Canadian activist slams Greece for turning back Gaza-bound vessel 4Jul11 July 5, 2011

by Patrick Martin  -  The Globe and Mail -  4 July 2011

They knew they wouldn’t get far. Barely 12 kilometres out of Crete’s port city of Agios Nikolaos, the Canadian-owned ship, Tahrir, was caught and boarded by the Greek Coast Guard; its mostly Canadian passengers frustrated in their attempt to sail to Gaza and break the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory.

They knew, but they tried it anyway. “Greece has no right to hold us here,” David Heap, one of the Canada Boat to Gaza organizers, said in a telephone interview from the ship, a one-time Greek island ferry. “We wanted to at least show the world the Greeks are helping Israel enforce an illegal blockade of Gaza.”

Mr. Heap, a professor of French at the University of Western Ontario and the son of the outspoken former NDP MP Dan Heap, had never expected such behaviour from the government of George Papandreou. Greece always had been known as a great supporter of the Palestinians. Mr. Papandreou’s father, Andreas, was so opposed to Israel that he even had been accused of aiding Palestinian terrorists during his tenure in as Greek prime minister in the 1980s.

Not any more.

Relations between the two countries began to change early last year when Mr. Papandreou and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly met by coincidence in Moscow. The Israeli leader is said to have taken the opportunity to voice his concern about Islamic militancy in Turkey, Greece’s great nemesis. The two men became friendly.

Israel has closed all borders and maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power there in 2007. Part punishment for Hamas, which Israel views as a terrorist organization, and part safeguard against weapons being smuggled into the territory, the blockade has become a fixture of Israeli policy.

Successive flotillas have tried to perforate the blockade with limited success. A year ago, the biggest flotilla, led by a Turkish organization, was stopped at sea and boarded. Meeting unexpectedly serious resistance, Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish activists during the operation.

From that point, Israel’s relations with Turkey went south in a hurry. Turkey withdrew its ambassador and demanded Israel apologize for the deaths and pay compensation to the victims’ families. It suspended the two countries’ long-time joint military exercises.

Israel insisted it was within its rights to blockade hostile territory and accused Turkey of fomenting trouble by supporting the flotilla.

With Turkish relations in the dumper, Israel needed a strategic ally in the eastern Mediterranean to take the place of Turkey, and Greece badly needed an influential friend to help the country weather serious economic difficulties.

Today, Israel is an advocate for Greece in European and Western circles. Their air forces just finished a two-week exercise in northern Greece. And Mr. Papandreou’s government is keeping the Gaza flotilla’s boats in various Greek ports tied up with red tape or under the watch of Greek commandos.

“It’s terribly sad,” Mr. Heap said. “The people here [in Crete] tell us they are ashamed of their government; some of the soldiers apologize for what they have to do to us.”

When the coast guard overtook the ship and several commandos and police came on board, Mr. Heap said, the volunteers “disabled the engines to make it hard for the Greeks to get the ship back to port.”

Towed back to harbour, the ship had its diesel tank ruptured when it was roughly docked at a pier without bumpers, Mr. Heap added. Early reports about the ship sinking were the result of a premature evaluation, Mr. Heap explained, apologizing for the misleading information.

It looks to be the end of the line for Mr. Heap, in this, his second frustrated attempt to get to Gaza. He had been part of a 2009-10 march to Gaza that was stopped by the Hosni Mubarak government in Cairo.

Mr. Heap, a father of two, says he won’t quit, despite criticism by some at home, including at his own university.

“That’s their opinion,” he says of his critics. “A lot of people are proud of what we’re doing.”

He said his father, an Anglican priest, union organizer and social activist, “was ridiculed too when he went to Selma to join Martin Luther King,” referring to the ground breaking civil rights marches in the southern United States in the 1960s.

For David Heap, Gaza is his Alabama.

“They may not need food or other basics,” he said of the people of Gaza, “but they need freedom, and economic opportunity.”

“I’m going to keep trying to help them.”

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