Three East Bay activists who were on board a flotilla of ships that were taken over by Israeli troops as they approached Gaza with a shipment of humanitarian aid held a news conference in San Francisco today to tell their story.
The six ships in the Freedom Flotilla left Greece on May 24 and headed through international waters to bring medical equipment and other supplies to Gaza, according to Gene St. Onge, a 63-year-old Oakland resident who was on one of the ships.
St. Onge is a civil and structural engineer who was hoping to use his expertise to help re-build homes in Gaza, he said.
In the early morning hours of May 31, Israeli troops boarded one ship, the Mavi Marmara, and fired on its passengers, killing nine people and injuring dozens more.
They boarded the other ships in the flotilla as well, but took them over with non-lethal force, activists said. Paul Larudee, a 64-year-old El Cerrito resident, was on board one of the ships in the flotilla, but not the Mavi Marmara. He is a professional piano tuner and a former professor of linguistics and is co-founder of the Free Palestine Movement.
After the takeover, the 700 people on board the flotilla were taken to Israel, where Larudee said he was imprisoned, repeatedly beaten, kicked in the head and had his arms twisted behind his back because he refused to cooperate.
"This is really an outrageous act and we want the American people to be made aware of it," Larudee said.
Larudee said he wanted to urge international officials to conduct a prompt and independent investigation into the incident.
Janet Kobren, a 67-year-old Oakland resident and retired math teacher, said she felt compelled to join the effort to bring aid to Gaza because she believed it was the right thing to do.
She said Israeli soldiers were wearing black masks and armed with M-16s when they came on board the ship she was on.
George Bisharat, a professor of law at University of California Hastings, was not on board the flotilla, but is an expert on law and politics in the Middle East. He said he believes "Israel wrongly and unjustifiably stopped a peaceful effort to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza."
He claimed the 700 people on board the ships were illegally abducted. Their passports and equipment were taken and not returned.
Daniel Morgan, director of public affairs for the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, however, said that a maritime blockade is in effect off the coast of Gaza because Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas regime. The regime controls Gaza and has repeatedly bombed civilian targets in Israel with weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza via the sea, Morgan said.
According to the Laws of Armed Conflict and U.S. law, a State party to an armed conflict has the right to establish a naval blockade on its enemy's coast for security reasons, Morgan said. A blockade may be imposed at sea, including in international waters, so long as it does not bar access to the ports and coasts of neutral states. A vessel is considered to be in violation of a blockade as soon as it leaves its port of origin, with the stated intent of averting the blockade, Morgan said.
He also said that Israeli defense forces intercepted the flotilla ship after they allegedly ignored instructions to re-direct to an Israeli port, where their cargo would be transported to Gaza following a security inspection.
Morgan said the activists on the Mavi Marmara attacked the Israeli soldiers with firebombs, metal clubs and knives.
"The actions taken by the people aboard the ship prompted the naval forces to then use force sufficient to defend their lives," Morgan alleged.
He said the activists who were taken into custody were offered transportation to their home countries immediately. If they refused, they were transferred to a detainment facility while they underwent the deportation process, which was completed within 48 hours. All of the activists were offered medical assistance, and none of them were beaten while they were custody, Morgan said.
Bisharat said he did not believe that the activists were simply on a mission to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, but rather that they had sought to highlight what he called Israel's illegal occupation of Gaza and it's targeting of Palestinian civilians living in Gaza.
"The illegal siege of Gaza simply has to come to an end," Bisharat said.