By ANITA SNOW
2011-06-21 04:33 AM
Several of the 36 Americans who plan to sail on a U.S.-flagged boat told a news conference that they are aware of the risks they'll be taking when they join the flotilla on a still-undetermined date later this month.
The vessel, which will be called "The Audacity of Hope," takes its name from one of President Barack Obama's books.
Hundreds of people on as many as nine vessels from countries including Canada, Australia, Belgium, Denmark and Germany are expected to form the flotilla around the end of the month. The exact departure date will depend upon weather and other conditions.
Last year, nine activists died in a botched Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship during a similar flotilla. Each side accused the other of sparking the violence.
U.S. activists said they worried there could be a similar incident this year.
"Yeah, I'm scared. It's scary," said one of the American activists, Gale Courey Toensing of Canaan, Connecticut. "But it's not as scary as what the Palestinian people have to live with every day."
Ray McGovern, a former military intelligence officer and CIA analyst, said many friends have asked why he would join the group. "I don't want to be a martyr," acknowledged McGovern, adding that he hoped to draw attention to the people in Gaza.
Activists describe Israeli restrictions on Gaza's 1.5 million residents as a human rights violation. But Israel says its blockade stops weapons from reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants.
The Israeli mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Americans' announcement.
Israeli eased its land blockade of Gaza after the international furor over last year's flotilla raid. Egypt's new military rulers have since periodically opened the Rafah crosssing, which is Gaza's main gateway to the world.
Richard A. Levy, a Jewish attorney from New York, is among the American activists flying Monday night to Athens to prepare for the journey.
He said U.S. State Department officials warned them that they could provoke Israel, but "I think it's very important that Americans are on this boat, and that Jews are on this boat."
Israel has warned that it will not allow any more ships to break its naval blockade, and said without providing details that security forces have adopted new tactics since last years' raid in an effort to limit casualties.
The Turkish boat that became an international symbol of anti-Israeli activism last year, the Mavi Marmara ferry, has dropped out this year's flotilla. Although organizers insisted they were not bowing to pressure from other governments, the boat's withdrawal removes a potential flashpoint for confrontation.
Also among those on the U.S. boat will be Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women's peace group CodePink and the San Francisco rights organization Global Exchange. She said the flotilla will focus new attention on U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinians.
"This is really going to force the United States to reflect on its positions toward Israel," Benjamin said, especially amid a push by the Palestinians to have the United Nations declare Palestine a member of the world body in September.
"What will this say to the Arab world amid the ongoing Arab spring if the United States votes against the creation of a Palestinian state?" Benjamin asked. "That will put the U.S. in bind."