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Activists Recount Events on the Mavi Marmara

June 18, 2010

By Ellen Davidson

A near-capacity crowd packed House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn June 17 to hear speakers from the MV Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza that was boarded by Israeli commandos May 31. Nine passengers were killed and dozens wounded in the raid.

Only a half-dozen or so people attended a counterdemonstration called by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC), an umbrella group for many Jewish organizations in the city. The counterprotest was kept across the street and down the block, thus avoiding the hostile confrontations that sometimes arise at actions in support of the Palestinian people. One of the scheduled speakers was not allowed into the country. Former Turkish Member of Parliament Ahmet Faruk Unsal, an activist with the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, a Turkish group that was one of the main forces behind the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, was not allowed to board the plane from Turkey. Several New York politicians had called on the State Department to investigate the visa applications of the scheduled speakers (see “New York Politicians Peddle Israeli Propaganda About Gaza Flotilla”).

The crowd at House of the Lord Church was welcomed by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a longtime activist for peace and justice. “Wherever members of the human family, irrespective of the religious persuasion, irrespective of the political ideology, irrespective of the pigmentation, irrespective of the geographical location on this globe, wherever there are human beings suffering, that’s where I want to be,” said Daughtry.

City Councilman Charles Barron, who took part in an overland aid delegation to Gaza last year, addressed the crowd as well. Saying he has been getting “a lot of heat” lately over his stance in support of the Palestinian people, he recounted how he received a call from a rabbi who said he was “outraged.” Barron asked him whether he just wanted to “cuss me out and hang up” or whether he wanted to engage in an “intellectual discussion.” Barron proceeded to enumerate some of the points such a discussion would entail. “Who are the terrorists? What is terrorism? How do you define terrorism? How do you define acts of piracy? Is it just for Somalians who are trying to protect their coastline and their fishing industry and stopping boats from coming into Somalia and dumping toxic waste? Are those  pirates? Or are there pirates who take boats in international waters and murder people with no justification?”

“Any experience that deliberately sets up a people to die because they can’t get water, can’t get medicine, is a death camp,” Barron went on, “and if you don’t like me using those words, too bad. That’s what it is. You can’t purposely set up people to die, inflict genocide on other people and think that you’re the only one that has a monopoly on suffering.  You have no monopoly on suffering. Every people has a holocaust. There’s been an African holocaust.” Millions of black people died under the apartheid regime in South Africa, with its partner Israel, Barron pointed out, “so don’t talk to me about your outrage.”

“We know that when we liberate Palestine, we liberate Africa,” said Barron. “When we liberate Africa, we’re going to liberate the Caribbean and Latin America, and Central America and Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant and the United States of America. This struggle is important for us to win.”

“You only go around once in life so you might as well live it with some spine,” he concluded.

Kevin Ovenden, national coordinator of Viva Palestina and a passenger on the Mavi Marmara, spoke of his experiences aboard the boat when it was attacked by commandos from the Israeli Defense Forces. Viva Palestina has organized several successful missions to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Ovenden described being held in an Israeli prison in the Negev desert, remembering

“the brother who was shot through the leg, just one meter in front of me; the one shot through the abdomen 50 centimeters  to the right of me. Where we were, there were no Israeli commandos within the immediate proximity. It is simply unfeasible for anyone to maintain that the people who fired those shots from above, not within our line of sight, in any sense could feel threatened by the two men who were shot either side of me. Simply unfeasible. A complete and utter  lie. It’s also a lie in the shooting dead of Cevdet Kiliçlar, a young man who left a wife and two children, a photographer,  he was holding a stills camera, again, not one Israeli commando within the immediate vicinity, but he was shot through the forehead, the high-velocity bullet blowing away the back third of his skull, cradled by a friend of mine, as the last two seconds of his life passed away.”

“Their blood is now lapping on the shores of Gaza,” said Ovenden, “but their blood was not shed in vain because the tide has turned and we must seize this tide to make a lasting change for the people of Palestine, the Middle East, and around the world.”

Backed by the United States and Britain, Israel has refused to allow an international investigation of the attack on the flotilla, instead appointing an Israeli body to look into the incident. “This is a whitewash inquiry. The thing about whitewashes, which any painter or decorator will tell you, is that if you slap whitewash on too thick and too quick, it begins to peel as soon as you put it on. The British establishment has just found this out. Thirty-eight years ago they commissioned a shotgun inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre that killed 14 people, the Widgery whitewash, and it’s just been overturned by the Saville inquiry and the truth is out and the apologies are coming. Thirty-eight years too late, but justice will not be denied forever, and justice in this case will not be denied.”

