Greece said it acted to protect pro-Palestinian activists when it banned all Gaza-bound ships from leaving its ports for a second day Saturday.
The outraged activists meanwhile, seemed divided over how to respond to the ban.
Greece’s Civil Protection Authority confirmed Saturday that the ban on departures of ships “with Greek and foreign flags from Greek ports to the maritime area of Gaza” was in place “until further notice.”
The ban had been imposed in light of “the need to protect national interests” as well as “the immediate dangers to human life posed by the attempt to break the blockade,” a statement said.
It cited Israel’s “declaration to use violence against those who attempt to break the blockade,” as well as a United Nations plea for member states on the Mediterranean “to use their influence to discourage” the mission.
Activists have accused Israeli secret services of keeping the mission grounded through a campaign of harassment and dirty tricks, including “sabotage” attempts on two boats and a slew of bureaucratic problems.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor on Saturday dismissed the sabotage charges as “ridiculous,” calling them “sad conspiracy theories.”
But activists appeared divided over how to react to the obstacles facing them.
For while some activists called for an immediate departure, others argued the futility of defying the Greek ban.
On Friday evening the US boat Audacity of Hope tried to quit Greek waters just an hour after Athens announced its ban: they were quickly intercepted by a coastguard vessel with masked, armed men on board.
Coastguard officials were on alert any other attempts to defy the ban, but differences emerged among the flotilla organizers over plans to get the remaining four boats into international waters and on to Gaza.
US Captain John Klusmer was arrested and appeared before a prosecutor in Piraeus port town near Athens where he was charged with felony offences, according to a statement from the Greek authorities.
He is due back in court on Tuesday.
The Audacity of Hope was due to carry 36 passengers, 4 crew and about 10 members of the media. Its attempt to sail Friday night from the port of Perama, near Athens, was thwarted by coast guard speedboats
While the other passengers and crew members were free to go, several had chosen to stay on the boat Saturday afternoon “in solidarity with the captain and defiance of the Greek authorities,” a US flotilla spokesperson said.
The boat was under guard at a small military port in the area.
Only 4 of the initial 10 boats were still in the running on Saturday: Spain’s Gemika, the Canadian Tahrir and the French Dignity and Louise Michel.
It was not clear whether they would carry the aid originally destined for Gaza.
As well as accusing Israeli agents of a dirty tricks campaign that they say included the sabotage of boats, the theft of passports and legal moves to prevent the boats leaving port, the campaigners expressed fury at Greece.
The Ship to Gaza organization said Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had sold “Greece’s soul,” by allowing “Israeli territorial waters” to reach its shores.
Activists said they “strongly suspect that Israel is placing great economic pressures on Greece behind the scenes” and could well believe Athens was acting in “national interests.”
For the past week, the flotilla has urged Greece to let them travel against Israel’s wishes.
But they were upstaged on Thursday by news that President Karolos Papoulias would travel to Israel in July to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties.
On Friday, activists of all ages staged a protest outside the US Embassy in Athens, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans, as Greek police pushed them back with riot shields.
But they abandoned plans for a second day of protests Saturday.
The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas that rules Gaza also accused Greece of bowing to Israeli pressure.
Condemning Friday’s interception of the US vessel, they called on the European parliament and human rights groups “to put pressure on the Greek government” to let the aid flotilla sail.
Israel says it imposed the blockade in 2007 to stop weapons reaching Hamas. Activists describe the blockade as a form of incarceration for the Palestinians.
Nine activists were killed last year in an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla.
(Sara Ghasemilee, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)