they chanted while clinging to the front of the ship.

Although some soldiers hit and tore at protesters, trying to loosen their interlocked limbs, others appeared genuinely regretful for stopping the sea convoy.

Greece has a long tradition of siding with the Arab world and supporting Palestinian liberation. But the Greek government, facing massive social upheaval over austerity cuts, seems to be the target of an Israeli diplomatic offensive based on using economic leverage to stop the flotilla. The ministry of civil defence warned that no boats bound for Gaza would leave Greek ports, and three days earlier, the American boat the Audacity of Hope was forced to return to shore.

“I’m only following orders,” one commando who was recognizable from his surveillance of the ship in previous days told Heap as the professor was forcefully pushed from the door of the wheelhouse.

“This is a violation of international law,” he retorted, referring to Greece’s blocking of an internationally flagged ship approved to sail by the International Nautical Service Bureau, and also to the argument that Israel as an occupying power is illegally using siege measures against an occupied population.

Canadian activists aren’t just defying Greek authorities, but also their own government. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird referred to the mission as “provocative and ultimately unhelpful to the people of Gaza.”

The Canada-Israel Committee has been following every move of the flotilla, calling it “a political stunt.” It argues that Hamas has launched “thousands of missiles at Israeli towns” and “continues to smuggle large amounts of advanced weapons into Gaza” – the key rationale for maintaining the blockade.

Calling the crisis in Gaza a “myth,” the CIC says, “Israel delivers massive quantities of aid to Gaza on an ongoing basis. In May of 2011, this amounted to 127,353 tons in supplies.”

However, for flotilla activists, aid is a secondary and symptomatic issue they focus on Israel’s forced isolation of Gaza and draw attention to the impact of political and military conditions imposed by Israel. As for The Tahrir’s cargo – it has been open to international and media inspection I myself have checked it.

The window for supporters to freely reach the region, it appears, is closing. “There will be a time when the people of Gaza will be free and this blockade will be over,” Corriveau said as the collective adrenalin rush from the raid dissipated and activists remained on board while negotiations with the port authority took place.

“You lose the battle but you win the war, and that is exactly what we’re doing,” he added in a tone of reflection and defiance.

On shore, union activists and local Communist party members brought pizza and chanted “Free Palestine, free the flotilla.” Confined to the boat for the next 24 hours, flotilla members heard news of a French boat that had quietly made it out of Greece. Then word broke that activists from the blocked Spanish boat, Guernica, occupied their embassy in Athens, hanging a Palestinian flag from the roof.

Meanwhile, Canadian Sandra Ruch, the Tahrir’s on-paper owner, was taken from the dock into Greek custody and charged with three felonies. The prosecution targeted Ruch, who wasn’t on board when the boat set sail, because the activists insisted on taking collective responsibility as the ship’s captain, causing huge bureaucratic headaches. Two other activists, Canadian Suha Kneen and Australian Michael Coleman, were charged with obstruction when they blocked the coast guard boat from exiting the port, giving the Tahrir a jump-start in the race to international waters.

All were fined 80 euros and given 30-day suspended jail sentences.

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