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My Adventures on Gaza Flotilla by Gene St. Onge
The following speech was presented by Beyt Tikkun member Gene St. Onge at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 18, 2010, in Berkeley, California.
My Adventure on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, By Gene St.Onge
We were the Gaza Freedom Flotilla –700 people of all ages, races, religions and colors, from all walks of life and from over 40 different countries. Yet we shared one common purpose - to unloosen the bonds of oppression of the Israeli Occupation. We were attempting to bring 3 shiploads of critically needed cargo to the embattled people of Gaza, and break the blockade that has brought great suffering to them for many years.
I started on my path to Flotilla activist after I travelled to Lebanon in 1973, following my Peace Corps service in Thailand. I observed the squalor of the refugee camps and spoke to Palestinians working in Beirut. Their stories opened my eyes and gave me a new perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I developed a real concern for the plight of the Palestinian people, but did nothing about it, until I met Rabbi Lerner over 10 years ago at a service I was attending with my new wife, Jan. Michael spoke of the need for justice for the Palestinians and encouraged us to get involved with our congressional representatives. I also learned that he had been threatened a number of times for taking this stand. Seeing a rabbi speak out on the issue, and taking risks in doing so, embarrassed me to take action.
Along with my new friend, Paul Larudee, I formed the Middle East Policy Advisory Committee, or MEPAC, 8 years ago. MEPAC is a coalition of 15 peace activist groups involved in this issue. Its mission is to bring US policy in the Middle East, with special emphasis on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, into compliance with international law and human rights. We’ve enjoyed moderate success, particularly with Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She has been of help to us from time to time, and we have established a good rapport with her and her office.
Despite the modest success I’d had with MEPAC, I was feeling unfulfilled. Then, one day in late 2007, Paul told me of a plan to test Israel’s recent pronouncement that it was freeing Gaza. All Israel was doing was deploying troops back to the border while continuing to severely limit the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza. Gaza remained the ‘largest open air prison in the world’. With the election of Hamas, the blockade intensified greatly. Yet no government in the world was doing anything to challenge it. These were the conditions that set the stage for a series of humanitarian voyages to follow and that would culminate in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
Paul’s plan was to sail two small boats into Gaza with items like eyeglasses and medicine. As expected, Israel renounced the plan and warned the boats to stay away. Paul asked me to join. While I tried to support his mission, I feared that it was ill-fated and dangerous. So I declined. Those two small boats did get through. It was historic – the first time Israel’s blockade of Gaza had been breached in over 41 years. I was happy for Paul and the others, but regretful that I chose not to join because of my fear of failure. I decided, should another opportunity arise I would consider it much more carefully.
The next 3 flotillas, 2 or 3 boats with little cargo, got through to Gaza, but I was unable to join for number of reasons. Then, after Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza in 2008-2009, no more flotillas were allowed into Gaza. In each case, passengers and boats were seized by the Israeli Navy. At the same time, the Palestinians were complaining that they desperately needed goods, not more symbolic missions. It seemed that the flotilla missions were coming to an end.
Then along came the plan for the Freedom Flotilla, originally set to be a fleet of 8 boats. As Israel proudly admitted later, 3 boats were sabotaged by Israeli Navy divers. 2 were repaired and joined the mission, although the Rachel Corrie arrived days later. Still, with 6 ships and boats, over 10,000 tons of cargo (mostly building materials) and 700 people, this appeared to be a mission with a real chance for success. For Israel to try to stop such a major effort seemed foolhardy. The passengers included Ministers of Parliament, ambassadors, Nobel Prize winners, well known clerics, famous writers and journalists, and even a Knesset member. There was a good chance Israel would intercept this flotilla as well. But most of us felt that, should cooler heads prevail in the Israeli leadership, it stood a fair chance of getting through. This seemed like the chance I had been waiting for since missing out on the first voyage. Despite my business and financial situation, I sensed that I must seize this opportunity or forever regret not being a part of what we suspected would be an historic event.
Before I fully committed to trying to join the Flotilla, I had to look deep inside to determine if I was making the right choice. This was a big step for me with quite a bit at stake– financially, socially and spiritually. I needed to renew my spirit which had been nearly broken after 8 years under a government that had destroyed our economy and practically ruined my business. I needed to instill some passion in my life again - to feel alive in a way that I had not for many years. But, I also needed to fully commit to something that could easily turn out badly and test my will as it had never been tested before. I decided that I cared deeply enough about the fate of the Palestinian people of Gaza that I would be willing to risk my own safety to help bring an end to their suffering. From that point on I set myself to the task of joining the Freedom Flotilla.
