A French boat carrying eight people as part of the 10-ship Freedom Flotilla to the Gaza Strip has left Greek waters, defying a ban imposed by Greece under heavy pressure from Israel and the United States. The small boat is the first to elude Greek authorities after two ships were stopped since Friday. Carrying humanitarian cargo, the ships are trying to reach Gaza just over a year after Israeli forces killed nine people aboard the first Freedom Flotilla. Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté was on board the U.S.-flagged ship, The Audacity of Hope, when it became the first flotilla ship to defy the ban and make a break for Gaza, only to be intercepted by Greek authorities in a dramatic standoff at sea. He filed this report. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: A French boat carrying eight people as part of the Freedom Flotilla to the Gaza Strip has left Greek waters, defying a ban imposed by Greece under heavy pressure from Israel and the United States. The small boat is the first to elude Greek authorities after two ships were stopped since Friday. The ships are trying to reach Gaza just over a year after Israeli forces killed nine people aboard the first Freedom Flotilla.
Well, Democracy Now! has been covering the mission of the U.S. flagship in the new flotilla, dubbed The Audacity of Hope after President Obama’s bestselling book. Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté was on board when the anchor was raised, and the ship tried to make a run for Gaza, but Greek authorities caught them just as they headed out to sea. He files this report.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: Ready to start pulling up the anchor?
SHIP CREW: Let go of this line.
UNIDENTIFIED: So, I have an announcement, that The Audacity of Hope has set sail for Gaza!
AARON MATÉ: As you can see behind me, passengers are waving goodbye. The Audacity of Hope is setting sail. Passengers are singing. They’re waving. And the boat is moving out of port. Surrounded by American flags and signs that say "We will not be silent" and "Boats to Gaza," The Audacity of Hope, after being moored here for over a week, after a campaign backed by the U.S., led by Israel, to delay this ship, to stop these ships, The Audacity of Hope is defiantly setting out to sea.
I’m here with Alice Walker. Alice, tell me how you feel.
ALICE WALKER: I feel ecstatic. This is wonderful. I am so happy.
AARON MATÉ: Tell me how you’re feeling.
GAIL MILLER: I feel overwhelmed. I’m crying. I’ve been working for a year for this moment to sail to Gaza. We’re in the ocean. I feel the wind. I’m with wonderful people.
AARON MATÉ: Hey Hedy, tell me how you’re feeling.
HEDY EPSTEIN: Great. I’m going to make it.
AARON MATÉ: You’re going to make it?
HEDY EPSTEIN: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: You’re going to make it to Gaza?
HEDY EPSTEIN: We’re all going to make it.
AARON MATÉ: Did you think that we were going to leave?
HEDY EPSTEIN: Of course we were going to leave at some point. But we left sooner than I thought.
AARON MATÉ: Ken, tell me how you’re feeling.
KEN MAYERS: Fantastic. And seeing Alice here and singing that song, I mean, I’m choked up. It’s just a great moment. We’ll see how far we get. But I think we’ve shown that it’s going to take a hell of a lot to stop us, you know? We’re going to do everything we can nonviolently to get where we want to go.
AARON MATÉ: We’re walking towards the front now. I see Richard Levy right here. Richard, if we can talk to you for a second?
RICHARD LEVY: Yeah?
AARON MATÉ: Tell us how you’re feeling.
RICHARD LEVY: A kind of excitement and almost choked up. Can hardly talk. It’s been so hard to get this boat off the dock, that whatever happens, it’s been a great moment to feel that we’re breaking out of this blockade, the first step, and maybe we can get to the next one.
AARON MATÉ: So we’re standing right by the bridge. The captain is asking us to stand clear. We’re seeing ships around us, but no signs of the coast guard yet, but obviously... The Greek cabinet has issued an edict for all these ships to be intercepted. So, we’re expecting the coast guard to intercept us at any moment.
ANN WRIGHT: We apologize to the people of Greece for breaking their rules, but I think—their governmental rules—but I think the people of Greece are going to be so proud of us for challenging these governments. Just like they’re doing in Syntagma Square, challenging the Greek government on all of these things, we’re challenging stupid administrative rules that were purposely meant to keep us in port as a political gesture toward Israel.
COAST GUARD: This is a coast guard boat. We want the captain of The Audacity of Hope. [inaudible] It’s for your own safety to return [inaudible]. Over.
AARON MATÉ: Now we’re seeing two ships approaching us. One of them is definitely a coast guard ship.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: Roger. Please, we’re seeking safe passage to sea, rather than being tied up in Perama, where there there’s threat of sabotage. Over.
COAST GUARD: You are forbidden to sail.
