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“We Are Eager to Get to Gaza”: Democracy Now! Exclusive Report from Greece on U.S. Gaza Aid Flotilla

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Up to 50 Americans are set to sail from a Greek port on a U.S.-flagged ship that is part of an international flotilla carrying humanitarian aid and letters of support for Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinian residents. Its fate is now in limbo under the weight of U.S.-Israeli pressure and Greece’s economic turmoil. Israel insists it will enforce its blockade on Gaza, which it says is aimed at stopping weapons from reaching the Hamas government. “The Israelis do have a right to interdict arms traffic. We’re bearing letters,” says Ray McGovern, former senior CIA analyst and passenger on the U.S. aid ship. “How can these letters be considered a threat to the security of Israel?” Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté is in Athens to cover the journey of The Audacity of Hope, named after President Obama’s bestselling book. He and fellow producer, Hany Massoud, are the only journalists with the U.S. delegation. They file this exclusive report. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Amidst the uncertainty awaiting them at sea, flotilla passengers are now facing a new challenge, even before setting sail. The Greek government has refused to grant permission for The Audacity of Hope and two other ships leaving port, citing anonymous complaints that later turn out to come from an Israeli group. The Greek government’s move comes amidst heavy international pressure to resolve a fiscal crisis that sparked massive protest and a general strike scheduled for this week.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, is also warning journalists not to cover the aid mission. On Sunday, Israel said reporters who board Gaza-bound ships will be barred from Israel for 10 years and have their equipment seized. In response, the Foreign Press Association said the warning, quote, “sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.” On Twitter, former U.S. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley responded, quote, “Israel is working against its own self-interest by pressuring journalists not to cover the Gaza flotilla, clearly a newsworthy event,” he tweeted.

Well, Democracy Now! is in Athens right now with our exclusive report. Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté is in Greece covering the journey of The Audacity of Hope.

AARON MATÉ: We’re in Athens, Greece, where delegates from across the U.S. have gathered to board The Audacity of Hope. It’s one of 10 ships in the Freedom Flotilla 2, the aid mission to the Gaza Strip. But the journey is facing uncertainty. The Greek government is facing heavy pressure to thwart the aid mission, and the State Department is calling on The Audacity of Hope to abandon its voyage, just issuing a statement calling it “provocative and dangerous.”

Well, we spoke to some of the delegates that are going to be boarding the ship and asked for their response.

JANE HIRSCHMANN: I’m Jane Hirschmann. I’m one of the organizers of the U.S. boat to Gaza called The Audacity of Hope. We’re here tonight, as you see, with not only our delegation, but delegations from all over the country. We’re part of the international Freedom Flotilla-Stay Human. We are going to sail to Gaza. We are over 22 countries and 10 ships that are going.

AARON MATÉ: So, right now, the Greek government is facing a huge internal revolt. There’s protests every day, strikes for this week. Are you concerned that opponents of the flotilla are going to exploit that to try to pressure the Greek government to stop the sailing?

JANE HIRSCHMANN: Yes, I think that’s happening right now. You know, our boat, right now, is ready to go, as I said. There has been a complaint that’s been, you know, lodged against our boat. It’s totally bogus. And they are trying to slow down the process. Tomorrow, our lawyer is going to try to deal with it, and we hope that we will be sailing very, very soon.

AARON MATÉ: The State Department is calling the flotilla “provocative.” It’s urging Americans not to take part. What’s your response?

JANE HIRSCHMANN: I think we should see—turn that around a little and ask the State Department who’s being provocative, when a group of unarmed civilians, civil society, the civil society, is going to a country that’s been totally under siege, where this highest unemployment in the world is in Gaza, when they don’t have sanitary water conditions, they don’t have medicines. And you really have to ask, being occupied, which is the country that’s really being provocative. And I think that’s Israel. And of course the United States colludes in that, because we give Israel $3 billion a year of our tax money to do this to the people of Gaza.

AARON MATÉ: Now, you’re Jewish. I’m seeing a lot of Jews here. Are there any non-Jews here?

JANE HIRSCHMANN: Twenty-five percent of this boat, of the delegates on this boat, are Jewish, yes. And there’s a reason for that, because we want to say to the world that the Israeli government does not speak in our name.

RAY McGOVERN: My name is Ray McGovern. And I’ve seldom met 35 closer friends now, and are really eager to get on that boat to get to Gaza. What Barack Obama wants to avoid is having to decide: do I call Netanyahu and risk being rebuffed, as he is accustomed to doing, or do I just let these Americans suffer whatever fate awaits them at hands of the Israeli navy? Tough decision. That’s why they’re focusing on Greece, to make sure that we never leave here, lest he have to face that decision.

Never—never, ever—was it our intention to sail into Israeli waters, OK? Gazan waters are Gazan waters, under Israeli law, because they pretend not to be an occupying power anymore. So, either we go into Gazan waters, where we cannot be intercepted under international law, or the Israelis say, “Well, no, we were only kidding about not occupying Gaza. We still occupy Gaza.” Then the Israelis do have a right to interdict arms traffic. Now, you know, we’re bearing letters, OK? My grandfather from Ireland, he was a letter carrier. So was my other grandfather. It’s very much in my tradition. We’re carrying letters. Now, what, in God’s name, can letters—how can the letters, these letters, be considered a threat to the security of Israel?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I’m Medea Benjamin with the group CodePink. I’m from Washington, D.C. This is not a provocation. This is following the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. It’s following the footsteps of Palestinians who resist nonviolently day after day. And it’s in a great global tradition of standing up against injustice.

