ATHENS, July 12, 2011 (IPS) - The French vessel Dignité-Al Karama is the only boat from the Freedom Flotilla II actually sailing for Gaza in an attempt to break the Israeli blockade imposed in 2006. At the same time, six Spanish members of the humanitarian aid mission went on hunger strike in the Greek capital.
The hunger strikers, who have occupied the Spanish embassy in Athens since Jul. 5, were travelling on the Spanish ship Gernika (Guernica) that was part of the flotilla carrying 500 activists from 45 different countries, and 5,000 tonnes of aid, bound for the Gaza Strip.
Nearly all the ships have been confined to port in Greece for the last 10 days, except for the Dignité-Al Karama which sailed from the French island of Corsica Jun. 25, evaded the Greek blockade on more than one occasion and remains the only vessel of the flotilla still sailing freely.
With 10 representatives of several delegations of the humanitarian coalition on board, the Dignité received permission Jul. 9 to sail for the island of Rhodes, Manolis Plionis, a member of the Greek delegation of the Freedom Flotilla II - "Stay Human", confirmed to IPS.
From on board the Dignité, French Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Nicole Kiil-Nielsen told IPS that after having been stopped last week in Ormos Kouremenos, in Crete, they were taken to Sitia by the Greek coast guard and eventually allowed to sail from there.
"We had to stop in Crete to refuel, as we did not have enough fuel to reach Gaza," Kiil-Nielsen said. "Now, the Dignité is free and we are organising another group of passengers, probably international, to go on to Gaza."
Manuel Tapial, coordinator of Rumbo a Gaza (Sailing to Gaza) Spain, told IPS that "the Dignité-Al Karama is heading for Gaza on its own, representing the dignity of the flotilla, and carrying representatives of the international coalition delegations."
In addition to the crew and MEP Kiil-Nielsen, passengers include Vangelis Pissias, the coordinator of the Greek delegation, Swedish-Israeli musician Dror Feiler and actor Guillermo "Willy" Toledo, representing the Spanish delegation.
Meanwhile, six Rumbo a Gaza activists began a hunger strike at the Spanish embassy in Greece Monday Jul. 11, after medical checks. Two other members of the group participated in the protest from Madrid.
In a communiqué released Monday, the activists said they would fast until "the Spanish government shows some sign that it will intercede (with the Greek authorities) so that the Gernika may sail freely across the Mediterranean."
The six hunger strikers are among a score of activists who occupied the Spanish embassy in Athens with the declared intent of remaining there until their country's Foreign Ministry responded to their demands, and until their ship, held by the Greek authorities in Kolymbari, Crete, was released and allowed to go to a safe port or return to Spain.
However, the activists say they have only received an official statement from the Foreign Ministry announcing its decision "not to make any public commitment to the release of the Gernika," which prompted them to take stronger measures in pursuit of their demands.
In an open letter sent Monday, Tapial upbraided the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party's (PSOE) prime ministerial candidate Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba: "The government you represent has forsaken us, and our only remaining option is protest action to rescue the Gernika, by right and with dignity.
"Mister Rubalcaba, as leader and candidate of the PSOE, speak out and call for the release of the Gernika, a ship bought with the money of thousands of people throughout Spain who believe that a project like this one is necessary to show effective support for the besieged people of Gaza.
"Listen, commit yourself and take action," the Rumbo a Gaza coordinator demanded.
The Gernika is still confined to port in Greece, in spite of having resubmitted to the authorities all the necessary documentation for permission to set sail, said Elvira Souto, one of the hunger strikers.
Eight other vessels, including two cargo ships, are still blocked in various Greek ports, while an Irish ship is in a Turkish port undergoing repairs for alleged sabotage suffered two weeks ago.
The crew of the Canadian vessel Tahrir has decided to give up plans to sail to Gaza for the moment; the U.S. ship Audacity of Hope is still in custody in Athens; and the other French boat, the Louise Michel, the Italian vessel Stefano Chiarini, the Freedom for All, the Methimus II and the Gernika are regrouping, ready to form a new flotilla, columnist Eric Verlo wrote in his blog at www.notmytribe.com.
In a move to exert further pressure, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman telephoned Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma and persuaded him to withdraw his country's flag from the Swedish/Greek/Norwegian vessel Juliano, giving the Greek coast guard the opportunity to block the ship in Heraklion.
Greece and Israel are currently carrying out joint military manoeuvres, the sixth held in a short space of time.
Israeli ambassador to Spain Raphael Schutz said there is "no humanitarian crisis" or shortage of food and medicine in Gaza. The Freedom Flotilla should be seen "for what it is: a propaganda event intended to build solidarity with a terrorist group that wants to wipe Israel off the map and kill the greatest possible number of Jews and Israelis," he argued. (END)