AARON MATÉ: Now the coast guard is flagging us down. They’ve pulled in front of us. They’re entering directly in our path. They’re saying, "Slow down." They’re saying, "Stop."
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Let us sail. Let us sail. Let us sail.
AARON MATÉ: But you can hear passengers here saying, "Let us sail."
PASSENGERS: Let us go to Gaza! Let us go to Gaza! Let us go to Gaza!
AARON MATÉ: Now the ship’s gone really quiet, as everybody awaits what’s next. But obviously this was expected. The Greek government ordered this ship and others in the flotilla not to leave. Now, the coast guard has come. The captain has stopped the ship. The coast guard officer is calling the captain.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: Yes, sir!
COAST GUARD: Have them please go back.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: Please let us make safe passage to sea. We have done nothing wrong. We showed the papers. We had the inspection. There are threats of sabotage in Perama. There’s threats of sabotage. We have to go for our safety.
COAST GUARD: [inaudible] You are not safe to sail.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: No, that’s not right. We have been surveyed to be safe. No, we have been surveyed to be safe.
COAST GUARD: Please go back.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: We are not safe in Perama. Sabotagers.
AARON MATÉ: So, it’s finally come to a head after the Greek government ordered all flotilla ships to remain docked in their ports. The Audacity of Hope has defiantly set sail. About 15 to 20 minutes into our sailing, the Greek coast guard has intercepted the ship. There’s now been a standoff between the captain and these coast guard officers. One officer told the captain, "You must return for your own safety." And now we remain here stranded. As you can see behind me, the coast guard ship has a close watch on this ship. They’re blocking our path.
We’re seeing now a second coast guard boat approaching. It’s carrying armed commandos. They appear to have automatic rifles. They’re dressed in black, wearing masks. Now the commandos are loading onto the boat. I counted about seven of them. They are joining that first coast guard ship that has stopped The Audacity of Hope, and they are taking up positions now on that larger ship. All of the media that are assembled on the ship are now gathered, filming this standoff, as the situation gets more and more serious.
ANN WRIGHT: We are unarmed civilians. No need for weapons.
AARON MATÉ: The Colonel Ann Wright, who’s in charge of tactical operations on the ship, yelled to the ship that we are unarmed civilians.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: What would your mother think of this? We are peaceful American citizens.
ANN WRIGHT: We have the appropriate licenses. We are unarmed civilians. Do not shoot.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: We are peaceful, unarmed American citizens on a U.S.-flag ship. Do not come on board this ship. This is a U.S.-flag ship. You cannot come on board this ship. Put those weapons down! Put those weapons down!
PASSENGERS: Put those weapons down! Put those weapons down!
AARON MATÉ: The scene here is—it’s hard to capture just how tense this moment is, but yet, in the face of that, protesters are still defiant and standing up to the threat of a raid.
COAST GUARD: Captain, please.
AARON MATÉ: Now they’re calling for the captain.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: Keratsini. OK, OK. I’ll follow you.
COAST GUARD: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: OK, so the captain has just agreed to follow this coast guard ship to a different port, going to the port of—what I heard was Keratsini. And now the crew on the ship are going to go give us a briefing on what’s going on. A deal has just been reached for this ship to follow the Greek coast guard to a new port.
ANN WRIGHT: These fellows are not about to let us go any further. And with the arrival of the commandos, the heavily armed commandos, we can see that the intent was we were not going any further, and if we did not comply with what they said, they would forcefully board us. Our captain has been a very brave captain to bring us out. That next level of going up there, where we’ll be forcefully boarded, is something that we, as an organization, we’re not going to do.
AARON MATÉ: And so, after a tense standoff that saw Greek forces confront The Audacity of Hope, briefly pointing automatic rifles at the captain and his passengers, we’re now following a Greek coast guard ship back to shore. The captain has agreed to take the ship to a different port. He refused to go to the initial port where The Audacity of Hope was moored. He cited the fears of sabotage in the aftermath of two other ships in the flotilla suffering damage, one ship being totally disabled. Of course, passengers here have blamed the Israelis. So, for now, we return to land, the fate of The Audacity of Hope and its journey to Gaza unclear.
Alice Walker, we’re close to docking. Can you share with us your thoughts?
ALICE WALKER: Well, I feel very happy. I feel that we actually moved closer to Gaza. We didn’t get to Gaza, of course, but the people will know that we made every effort to get there. And so, I feel that we succeeded. I feel that we have won whatever victory there was. It was in our doing this together, peacefully and more or less happily, and now we’re going back to port.