Filmmaker and activist Iara Lee was also a passenger on the Mavi Marmara. She had visited Gaza in December with the Gaza Freedom March and “was appalled to see the destruction of infrastructure and the effects of the use of white phosphorus, how fishermen could not even fish off their waters. And I thought it was our moral obligation to continue this fight, so we supported the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. I went as a filmmaker, as an activist, as a humanitarian aid worker.

“We had over 600 passengers on our boat, representative of over 40 countries. During the journey I got to see that they were coming from all walks of life and our common goal was to break this illegal siege, bring our token, even if it was 10,000 tons, it was still token [compared to] the humanitarian aid they needed, because at the end of the day, they want to have trade, they want to live like normal people.”

She showed footage that she and her crew had smuggled off the Mavi Marmara; the footage is unusual, because most of the video that has been released has come from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and has been severely edited. “The first thing they [the commandos] did is to confiscate all our footage,” explained Lee, “because they didn’t want the world to know. And despite the danger, my crew and I decided that we were going to film and try to get this footage out. … We are still trying to restore some of the corrupt data, and we will be able to have a little bit more, to show before the raid how people were a peace boat, not a hate boat, and that we were not there to lynch Israeli soldiers. We didn’t even know they were going to come and start killing us.”

Many believe that, like Operation Cast Lead, the three-week attack Israel mounted on Gaza in 2008-09 that resulted in more than 1,400 dead and thousands wounded, the assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla will serve to shift world opinion against the Israeli siege of the territory.  Egypt has already eased its role in the blockade, saying it will now open the Rafah crossing into Gaza, which had previously been tightly controlled and only accessible for a couple of days a month.

Said Ovenden: “Because the tide has turned, this is the meaning of the massacre of the Mavi Marmara. It is that the miasma of defeat that had settled, sedimented, for so long in the minds of people throughout the Middle East and even upon many of our own minds in this room tonight is finally lifted and we can see through the disappearing fog the way forward and how we can start to take some steps forward to victory. The question is not will this siege be lifted. The question is how rapidly it will be lifted and how this siege will be ended… Across the world, now, all those who’ve been moved by this issue need to step into the front rank of the movement alongside those in Turkey who’ve lost their loved ones. From Vancouver to Lake Van, from Casablanca to Kuwait, from all four points of the compass, we must mobilize now, to head back to Gaza and through Gaza towards the liberation of Palestine.”

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What happened to us is happening in Gaza

Iara Lee

Iara Lee

Saturday, June 5, 2010

In the predawn hours of May 31, I was aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, part of a convoy of humanitarian vessels aiming to deliver aid to besieged civilians in Gaza, when we were attacked in international waters by a unit of Israeli commandos.

Our ship had been inspected by customs agents in Turkey, a NATO member, who confirmed that there were no guns or any such weapons aboard. Indeed, the Israeli government has produced no such arms. What was aboard the ship were hundreds of civilian passengers, representatives of dozens of countries, who had planned to deliver the flotilla’s much-needed humanitarian materials for the Gazan people. These Palestinians have suffered under an illegal siege – first imposed by Israel in 2005 and strictly enforced since early 2009 – which Amnesty International has called “a flagrant violation of international law.”

The passengers on our ship – including elected officials, diplomats, media professionals and human rights workers – joined the flotilla as an act of peaceful protest. Israel’s powerful navy could have easily approached our boat and boarded it in broad daylight or pursued nonviolent options for disabling our vessel. Instead, the Israeli military launched a nighttime assault with heavily armed commandos. Under attack, some passengers skirmished with the boarding soldiers using broomsticks and other items at hand. The commandos and navy soldiers shot and killed at least nine civilians and seriously injured dozens more. Others are still missing. The final death toll has yet to be determined.

I feared for the lives of my fellow passengers as I heard shots being fired on deck, and I later saw the bodies of several people killed being carried inside. I had expected soldiers to shoot in the air or aim at people’s legs, but instead I saw the bodies of people who appeared to have been shot multiple times in the head or chest.

When it was over, the Israeli soldiers commandeered our ships, illegally kidnapped us from international waters, towed us to the port of Ashdod, and arrested all of us on board.

