From Athens to New York, a Flotilla is a Demonstration with Press Coverage

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(1,010 words)


From Athens to New York, a Flotilla is a Demonstration with Press Coverage


Robert Naiman


Policy Director

Just Foreign Policy



Often in the last few months, I had the opportunity to answer the

question: why are you attempting to sail to Gaza with the Gaza Freedom



I always answered by talking about the blockade of Gaza. 1.5 million

human beings are living under restrictions that the International

Committee of the Red Cross has described as illegal collective

punishment against a civilian population, in direct violation of the

Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of civilians under

occupation. The “permanent opening” by the interim Egyptian government

of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has turned out to be

largely a “nothing burger,” with an average of 400 people crossing a

day, whereas an average of 300 people a day crossed before the

“permanent opening” and 800 people crossed a day before the closure of

Gaza. Construction materials are still largely prohibited.

Palestinians from Gaza still have great difficulty obtaining

permission to travel to East Jerusalem and the West Bank for work,

study, or medical care. Palestinian fishermen are restricted to

fishing within three nautical miles of Gaza’s coast, even though they

were promised twenty miles under the Oslo accord. Israel, with the

collaboration of the U.S. and Egypt, largely prevents Gaza from

exporting its goods to Europe and to the West Bank, although what

preventing the export of strawberries to Europe has to do with Israeli

“security” has yet to be explained to a skeptical world public.


But there is another aspect to the question besides “what are you

protesting”: why this means? You could write to the newspaper, call

Congress, hold a demonstration. Why this means, not some other?


You hold a demonstration on a busy street, because a key objective is

to communicate with the general public, and you can’t communicate with

the general public if they can’t see or hear you.


When we were in Athens, pressing for permission from the Greek

authorities to leave by boat – and also preparing to sail without

their permission – we noted that the Canadian boat had a much better

chance of getting out than we did, because they were in Crete. If they

could slip past the Greek Coast Guard, they might make it to

international waters. But there was little chance of that for us,

docked in Athens – a lot of Greek water separated us from freedom.

It’s as if you and your confederate made a run for the border, but he

was in El Paso and you were in Peoria. When we sailed, we were quickly

intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard commandos and forced to dock at a

military port.


But from the point of view of press coverage, it was better to be in

Athens than Crete. Athens is a convenient place for international

media; Crete, not so much.


While we were in Greece, Athens was erupting in protest against the

European Union/IMF austerity plan imposed as a condition of the

European/IMF bailout of European banks that made bad loans to Greece.

There were two days of general strike while we were in Athens, many

protests, lots of tear gas, even a few buildings set on fire. As we

awaited permission to leave – or a decision to execute our plan to

leave without permission – we worried we would lose our media

contingent. On our American boat, we had 36 passengers, four crew, and

10 journalists. Some of these were TV journalists from the major

networks and others were print journalists from major publications.

They weren’t going to stay indefinitely while we held press

conferences. They needed action. Fortunately, Synagma Square – the

“Tahrir Square” of the Greek protests against the EU/IMF austerity

plan, across the street from the parliament building – was a short

distance from the hotels where the American passengers on the U.S.

boat to Gaza were staying. “Go cover the anti-IMF protests,” we said.

“We’ll let you know before we leave.” And when we did leave, all the

journalists were on board.


With our flotilla, we put the issue of Gaza back on the international

stage, raising the political price of the blockade and of the Israeli

occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. We showed that

a few hundred peace activists, largely from North America and Western

Europe, mostly middle-aged and many of them Jews, could force the

Israeli and U.S. governments to publicly answer for their blockade of

1.5 million people.


This protest was not an isolated event, but part of a continuum with

other actions to put the question of Palestine on the international

agenda. A few days after most of the Americans returned home, hundreds

of activists from Western Europe and North America flew to Israel to

participate in the Welcome to Palestine “flytilla,” attempting to

visit protests in the West Bank. The Israeli government’s reaction was to

block these activists from flying to or entering Israel, because

they intended to commit the “crime” of visiting Palestinians in the

West Bank. This dramatized the fact the West Bank is also under a form of

closure, with the Israeli government deciding who may enter and leave.


In this broad sense, the next “flotilla” – a diplomatic “flotilla” –

will be in September, when Palestinians present their application for

membership to the United Nations as a member state. It’s a flotilla in

the sense that it’s the many countries of the United Nations uniting

against the strong few, and it’s also a flotilla in the sense that

it’s a protest with press coverage. Indeed, plans are underway to

produce an actual flotilla to sail to the UN. But even if that doesn’t

take place, there will be demonstrations around the United States and

around the world on September 15 in support of Palestine’s application

for membership. The demonstration in Champaign-Urbana will be at 5pm

on September 15 at the Champaign County Veterans Memorial, Broadway

and Main, Urbana. The national website is






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