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Flotilla To Challenge Israel's Blockade Of Gaza

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Flotilla To Challenge Israel's Blockade Of Gaza

Middle East

Flotilla To Challenge Israel's Blockade Of Gaza

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Israel faces another challenge to its economic blockade of Gaza. The blockade is intended to isolate Hamas, keeping arms away from that militant party that controls the Gaza Strip and periodically strikes Israel.

But the blockade has generated criticism for imposing suffering on Palestinians who live in Gaza. Now hundreds of activists from the U.S., Europe and Canada are organizing a 10-ship flotilla to sail across the Mediterranean. Hanging over their mission is the memory of a deadly Israeli commando raid on a similar flotilla last year.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Athens, the base of this year's operation.

Unidentified Woman: The next piece of work, we wanted to do is talk a little bit about the scenario, building off of where we left on Thursday.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Some 50 American activists of Operation USTOGAZA are holding workshops in an Athens hotel. Over a year of fundraising throughout the country, the group raised nearly $400,000 to cover basic expenses and lease a boat.

One of the most prominent American participants in the flotilla is Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple." She gave her reason for taking part in this video on the group's web site.

Ms. ALICE WALKER (Author, "The Color Purple): I actually love children and I love water and I love trees and I love parents who are happy, and all of this wonderful life that has been completely disrupted and degraded by the Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people in Gaza.

POGGIOLI: The American vessel has been renamed The Audacity of Hope, after the title of President Obama's autobiography. But organizers won't reveal where it's docked or when they'll set sail. They claim Greek authorities have imposed administrative delays under pressure from Israel. But it's not just Israel that opposes the flotilla. Despite its opposition to the blockade, the Greek government has officially urged its citizens and Greek-registered vessels not to participate in the operation.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said aid should be delivered to Gaza only through what he called legitimate crossings and established channels - meaning through Israel or Egypt. And the Obama administration has also strongly urged U.S. nationals not to take part.

Ann Wright, a retired State Department official and former Army colonel, took part in last year's attempt to break the Gaza blockade.

Ms. ANN WRIGHT (Retired State Department Official): Well, the Israelis have been very clear. They intend to stop us from going to Gaza, and they've been clear that they will use force. We will not be using force. We are unarmed, civilian ships that are sailing for a political purpose to bring world attention to what's going on in Gaza.

POGGIOLI: The Americans, whose age ranges from the mid-'20s to mid-'80s, say their ship will be carrying only written messages and letters to the Palestinian people. Other ships from Europe and Canada will carry various goods, from medical supplies to school notebooks.

Activists see Israel's Gaza blockade as a human rights violation, while Israel says it's aimed at preventing weapons from reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants.

Last year's attempt to break the blockade was intercepted by Israeli naval commandos. The bloodshed left nine activists dead. The Americans in Athens have trained for their voyage, watching graphic videos of that raid. Richard Levy, a civil rights lawyer, took part in the non-violent training.

Mr. RICHARD LEVY (Attorney): So, yeah, we put in a number of hours learning how to respond to that kind of an assault, and I guess most of us on the boat are sailing with the recognition that that's a real possibility and how do we best protect ourselves under those circumstances.

POGGIOLI: In another hall of the hotel, a group of women wearing T-shirts with the words I Am An Unarmed Citizen and Stay Human are discussing possible scenarios.

Medea Benjamin is the founder of Code Pink, a women's anti-war group.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Ms. MEDEA BENJAMIN (Founder, Code Pink): Some of us are Jews. We are certainly not against the Israeli people, and our idea is that we are part of a historical movement that has deep roots in Gandhi, deep roots in Martin Luther King, deep roots in civil resistance movements throughout history.

POGGIOLI: On Monday, the Israeli government said it would act with determination to stop the flotilla from reaching its destination, but added, with minimal confrontation, as far as possible, between Israeli forces and passengers.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...though Gaza we will sail, Alleluia.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens.

MONTAGNE: And one more note on that flotilla: Last Sunday, the Israeli government attempted to keep journalists off the boat. It said it would bar any journalist who went along for the ride from entering Israel for as much as a decade. The next day, Israel's prime minister rescinded that threat, saying it was issued without his knowledge.

(Soundbite of music)


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