The Israeli government has confiscated all of our video equipment, hard drives with video footage, cell phones and notebooks. They detained the journalists aboard my ship, preventing them for days from speaking about what happened. Acting on Israel’s behalf at the U.N. Security Council, the United States has attempted to block a full, impartial, international investigation of the incident.

Nevertheless, even at this early stage the world has expressed outrage around a basic fact: There is no justification for launching a deadly commando attack in the dark of night on a humanitarian-aid convoy.

The Israeli government denies that its punitive blockade of Gaza is the source of hardship for civilians there. While its spokespeople actively work to create confusion in the media, the truth is clear for all who would care to see it. The overwhelming conclusion of highly respected human rights authorities is that the Israeli government, because it does not accept the legitimacy of the elected Hamas government, is pursuing a policy of what Human Rights Watch calls “collective punishment against the civilian population,” illegal under international law.

With regard to the flotilla I was on, the Israeli government says it would have permitted our humanitarian aid to enter Gaza by land had we submitted it through “proper channels.” But Israel’s “proper channels” – restrictive checkpoints that have repeatedly turned away World Health Organization medical supplies and rejected or delayed the delivery of U.N. food aid – are the very source of the humanitarian crisis.

Israeli spokespeople insist that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was a provocation. It was, in the sense that civil rights protesters in the American south who sat at segregated lunch counters represented a provocation to segregationists, or in the sense that all nonviolent protests against the illegitimate acts of a government are by definition provocations. Under an illegal siege, the delivery of aid to civilians is a prohibited act; the intent of our humanitarian convoy was to violate this unjust prohibition.

At least nine of my fellow passengers were killed by the Israeli military for attempting to defy the ban on delivering aid. Far more Palestinian civilians have died as a result of the siege itself. What happened to our flotilla is happening to the people of Gaza on a daily basis. It will not stop until international law is applied to all countries, Israel included.

Iara Lee is a filmmaker and a co-founder of the San Francisco’s Caipirinha Foundation ( http://www.culturesofresistance.org/caipirinha-foundation).

This article appeared on page A – 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Flotilla detainee’s (Gene St. Onge) harrowing experience

Gene St Onge

(06-03) 14:52 PDT OAKLAND — Gene St. Onge, an Oakland structural engineer who boarded a ship for Gaza in hopes of delivering aid but was intercepted by Israeli forces instead, expects to return to his Montclair home today.

He’ll bring home a nasty chest cold that he caught while imprisoned, a cut on his forehead from a scrap with Israeli soldiers, and the memory of his friend and fellow Bay Area activist Paul Larudee, 64, leaping overboard as a form of protest.

It may be a while before St. Onge returns to the Mediterranean.

“I’m anxious to get home,” St. Onge said Thursday from his hotel room in Istanbul. “I’ve got a struggling business to tend to.”

St. Onge, 63, was one of five Bay Area residents on the Gaza-bound flotilla that ignited an international controversy after Israeli commandos intercepted the ships loaded with thousands of tons of aid. The Israeli government said nine people were killed and dozens more injured. Activists have said as many as 12 were killed.
Confusion reigned

St. Onge, sounding weary but relieved, gave a firsthand account of the confusion early Monday as soldiers boarded the Sfendoni, a 54-passenger craft that was one of six ships in the flotilla. The ship also carried Larudee, an El Cerrito resident who co-founded the Free Palestine Movement, a main sponsor of the effort.

St. Onge was scheduled to meet with Gazan engineers to develop new ways to build homes with the region’s limited resources. Israel restricts cement and steel deliveries into Gaza, St. Onge said.

He said that when the Sfendoni set sail from Greece, passengers expected a confrontation with the Israeli navy and had trained in nonviolent resistance. “We prepared for the worst,” he said.

It was the first time St. Onge had joined Larudee on a Gaza mission. Larudee had overseen eight other voyages since 2008: Four reached land, and Israelis turned away the other four.

St. Onge said a soldier tossed a flash-bomb that exploded next to Larudee as the Israeli commandos stormed the ship, possibly puncturing Larudee’s eardrum.

St. Onge said he suffered a gash to his forehead while trying to play peacemaker in a scuffle between soldiers and another passenger.

As soldiers gave orders, St. Onge said, Larudee

“resisted at every point. If they told Paul to sit, he’d stand. If they told him to stand, he’d sit.”