In the group I was trying to join, the FPM (Free Palestine Movement), there were already 4 people assigned: Paul Larudee and Janet Kobren, co-founders, Retired Ambassador Ed Peck, who served under Presidents Carter and Reagan, and Joe Meadors, a survivor of the brutal attack in 1967 by Israel on the USS Liberty that resulted in the deaths of 34 of Joe’s fellow crewmen.
We were to be guests of the Greek contingent, leaving from Athens. I decided to go to Athens and do my best to convince the Greeks to invite me to join the rest of the FPM group on the Flotilla. I told them about my plan to meet with Karim-Jouda, a lead Palestinian engineer with the UN Relief Works Agency who I met in Qatar a few months earlier. We met at a conference on rebuilding in Gaza to discuss using a combination of local, and conventional, construction materials, which are in very limited supply because of the blockade. I told them of my connection with my Congressional Rep, Barbara Lee, which could be helpful should we encounter trouble. My lobbying, and behind the scenes persuasion by Paul, succeeded and I was selected to join. Meanwhile, Jan had developed an interest in joining, but there was no more room. It was just as well. Jan would later prove to be more valuable here once we were captured and she became our contact with Barbara Lee’s office, the US Embassy and the media.
We set sail, 58 of us from Athens on May 26 on the Sfendonh, a converted navy patrol boat. Later
that number would drop to 46 as passengers transferred to other boats. We were crowded in a boat that had beds for 25 and only 4, squat-type bathrooms. Because of the limited amount of water available, we were unable to shower. Fortunately, we spent an evening at a hotel in Rhoades, where we caught up on sleep and cleaned up a bit. Nevertheless, by the time of the attack, we were sleep-deprived, wearing the same dirty clothes and increasingly anxious about what lay ahead.
Despite these difficulties, the 5 days spent on the boat turned out to be some of the best of my life! I was with an extraordinary group of people from 12 different countries, from ages 22 to Ambassador Ed at 81. We were engineers, journalists, doctors, business owners, teachers, an opera singer and an ambassador. We were Americans, Greeks, Bulgarians, Czechoslovakians, Swedes, Chileans, French, Italians, Irish, Belgians, Palestinians and Jamaicans. We were Christians, Muslims, Jews, Communists, Atheists, Agnostics, and Secular Humanists. But we all bonded with our shared commitment to relieve the suffering of the people of Gaza.In a larger sense, we were united in our commitment to human rights – understanding that, beneath our religious, ethnic and racial differences, we are all human beings first, with the same fears and aspirations, striving to do the best for our loved ones and ourselves. So, although the journey was physically arduous, it was, for me, the best of times!
My euphoria came to a sudden and tragic end in the early hours of May 31st. Shortly after midnight, we received our first radio communication from the Israeli Navy. I was steering our boat to relieve the captain. The radio operator asked us a number of probing questions about who we were and what was our mission. We answered all that we felt required to under maritime law and refused to provide any more information. The operator then issued his first warning, demanding that we turn around and head back since were violating Israel’s ‘Security Zone’. We were about 75 miles from Israel’s shore. So, we answered that we were in international waters and, therefore, out of Israel’s jurisdiction. The operator disagreed and repeated the demand. He added that, should we not turn back, the Navy would take any measures necessary to stop us. If there should there be damage or injury to passengers, it would be the captain’s responsibility. Our captain asked for the coordinates defining the so-called ‘Security Zone’. There was no answer. He asked again but, again, no answer. Instead the operator repeated the warning one more time. We knew, then, that it was just a matter of time before we would be attacked. Most of us, including myself, decided to try to get some rest first. I retired to the second deck, found a spot and fell asleep.
Around 4:15AM, we were roused by one of the crew who shouted that there were aircraft hovering above the Mavi Marmara, the large Turkish liner with 600 passengers just ahead of us. We rushed to the top deck to see a helicopter over the Mavi Marmara to the front, and 4 bright lights off to the rear. These were Israeli Navy battle ships. Almost immediately, swarms of inflatable Zodiac boats come up rapidly on both sides of us, each with 8-10 commandos in full battle gear, screaming at the top of their lungs. We attempted to surround the wheelhouse, as we were trained, but found ourselves under fire. We dove to the deck, not realizing the commandos were shooting paint pellets. That allowed them to board more easily and, before we knew it, there was a melee, with about 20 commandos trying to get though our human blockade. I was standing outside the wheelhouse, trying to get in, when a commando shoved me aside. Then I saw a crewmate, an Arab named Almahdi, being hit in the right eye with the butt end of arifle. He sank to the deck writhing in pain. He was being kicked while lying on the deck, so I screamed for the commandos to stop and help him. As I tried to reach him, I was again grabbed and thrown to the deck. I crawled over to try to cover and protect him, but was hit in the forehead with something sharp, and I started bleeding. I was handcuffed and set down away from the action.
