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East Bay Citizens Condemn Israel Attack on Gaza Aid Flotilla

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday June 01, 2010 - 02:17:00 PM

A group of East Bay citizens have joined the growing international protest against the Israeli Navy’s raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, sending out e-mails condemning the action and planning protests scheduled to start as early as 4 p.m. today. 

At least five Bay Area residents, including three from the East Bay who belong to the Free Palestine Movement based out of Berkeley’s historical Grassroots House on Blake Street, were part of the Gaza relief mission  

Free Palestine Movement activist and writer Henry Norr told the Planet Tuesday that none of the Bay Area activists aboard the international Freedom Flotilla are back in the U.S. yet. 

Norr said Ambassador Edward L. Peck, who served as a paratrooper during two tours of wartime active duty, and Joe Meadors, a signalman who survived Israel’s attack on a U.S. Navy surveillance ship 43 years ago and is now a member of the FPM, were released and returned to the U.S. today. “Both arrived at Newark airport about 4 a.m. and Amb. Peck arrived home safely at 9:45 a.m. this morning and was greeted by TV crews staking out his house,” in Chevy Chase, Md., an e-mail update to FPM members said. “He is in good spirits and raring to go—to speak with the press, which will be ongoing and incessant.”  

The three East Bay residents are Paul Larudee of El Cerrito and Janet Kobren and Gene St. Onge of Oakland. Larudee and Kobren are co-founders of the Free Palestine Movement. Larudee, who is a piano tuner by profession, also co-founded the Free Gaza Movement which broke the first Gaza siege in 2008. Kobren is a retired math teacher and St, Onge is a civil engineer working with Palestinian engineers to rebuild housing destroyed in Israel's 2009 invasion of Gaza. 

According to members of the Free Palestine Movement briefed on the situation, Larudee and Kobren are currently being detained in Israel. 

Larudee’s family reported Tuesday afternoon after receiving a call from the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Andrew Perkins that he was badly beaten and remains in detention. An e-mail from Lindsey Baggette, a family friend staying with Larudee’s wife Betty while he is overseas, said that “Paul had told [Perkins] to call us so this is the closest contact we've had so far. He asked us to spread the word as much as possible.Betty was the one that talked to Parker but now she is upset and doesn't want to talk to anyone until she gets an e-mail from the consulate tomorrow … Paul silently refused to follow Israeli orders so they beat him. Now he's being held in prison. He's in the same room with the captain of the boat. They have no windows, no telephone, nothing. He refused treatment by Israeli doctors, and only let the ship doctor give him aspirin." Norr said that the other two Bay Area residents are Kathy Sheetz, a nurse from Marin who is often in Berkeley to take part in protests, and Iara Bell, a filmmaker of Korean-Brazilian descent who lives in San Francisco. 

Norr said details are still emerging about how many people were killed or injured. 

“The big picture in this outrage is that Israel is not releasing any information,” Norr said. “They are not allowing people to communicate with their families.” Norr said that St. Onge’s wife Jan received an e-mail from the State Department which had originated in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv that her husband was safe and would be released in 72 hours. 

“So Gene is OK,” Norr said. “A friend of Janet’s who was listed as her contact received a similar e-mail. Kathy Sheetz is on a YouTube video which someone took when some of the passengers from the flotilla were being taken to an Israeli detention facility in Ashdod. So she is apparently unharmed.” 

Sheetz’ husband Steve Greaves told the Planet in an e-mail that Col. Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserves and a former diplomat, was the white-haired woman just before Kathy Sheetz, who is the last person seen being escorted to detention tents in the video. 

Greaves said that Sheetz was initially on the Challenge-2, renamed the SS Audacity of Hope, but eventually moved onto the Greek-flagged Sfendoni. 

The U.N. Security Council condemned Israel’s attack on the flotilla Tuesday. 

“Speaking for FPM, the whole point of this flotilla was to bring some desperately needed supplies to 1.5 million people in Gaza who have been under strict siege for four years,” Norr said. “That’s the real point—to bring aid and to expose the stupidity and the inhumanity of this blockade. I think the flotilla has accomplished something in reminding the world of this ridiculous situation where Israel thinks it can starve all these people. There is no legal basis for this siege.” 

Berkeley resident Jane Stillwater, who has been monitoring the flotilla journey of her friends Larudee and Kobren said: 

“Paul and Kobren had planned to set to sail from Greece last week, aboard a flotilla loaded with 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies bound for Gaza,” she said. “All was going well with Paul and Janet and the flotilla by the time that I left for the Berkeley Camp Tuolumne's work weekend last Friday—out of computer range. But when I returned home Monday night and turned my computer back on again, I was completely shocked and horrified to discover that armed Israeli commandos had boarded one of the humanitarian supply ships while it was in international waters. Apparently Paul and Janet are safe (sort of) and in detention in Israel … Still and all, this has not been good news to come home to. Israel has far exceeded its limits of authority here.And as the death toll continues to rise, I continue to be shocked and outraged.” 