AARON MATÉ: Six members of Congress have signed a letter asking the U.S. government to protect the passengers. What do you want from the White House, from Congress, from the State Department?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first I want to say that when you look around here at representatives from other organizations, they have members of their parliament going with them. There is a member of the Spanish parliament here, European parliament here, Swiss parliament, Norwegian parliament. And they ask us, “How many members of your Congress are going on this U.S. delegation?” And I laugh, because I’m so ashamed to even say, not only is there not one member going, but we didn’t even bother asking any of them to come, because we knew it would be impossible. It was hard enough to get six people to sign a letter that said that our government should protect us. And we are U.S. citizens, you know. So, it is so embarrassing when you see how far removed our government is compared to other governments around the world in standing up for what we say that we go to war for in Iraq or in Libya: people’s basic human rights.

AARON MATÉ: So, we’re on our way to a square where there are some protests taking place?

LISA FITHIAN: We’re heading to the heart of the resistance here in Greece, in Athens right now, Syntagma Square.

AARON MATÉ: So people have been gathering there—


AARON MATÉ: —daily?

LISA FITHIAN: The square is actually occupied. People, you’ll see when we get down, they’ve set up a whole community there. Each quadrant has tents set up. There’s a media area, a healthcare area. And then, in the center of the plaza is where they have the assemblies every night. So there’s a popular assembly every night, basically a decision-making process about the different agendas that they do. And right now, they’re dealing with the political position around these austerity measures that are going to be voted on on Wednesday and preparing for the general strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.

AARON MATÉ: We’re at Syntagma Square, the epicenter of protests in Greece right now. And we’re with Lisa Fithian, who’s sort of the unofficial tour guide for Democracy Now! in activist hotbeds. You were with us in Copenhagen, gave us a tour there during the climate protests. And now, tell us what’s going on here.

LISA FITHIAN: As you can see, as we come down into the main center of the plaza, right across from the parliament is the popular assembly that’s taking place right now. So what you have is folks from every walk of life that come to the center here in Athens. You know, all different ages, from all different professions, from classes, different political ideologies, are all coming here to participate in this incredible democratic process.

I mean, I think I’ve seen, as I’ve come down here, you know, people take it very seriously. There’s a voting process, and they set their agendas. And it’s in the heart of this incredible community that’s been here for over a month, where you have medical areas, media areas, art areas, cultural areas, and then people that are camping out. And so, every day this goes on. And each night, starting from anywhere between 7:00 and 9:00 ’til midnight or so, the plenary happens.

And really, on the strike, this is, you know, the center where a lot of the conflicts happened two weeks ago. And when the strike comes Tuesday and Wednesday, this will continue to be the center. Wednesday, the general strike is calling for people from all around Greece to come here to surround the parliament building. So we can only imagine what that’s going to be like. So, it’s really an incredible moment here. And as you’ve seen, talking to people from Greece, they have such great hope and such belief in what they’re doing here, that it’s really democracy.

MARY: Well, I’m Mary. I came here like everybody came. It was something like a spontaneous call on Facebook saying everybody who is upset with this situation, Greek, come to Syntagma Square at 6:00. It was Wednesday, 25 of May. And I came to see what this thing is. And I thought that, like usual, we were going to stay here for two hours, look at each other, yell a little, maybe have a fight with the police, and go back. But we are here over a month. Yesterday we have our birthday of one month. And we managed to make a small, self-organized community. It’s not—some people say it’s a political movement. OK, I don’t know, maybe it is. It’s a demonstration. That’s what it is. Everybody thinks that the political system in this country is very corrupted. So we don’t follow any party, any political party. This square says parties, political parties, are out.

AARON MATÉ: And this week, there’s a general strike being called?

MARY: Yes, for 48 hours, 48 hours. We already voted and posted on the internet to this government and to the police that we are peaceful, that we won’t cause any problems. Protect us. Don’t hate us. I hope they will do it, because it’s going to be bad for us, but worse for them. We know that.

LISA FITHIAN: We are so proud to be here at a time to see this incredible uprising of democracy in Greece and to be here in solidarity with you. And we know right now that Greece is being screwed by the IMF and the Europeans and the United States and Israel to try and crush your economy. And we believe that is wrong, and we will be with you in the streets during the strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Last year, when the international flotilla tried to challenge the blockade, Israel came out 70 miles into international water and killed nine of our allies around the world, from Turkey and the U.S. Now we are concerned that Israel thinks they can come to the shores of Greece to stop us. And we say no. They are trying to stop our boats, and they’re trying to stop this flotilla to Gaza. And we did not come here just to be in Syntagma Square or to be in your strikes. We came here to break the blockade of Gaza, and that is what we are going to do.

AARON MATÉ: Greece is being threatened by these governments who are pointing to its financial crisis and saying, “You could be punished further, unless you stop these boats.” What do you think of that?

MARY: I think it’s a shame. I have no words about these things, where we stop what? We accept pressures to stop what? Help people that needs help? It’s—I don’t have words to express my anger about this. And not just me. I think everybody is angry about that. It’s insane.

AMY GOODMAN: That exclusive report produced by Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté and Hany Massoud in Athens, Greece.

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