07/05/2011 07:02 EDT | Updated 09/04/2011 05:12 EDT

Jack Layton, Paul Dewar Asked Israel Not To Harm Canadians On Gaza Flotilla


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - Canada's new official Opposition appealed directly to Israel not to harm a boatload of Canadian protesters determined to break the Gaza Strip blockade.

NDP Leader Jack Layton and foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar delivered that plea directly to Israel's ambassador to Canada, Miriam Ziv, during a meeting at the opposition leader's office in early June.

They were trying to prevent a repeat of last year's tragedy when nine activists taking part in a similar flotilla on a Turkish boat were killed in a raid by Israeli commandos.

"Obviously, when there's a loss of lives involved everyone should take heed," Dewar said in an interview Tuesday.

He and Layton urged Israel to observe "an abundance of caution and care dealing with the flotilla because it was pretty clear it was going to be happening." Dewar said Ziv listened politely. She was not available for an interview.

The NDP meeting came shortly after Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a statement criticizing the flotilla, saying "unauthorized efforts to deliver aid are provocative and, ultimately, unhelpful to the people of Gaza."

The Canadian-owned vessel, the Tahrir, carrying at least 30 Canadians, left a port on the island of Crete on Monday and was boarded 15 minutes later by armed officers from the Greek coast guard. The Tahrir was towed back to port after unsuccessfully trying to breach Israel's sea blockade of Gaza in an attempt to deliver humanitarian aid.

Greek authorities charged and released two Canadians on Tuesday for taking part in the aborted attempt to reach the Gaza Strip.

They arrested Soha Kneen, 40, of Ottawa and Sandra Ruch, 50, of Toronto, along with an Australian man.

Kneen and Australian Michael Coleman were arrested in kayaks after trying to block the pursuit of the Greek coast guard vessel. They are to be given suspended sentences in a court appearance on Wednesday, a statement on the ship's website said.

Ehab Lotayef, a Montreal-based spokesman for the ship, told The Canadian Press that Kneen and Coleman were in their kayaks "cheering the boat as it was leaving." He said the Greece coast guard "arrested them because they said they were in their way as they tried to chase the boat."

Ruch, the Toronto-based activist who led the fundraising efforts to buy the Tahrir, is to return to court Thursday to face a charge of allowing the boat to leave port without proper authorization.

"Our team of lawyers is working closely with everyone involved," said the statement from the ship. "The rest of the passengers of the Tahrir have all been released without charges and the boat has been returned to our care and custody."

The Canadian activists have called on Ottawa to denounce what they view as an unlawful act by the Greek government.

The top Palestinian diplomat in Canada said Tuesday that while their government appreciates the solidarity the flotilla is demonstrating, its overriding concern is for the lives of its participants.

"We're not involved, nor do we encourage it to be done," Linda Sobeh Ali, the Palestinian Authority's charge d'affairs to Canada, said in an interview.

"We were in contact with the Greek government to guarantee the safety and security of all people involved. We understand the concern of all foreign governments for the safety of their citizens based on previous Israeli military behaviour."

Sobeh Ali said protest flotillas like last year's ill-fated venture, as well as this year's version involving the Tahrir, simply wouldn't be necessary if Israel ended the siege of Gaza.

Israel says it imposed the blockade in 2007 to stop weapons reaching Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. Israel eased its land blockade after an international uproar over last year's raid on the Turkish boat.

The Tahrir's website says it was planning to carry much needed medical supplies and other humanitarian goods.

"Anything helps and it's all needed … but at the same time it's more symbolic," said Sobeh Ali, who said she was speaking for her foreign ministry in the West Bank.

Greece banned the Gaza flotilla from leaving port, citing security concerns.

The Greek foreign ministry has offered to deliver the humanitarian aid the activists want to take to Gaza.

A Greek court on Tuesday released the American captain of a boat that also tried to breach the Gaza blockade, by trying to set sail from Greece without permission.

John Klusmire, the captain of the Audacity of Hope, had attempted to leave a port near Piraeus on Friday in defiance of the Greek ban on the flotilla of boats leaving port.

He appeared in court Tuesday after four days in custody, handcuffed and under police escort. He still faces trial at a later date.

Pro-Palestinian activists from France said Tuesday in Paris that one small boat was in international waters and on its way.

Jean-Claude Lefort, a spokesman for the group, told The Associated Press that the Dignite-Al Karama left a port near Athens early Monday with eight activists and two crew aboard.

Greek authorities were attempting to verify the claim.