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U.S. Ship in Freedom Flotilla Attempts to Leave Greece for Gaza, Despite Threats and Risk of Sabotage

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The U.S.-flagged ship “The Audacity of Hope” left a Greek port today bound for Gaza, but the status of the 10-boat flotilla remains uncertain. At least one boat has already pulled out due to sabotage. Another is still being repaired. All 10 ships were supposed to set sail earlier this week, but the Greek government, already facing a financial crisis and public uproar over austerity measures, blocked the ships’ departure under international pressure. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is entitled to stop the flotilla as part of its “full right to operate against efforts to smuggle” weapons into Gaza. Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté and videographer Hany Massoud are in Greece covering the journey of “The Audacity of Hope.” They were there Thursday as it was publicly unveiled. They spoke with novelist Alice Walker, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and others. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Freedom Flotilla, seeking to reach the Gaza Strip, is in limbo under the weight of Israeli-U.S. pressure, unrest in Greece and acts of sabotage targeting its ships. A number of vessels remain moored in Greek ports, stranding hundreds of passengers and the humanitarian cargo they’re hoping to bring to Gazans living under an Israeli blockade. The ships were supposed to set sail this week, but the Greek government, already facing a financial crisis and public uproar over austerity measures, has blocked the ships’ departure under international pressure.

Meanwhile, an Irish ship moored in Turkey was pulled out of the flotilla after its engine was badly damaged in an act of sabotage. Another ship is undergoing repairs in Greece after unknown vandals damaged its propeller. Flotilla organizers have blamed the Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel has denied involvement but is openly celebrating the flotilla’s setbacks. On Thursday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel is entitled to stop the flotilla as part of its, quote, “full right to operate against efforts to smuggle” weapons into Gaza.

We’re going to be speaking with the Israeli consul general in New York in our next segment, but right now we turn to Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté, who is in Greece covering the journey of the flotilla’s U.S.-flagged ship called The Audacity of Hope, after President Obama’s bestselling book. Aaron was there Thursday as the ship was publicly unveiled. He filed this report.

AARON MATÉ: After more than a week of being stranded in Athens, amidst Israeli government pressure, U.S. government warnings, and a political crisis in Greece that certainly weakened the Greek government’s ability to withstand international pressure, passengers aboard The Audacity of Hope, the U.S. boat to Gaza, gathered at their ship for the first time.

ANN WRIGHT: If the Israeli government really does not want us to sail and doesn’t want us to sail again and again and again and again, then they need to end the blockade of Gaza.

AARON MATÉ: Flanked by her fellow passengers, retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright held a news conference discussing the challenges that face this ship in trying to reach Gaza.

ANN WRIGHT: The government of Greece, tragically, is being complicit with the Israeli government. It’s being pounded by the Israeli government not to let these boats sail. It’s part of the diplomatic offensive that the Israeli government has been moving on for the last three months to prevent the flotilla from sailing, a flotilla of unarmed civilian ships filled with unarmed civilian people.

AARON MATÉ: Greek authorities blocked the ship’s departure following a complaint from an Israeli group. Other flotilla ships are in a similar bind, and two have been sabotaged while moored in their ports.

ANN WRIGHT: Our boats are being surveilled. They are being watched. And in some cases, they have been sabotaged. A Greek-Norwegian-Swedish passenger boat was sabotaged just this last week. An axle to a propeller shaft was cut off. And then, just yesterday, in Turkey, the Irish boat, in an incident of terrorism—this is terrorism, when you go after a boat and disable it.

AARON MATÉ: Organizers now say the Irish ship has suffered too much damage and won’t be sailing for Gaza. As their numbers dwindle, the Freedom Flotilla faces a tough choice: wait for permission, and they could never leave, but if they defy orders and set sail, they risk arrest and an end to their mission.

For U.S. passengers, the U.S. backing of the Israeli effort to stop the flotilla provokes anger. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Israel would have the right to use force to stop the ships. Among the U.S. passengers is author Alice Walker.

ALICE WALKER: It is so pathetic to put it in those terms, because we’re carrying letters. We’re carrying letters, a lot of them for children. And to think that a big, strong government like Israel, which is the fourth-largest military power on earth, would be afraid of the letters of children is saying a lot. And that our government and the United States cares more about the feelings of the Israeli government than about the feelings of its citizens, I think, is very serious.

HEDY EPSTEIN: My name is Hedy Epstein. I think the reason for some of this is they’re afraid that if they do not support and go along with whatever Israel demands, that they might be considered anti-Semitic. And it’s ridiculous to have that kind of a fear. And even if you were called anti-Semitic—I am being called anti-Semitic. So? It’s not pleasant, I agree. But it doesn’t stop me from doing what I’m about to do or what I have done or what I will do.

RICHARD LEVY: I’m Richard Levy. I’m a passenger on The Audacity of Hope. We have gotten no support from the United States on this. Apparently free speech is not really for Americans if it involves Palestine, and it’s not really for the Mideast if it involves Palestine. Free speech is OK in some countries. It is not OK in other countries. And our consulate has basically turned us down flat in terms of support to allow this flotilla to go forward. A great disappointment.

MISSY LANE: My name is Missy Lane, and I’m from Washington, D.C. I think the fact that so many powerful, wealthy governments are working so hard to keep us from going shows how significant it is. Just so much of the propaganda in the media, or mainstream media, that you see, says that there is total support for Israel, and they are the only democracy in the Middle East. And I think that anything to negate that, to show the truth, that clearly a million and a half people living in Gaza don’t hate freedom, they’re desperate for freedom.

AARON MATÉ: The flotilla seeks to leave Greece as the country is in uproar over a radical austerity program demanded by international lenders. The connection is not lost on flotilla passenger Henry Norr.

HENRY NORR: This country is faced with a structural adjustment program dictated by the banks. Its’ the most profound and disruptive that’s ever happened to a first world country. It’s the kind of thing that’s happened many times before to third world countries, and it happened in eastern Europe. Never happened before to a European country. Their living standards are being slashed. One of the things that’s gotten to me is hearing that on the IMF list of demands is that they privatize the Port of Piraeus. That’s the port adjacent to Athens. For 3,000 years, at least, that port has been the outlet, Greece’s outlet to the world. We happen to be here at a moment of profound crisis for this country. The Greeks are every bit as much a victim as we are, even though they are the ones who are keeping us here.

AARON MATÉ: Held back by the confluence of geopolitical imbalance and local unrest, the flotilla’s journey to Gaza is in doubt. But regardless of whether or not their ships leave port, passengers say they’re already one step closer to their ultimate goal of freeing Gaza.

ALICE WALKER: This feels like a setback, but I have lived long enough now to see that sometimes setbacks have a better outcome than you would ever imagine. And so, I take the position that getting this far, with getting this boat—it’s a beautiful boat, and we have good food, and we have lots of water, and we have music, and we have each other—that this is a major victory in the movement forward on this issue. But also, the movement around the world of people just getting together as citizens making a decision to change a bad situation and sticking together.

HEDY EPSTEIN: With what happened in the United States in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, you know, there were waves and waves of people. They knew they were going to get hurt. Maybe they knew they were going to have dogs set upon them. They knew they were going to be hosed down by water with strong water hoses. And they kept on coming, until one day they won. And this is exactly what we’re going to be doing. There will be waves and waves of flotillas until we reach our goal and break the siege of Gaza.

AARON MATÉ: For Democracy Now!, I’m Aaron Maté with Hany Massoud in Athens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And thanks to Aaron and Hany for that report. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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Israeli Official Condemns Gaza Flotilla, Refuses to Deny Israeli Role in Sabotage of Boats

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