He said Larudee was not ordinarily defiant, and speculated that “it was all getting to Paul and he was starting to lose it.”

The soldiers tied Larudee’s feet and hands with plastic bindings, St. Onge said, and placed him in a chair on the ship’s deck.

After activists complained that Larudee was losing circulation, soldiers cut the ties, St. Onge said.

“He just kind of slouched in his chair and seemed to calm down,”

Yet moments later, as soldiers directed their attention to another passenger, Larudee jumped overboard, St. Onge said.

“That was the lst time I saw him.”

The Larudee family in El Cerrito said it took an hour and half for soldiers to pluck him from the Mediterranean.

Larudee’s injuries have become the subject of scrutiny by his family and supporters of the Free Palestine Movement, who say he was beaten by Israeli soldiers. The Israeli government confirmed Larudee received medical treatment, but did not know the extent of his injuries or how he suffered them.

Attempts to reach Larudee, who is staying in Athens, were unsuccessful.

Once on land, St. Onge was interrogated by immigration officers. He surmised they were trying to determine whether he was connected to a terrorist network.

St. Onge spent two nights in a four-man cell, subsisting on portions of bell peppers, yogurt, apricots and hummus, before being deported. He contracted a chest cold.
‘Mixed feelings’

After his deportation, St. Onge learned about Larudee’s condition and the claims that he’d suffered beatings.

“I don’t know what it gained,” St. Onge said of Larudee jumping overboard. “If it concentrated more attention on just how the Israeli soldiers acted, maybe it was worthwhile. Otherwise, I questioned it, for his own well-being. I still have mixed feelings about it.”

Three other Bay Area activists detained on the flotilla also are en route home, according to family members: Oakland resident Janet Kobren, 67, a co-founder of the Free Palestine Movement; Kathy Sheetz, 63, a retired nurse from Richmond; and Iara Lee, 47, a San Francisco filmmaker.

St. Onge said his luggage was confiscated and he was released with only the clothes on his back, his passport and his wallet. When he landed in Istanbul, he bought new clothing and a razor.

He began to consider the work that awaited his engineering firm.

“I’m starting to feel closer to my usual self,” he said.

E-mail Justin Berton at jberton@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Injured Bay Area activist (Paul Larudee) arrives in Greece

June 16, 2010 1 comment

Paul Larudee arrives in Greece

(06-02) 17:08 PDT EL CERRITO — An El Cerrito activist injured after being detained by Israeli forces who raided a Gazan aid flotilla arrived in Greece today.

Paul Larudee, 64, a retired linguistics professor who now works as a piano tuner, initially refused treatment by Israeli medics after he and 678 other activists were detained early Monday, according to his family and Israeli officials in San Francisco.

His wife, Betty Larudee, said she talked to her husband moments after he landed at a Greek military airport near Athens.

She said she had been told by U.S. Embassy official Andrew Parker that her husband, a co-founder of the Free Palestine Movement, suffered several injuries while in detention. Efforts to contact Parker, the consul general in Tel Aviv, were unsuccessful.

When she talked to him by phone Thursday night, he told her he jumped into the water with a life raft and when the Israeli officers plucked him from the water,

“They were so mad, they beat him down to hell.”

A spokesman at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco confirmed that Larudee had required medical attention. He said he did not know the extent of the injuries or how Larudee had suffered them.

Betty Larudee said her husband would recuperate in Greece before flying home sometime near the end of next week.

“I’m elated,” she said. “Paul’s lawyer saw him and said he managed a smile, but it looks like he’ll rest in Greece for a few days.”

Larudee was among five Bay Area residents detained as the flotilla tried to deliver thousands of tons of aid to Gaza. The detentions, and the deaths of nine activists, prompted international protests.

The other four Bay Area activists also appear to be en route to the United States after being deported, Israeli officials said.

Jan St. Onge, wife of Oakland resident Gene St. Onge, 63, said her husband and Janet Kobren, 67, also of Oakland, had tickets to board flights to Turkey this morning.

Steve Greaves, partner of Richmond resident Kathy Sheetz, 63, said he had not received direct word on her status but that it appeared she had been released.

Iara Lee, a San Francisco filmmaker, also was deported, Israeli officials said.

E-mail Justin Berton at jberton@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/06/03/MNBU1DON11.DTL#ixzz0r3M6Fh4v