AARON MATÉ: Now that The Audacity of Hope has been tied up, it’s moored now in this Greek military compound, indefinitely. Passengers have been told they’re allowed to leave, but the captain and his crew are being forced to remain on board. And so, in solidarity with them, passengers are going to stay on the boat. And so, as night falls, they’re discussing their next move.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: But I certainly think that we should demand to get the results of the inspection.
AARON MATÉ: So, it’s the day after The Audacity of Hope was seized. It’s been moored overnight in the port of Keratsini. We’re headed there now. Passengers refused to leave the ship, in solidarity with the captain. He’s been charged. So, we’re going to go there now and see what passengers are saying, see what their next move is, as they try to deal with this latest setback.
So we’ve arrived at the port where The Audacity of Hope has been parked overnight. The captain has been arrested and charged. So we’re going to go in now and talk to them and see how they’re handling this latest setback.
So, we want to come back in and go back on the boat.
COAST GUARD: No, no, can’t.
AARON MATÉ: The coast guard said we can come back. We were on the ship yesterday.
COAST GUARD: One minute.
AARON MATÉ: Sure, OK, yeah.
So now, the Greek government’s stalling tactics through this maze of bureaucracy and legalese is now affecting journalists. In addition to arresting the captain and, of course, keeping this ship from setting sail, now we’re being told that journalists cannot go back to the ship and speak to the passengers that we’ve been covering all week.
Lisa, so tell us what’s happening?
LISA FITHIAN: Well, we’re inside in a strategy conversation about how we want to deal with the consequences of our actions yesterday, which is that our captain has now been arrested. He’s being detained. We feel strong about the work that we’ve done and the impact we’ve had around the world, around this blockade. And we feel really strongly committed to support our captain. He took great risks. We knew he was taking great risks. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that he gets what he needs. And we’re hoping that people around the world will join us in this effort and demand that the U.S. and Israel get out of Greece and that the Greek government drops all charges and frees our captain immediately.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: So, we are still detained here. As a crew, I am not allowed to leave the boat or this gate. And you, as a journalist, cannot come in. And I can just say that if I have to be detained in the boat, I want to do it with this group of amazing people. Although it’s not nice to be detained, I know that it’s part of the process, it’s part of the struggle. You know, sometimes you struggle by sailing, sometimes you struggle by being detained in a Greek coast guard compound. But we still—we are still able to deliver our message of hope and audacity.
AARON MATÉ: Well, the next night, the passengers’ defiance is being heard in Syntagma Square. Greek protesters have voted to hold a solidarity march denouncing their government for blocking the flotilla.
NIKOS: Hi, I’m Nikos, and we had [inaudible] in the Syntagma Square. And we had a vote for about to support the Freedom Flotilla and what’s happening about that. And we wanted to, in the polity discussion, make the vote to make a march to the Ministry of Protection for the Citizens, about the restriction that the Freedom Flotilla had not to sail to Gaza.
ANN WRIGHT: We’re here to say to the government of Greece, don’t be the stool pigeons of Israel. Stand up for your own sovereignty, and don’t let the Israelis run your country.
AARON MATÉ: And so, after marching in the streets of Athens and staging a hunger strike, passengers are celebrating as their captain has been freed from prison. He still faces charges, but all bail conditions have been dropped, and he is free to go.
JOHN KLUSMIRE: It won’t stop here, this year or next year or the next year after that. I believe it will be a continuation of a situation in the world that little people really recognize or know about, and we need to bring attention to it and bring an end to it. And that being said, whenever I’m called upon to help, I would find it very difficult to turn them down.
AARON MATÉ: So the sun is setting over Greece, and we’ve just said our goodbyes to the passengers and crew of The Audacity of Hope. It’s an emotional moment for Democracy Now!’s Hany Massoud and I. We have been with these people all week long as they tried to pull off this improbable journey, defying their own government, the U.S., as well as the Israeli government and the Greek government, which of course came under heavy pressure from Israel and the U.S. amidst a financial crisis. So, although we leave them behind, we take with us one clear message: their mission to free Gaza is far from over.
ALICE WALKER: It feels really good to know that the world is watching, that there are people on this earth who care about the people of Gaza so much that we all got out of our houses and into our various cars and planes, and we made it to this boat, and we actually tried to cross the water to get to the people of Gaza, especially to the children, who need to know that the world is here and the world cares and the world sees and a lot of us love them, and we do not agree that they should be brutalized and harmed.
AARON MATÉ: For Democracy Now!, I’m Aaron Maté, with Hany Massoud.
AMY GOODMAN: And special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Hany Massoud for shooting, editing and co-producing this report, as well as to Aaron Maté and Hany for all of their coverage this past week in Athens, Greece.