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Gazans nervous as next freedom flotilla nears

After successive failed attempts, a third freedom flotilla will set sail to the Gaza Strip, though many activists expect Israeli opposition.
Activists gesture from the "Stefano Chiarini" ship, which is part of the "Freedom Flotilla II",  during a demonstration against the Greek authorities' ban on Gaza-bound ships on the Greek island of Corfu July 2, 2011. Greek authorities said on Friday that ships destined for Gaza -- which involves transit through international waters -- were prohibited from leaving Greek ports.   REUTERS/Marko Djurica (GREECE - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2ODFT

The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza (ECESG) announced that a Freedom Flotilla III departed from Sweden on May 10 and is expected to reach the Gaza Strip at the end of June. Meanwhile, the Gazans are preparing to receive the ships carrying medical aid, European activists and nongovernmental organization supporters of the Palestinian cause and hoping for an end to the siege that has lasted about eight years.

During a May 31 speech before the Left Forum conference in the United States, ECESG spokeswoman Jacqueline Richardson said, “This month, the world will witness a noble mission whereby dozens of activists will take action to participate in the Freedom Flotilla III, which will peacefully sail to Gaza.”

The Swedish ship Marianne — the largest in the flotilla, currently carrying 13 Norwegian and Swedish activists — reached the port city of Pontevedra in northwest Spain on May 30 and sailed again June 1 toward Lisbon. It's scheduled to land at other ports in Italy and Greece, where it will board more European activists, then head to Gaza.

Rami Abdo, an ECESG member and the co-founder of the Alliance of the Freedom Flotilla, told Al-Monitor, “The people in Spain warmly welcomed the Marianne.” He said that as it sails across the Mediterranean, it will meet with other ships in the fleet before setting off for Gaza, adding, “We cannot speculate as to the number of ships that will set off for the Gaza Strip due to the increasing number of solidarity and human rights associations in Europe participating in the fleet.”

Asked about the date of departure to Gaza, Abdo said, “There is no official announcement regarding the date of departure to Gaza, but the expected arrival date to the Gaza Strip is at the end of June.” He noted that the participants include international supporters, European parliamentarians, representatives of human rights associations defending the Palestinian people and prominent figures that he did not disclose.

Prominent Spanish social activist Sister Teresa Forcades announced during a June 1 news conference her intention to sail with the activists to Gaza in Freedom Flotilla III and said that her participation “is a challenge to the Israeli blockade and a challenge to the occupation of Palestine.”

Abdo said that the mission of the flotilla is purely humanitarian and carries symbolic aid to Gazans, while its main objectives revolve around breaking the Israeli siege and emphasizing the right of the Gaza Strip to a waterway linking it with the outside world. 

The Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, while part of a flotilla of six ships, came under Israeli attack May 31, 2010, as it attempted to break the naval blockade on Gaza. Ten Turkish volunteers were killed in the raid.

At the end of June 2011, a second Freedom Flotilla failed to sail to Gaza after its ships suffered several deliberate sabotage operations by unknown parties while in Greece.

Councils and bodies defending the Palestinian people in European forums are mobilizing solidarity and holding events to support Freedom Flotilla III. On May 26, the Council for European Palestinian Relations held a closed parliamentary meeting at the headquarters of the European Parliament in Brussels in support of the fleet and its objectives. Dozens of deputies and advisers from different political parties attended the meeting.

The ECESG also started a Twitter campaign to support and welcome Freedom Flotilla IIIIn addition, activists on social networking sites are using the hashtag #WelcomeFlotilla3.

The Palestinians marked the fifth anniversary of the Freedom Flotilla I attack during a May 30 ceremony near the memorial to those killed on the Mavi Marmara in the port of Gaza. The participants chanted slogans in support of the mission to break the Israeli siege and restrain any Israeli moves to stop the course of the fleet to Gaza.

Adham Abu Salmiya, the spokesman for the National Movement Committee for Breaking the Siege and Reconstruction in Gaza, confirmed that preparations in the Gaza Strip are in full swing to receive the third flotilla. “We have organized several events and celebrations during the past few days in preparation to receive the fleet, and the coming days will witness other celebrations and events to welcome this international fleet that will come to break the Gaza siege,” Abu Salmiya told Al-Monitor.

As part of these events, activists led maritime tours May 31 in small fishing boats off the Gaza beach, taking children and disabled people to throw roses into the sea in memory of the Marmara victims and as a gesture to those preparing to sail to Gaza.

Dozens of children organized a May 31 gathering over the ruins of the houses that were destroyed during the 2014 Gaza war in the Shajaiyah neighborhood, east of Gaza City, to welcome the Freedom Flotilla III.

Rana Eid, 16, who participated in the gathering, told Al-Monitor: “We hope that the flotilla will arrive safe and sound to Gaza. We are impatiently waiting for it, and I hope it will serve to break the Israeli siege imposed on us.”

In contrast, Israel has stated it will not allow the fleet to enter Gaza, as Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in remarks The Jerusalem Post that Israel will not allow the boats into its waters — without explaining how it would stop the fleet.

Political analyst Hassan Abdo ruled out the possibility that Israel would resort to violence. Abdo told Al-Monitor that Israel will place political pressure on European governments to prevent this fleet from exiting its ports, even if this requires blowing up the vessels' engines. If this does not prevent the fleet from heading to Gaza, Israel will confront it at sea, damage the boat engines and drag them to Israeli ports.

Abu Salmiya said, “The arrival of the fleet to Gaza is a necessary step and a duty as the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is disastrous and portends very serious humanitarian repercussions [for] international and regional silence and ignorance.”

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