Israel ‘sabotages two ships bound for Gaza’, activists claim
Israeli saboteurs have carried out underwater “terrorist” attacks on two ships bound for Gaza in an attempt to break the blockade, activists have claimed.
By Mark Weiss in Jerusalem and Fiona Govan in Athens
Organisers said Israeli divers cut a piece out of the propeller shaft of the Irish ship MV Saoirse, endangering the lives of 20 activists who planned to be on board. The vessel, which was docked in Turkey, will not now be able to participate.
They said the damage appeared identical to that inflicted on Tuesday on another vessel in the convoy, the Greek-Swedish ship Juliano, docked in Greece.
“It was pure luck that the damage to the Irish boat was discovered,” said Ann Wright, a spokesman from “The Audacity of Hope”, an American activists’ boat also docked near Athens.
“The damage to the propeller could have caused the ship to sink and those on board to drown. Quite simply it was act of terrorism.” The damage is a repeat of that sustained by ships which took part in last year’s attempt to break the blockade. That ended in the storming of the lead ship, the MV Mavi Marmara, by the Israeli navy, killing nine Turkish activists.
A renewed attempt to reach Gaza by sea, the “Freedom Flotilla 2” of eleven ships with more than 300 activists from 22 countries on board, is due to launch in the next few days. Israel has pledged it will again stop them breaking through.
It is offering to allow the flotilla to dock at the Israeli port of Ashdod and to escort the aid on board to Gaza by land.
The damage to the two ships is not the first snag for the flotilla’s organisers, an umbrella group of pro-Palestinian groups from the Middle East, Europe, America and elsewhere.
The Turkish Mavi Marmara, which was due to be the flagship once again, pulled out at the last minute, under what appeared to be pressure from the government in Ankara. Although Turkey was furious with Israel’s attack on the boat last year, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is said to be keen to avoid a repeat.
A letter of congratulation sent to Mr Erdogan on being re-elected earlier this month by his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, was seen as an attempt to mend ties.
Eight of the nine remaining ships are currently in Greece but permission to depart has also been delayed. Campaigners believe Israel is also orchestrating that hold-up, after discovering that a report to the Greek authorities claiming some of the vessels were not seaworthy, triggering a round of checks, came from an Israel-based association.
“The delay has been orchestrated by the Israeli state and we urge the Greek government to exert itself as a sovereign country,” Mrs Wright, 64, a former colonel in the US army, said.
“The Israeli state is doing everything within its capability to stop us from making this journey, from sabotage to tying us up in bureaucracy. Well it won’t work. We are determined.” She hinted that the flotilla might depart without the necessary paperwork.
Israel maintains the flotillas are cover for militant groups to lend support to Hamas in Gaza.
Senior security officials claim to have intelligence indicating that hard-core activists bent on violence will be on the vessels, infiltrating a majority of veteran peace campaigners, including celebrities like the American author Alice Walker.
They also leaked reports that some activists had dangerous chemicals – claims denounced even by Israeli ministers as “public relations hysteria”.
Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, said: “Israel cannot allow unfettered naval access to the Gaza Strip because if we did you would see Iranian missiles reaching Hamas in Gaza and that would be a direct threat to civilians throughout Israel.” The foreign ministry said that claims of Israeli sabotage were “baseless”.
The Israeli government, which imposed its maritime blockade on Gaza after Hamas came to power in 2007, claims there is no humanitarian crisis.
The situation has eased since last year after Israel partially lifted its own embargo and the new authorities in Egypt opened its crossing point at Rafa.