At least nine people aboard the flotilla were killed when naval commandos opened fire during the raid, and hundreds of passengers are being detained by Israel for attempting to enter the Ghaza shore which is under a blockade.Haaretz reported that Sunday’s confrontation took place in international waters when the Israeli military intercepted the six-ship flotilla and warned the ships on board that they were entering hostile territory and the Ghaza shore was under a blockade.Israel said that the aid flotilla ignored orders to turn back and that at least seven commandos were injured—two seriously—in the fighting that ensued when they landed on the deck. Both sides have released video footage defending their action. 

“These were unarmed civilians trying to bring aid,” Norr said, “and Israel is trying to blame them for the attack.” 

The casualties happened aboard a Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, which was carrying about 600 activists. 

According to an e-mail sent out by Norr, the passengers aboard the international flotilla were scheduled to hold a memorial service at sea on May 30 for the 34 American sailors slain and 173 injured during Israel’s 1967 attack on the U.S.S Liberty.. 

Meadors was going to lead the service to honor his shipmates which was scheduled for noon Gaza time in international waters about 30 miles off the coast of Gaza, where the deadly incident took place years ago. He is one of 54 passengers aboard the Sfendoni, one of the ships on the flotilla.  

Norr said that the ceremony was postponed to coincide with Memorial Day on Monday, but ultimately never happened. 

“Because Israel attacked in the middle of the night between Sunday and Monday they never got to do it,” he said. 

Norr said the fleet had proceeded toward Gaza despite Israeli threats to stop it ‘by any means necessary.” Over the years, Meadors, who is from Texas and a decorated Navy veteran, has been attempting to break over the years what to him “seemed to be a blockade of information surrounding the June 8, 1967 attack by Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats in the waters off the coast of Egypt,” Norr said. “Joe believes that while the facts of that day in 1967 may never be fully acknowledged, the men who died should not be forgotten. ‘I am sailing again in the Eastern Mediterranean,’he said, ‘to remember the brave heroes from the Liberty and the forgotten 1.5 million people trapped in Gaza.’ 

Norr said that although Meadors was back in the U.S., he was not sure whether he was able to fly back home to Corpus Christi, Tx. 

“The Israelis are only releasing a handful of people with their passports—they are not giving them back their money or credit cards or cell phones,” he said. “I was on the phone last night talking to the duty officer at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and he said that the Israelis had denied them access to their own citizens. That may have changed now, but it just shows something about their attitude.” 

In its 2010 Annual Human Rights Report, Amnesty International said that Israel’s siege on Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-led blockade since 2006, has "deepened the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages have left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. The scope of the blockade and statements made by Israeli officials about its purpose showed that it was being imposed as a form of collective punishment of Gazans, a flagrant violation of international law." 

At an April 15 UC Berkeley student senate debate about whether the university should divest from investing in two American companies providing military weapons to Israel, a UC Berkeley student from Gaza testified how her family was living without basic amenities such as clean water.  

“Can you imagine living in a place where you don’t even have clean water?” the girl asked during a brief emotional speech.  

According to Norr’s email, the Freedom Flotilla was carrying 10,000 tons of relief aid to Gaza, including chocolates, crayons, soccer balls, basket balls as well as medical equipment and building supplies which were to be delivered by the international community directly to the people of Gaza “using only international waters and the coastal waters immediately off of Gaza for passage.“  

In an update Sunday, Norr wrote that the Sfendoni with its passengers had moved through waters near Limassol, Cyprus the day before. He added a comment from Larudee who said that"while passing by we enjoyed a quick swim with some dolphins and then they escorted us on our way. We take this as a very good omen indeed."  


Protests planned against the raid on the Gaza aid flotilla: 

Bay Area Emergency Protests: Tuesday, June 1, 4:30 p.m., Israeli Consulate, 456 Montgomery St., San Francisco. Future Actions: Friday, June 4, 12 p.m., interfaith action, San Francisco City Hall; Saturday, June 5, 11 a.m., mass mobilization, San Francisco Civic Center 

World Cant Wait: Tuesday, June 1 at 4:30 p.m., protest at the Israeli Consulate, 456 Montgomery Street, (between California & Sacramento), San Francisco. 

Justice for Palestine: Saturday the 5th of June is being called the Global ‘Break-The-Siege’ Day by organizing protests and demonstrations in front of Israeli embassies and consulates all over the world.