Within a half hour, commandos had taken full control of the boat. Some of us, like Paul Larudee and the captain, were badly hurt and eventually taken to a hospital for treatment. We spent the next 8 hours being taken to the Port of Ashdod in Israel, under very close surveillance. When we reached Ashdod, we were subjected to a number of security checks and interrogations. We were told that we had broken Israeli law. Some, like me, were told that the law we broke was encroaching upon Israel’s ‘Security Zone’, even though we were still over 50 miles away from Israel’s shore when we were attacked. Others, like Ambassador Ed, were told that they had entered Israel illegally! Imagine that! We were also told if we agreed to sign a form admitting our guilt, we could return home immediately. If we resisted, or demanded to see an attorney as many of us did, we would be sent to prison for a couple of weeks. So, about 466 of us chose prison rather than lie about our capture and let the Israeli authorities off the hook.
We were transported to Ella Prison, Bersheva, in the Negev Desert, in a steel prison bus. It was late afternoon when we arrived, were processed and put in our cell blocks. There were more interrogations, the thrust of the questioning centering on any connections we had with organizations like Al Qaeda or Hamas. At some point, they realized that we were not connected with these organizations, but apparently decided to punish us for what we did. They proceeded to abuse us emotionally in a way that, I’m sure, they felt necessary to assure that we would never consider taking such action against them again. From the point we were captured until we were released, we were continuously lied to, denied sleep (and, at times, food) and forbidden to contact anyone on the outside, except for the brief time we had with our consulate representatives on the second day. These were all violations of our rights under international law.
We were assigned 4 to a cell, with dozens of us in each cell block. There were number of Turks in our group, but most could speak only Turkish. Still, we soon learned of the many that were killed and injured by the commandos on the Mavi Marmara. We were, at first, in total shock. I met an English-speaking, Turkish journalist, who had his foot wrapped in a blood-stained bandage. He told me of his experience on the Mavi Marmara. I learned that the commandos had started firing live ammunition before landing on the ship, wounding and killing some passengers before they had a chance to run. I would later learn that the 9 Turkish passengers gunned down were shot 31 times, execution style, in the head and chest. The treatment of the commandos towards the Turks and Arabs was more humiliating and brutal than towards the internationals like me, as many on the Mavi Marmara testified -the storythe mainstream media failed to report. Instead, it chose to spin the Israeli government’s far-fetched tale of being ambushed by a group of suicidal Turks who attacked one of the world’s most sophisticated navies with kitchen knives and pieces of pipe.
We met with our consulate reps on the second day. The US representative, Susan Plott, greeted us in a business-like manner and handed us forms to fill out. I felt like I was at the DMV, rather
than meeting with my country’s rep who I hoped would get us out of this mess. Then I had a rude
awakening. When I explained that we were kidnapped 52 miles from Israeli shore in international waters, she said that, although she was an attorney, she did not know maritime law and could not comment. Then she said that 52 miles from shore is close enough ‘to shoot a rocket’! Once I got over the shock from her remark, I realized that I was talking to the other side. From that point on, I knew that I could not trust my own government, which was most disturbing.
Indeed, the power of the Israel lobby has come home to roost for the 14 of us on the mission that are US citizens residing in the States.Returning to the US, Janet and I were pulled aside and subjected to an hour’s interrogation by Customs officials, causing us to miss our flight to San Francisco. We discovered that we are now on a watch list. Since then, we have been met with a cold silence by our government officials. They’ve made it clear that the US government did not support our mission, is very upset by it, and has no intention of seeking justice for us. Worse yet, we could face the possibility of being tried under the Patriot Act for aiding and abetting a terrorist organization, Hamas, although Hamas was not involved with the Flotilla.
We were released June 2nd, the third day of our imprisonment. There was no announcement- in fact, the authorities had just warned a number of us that we might be kept there for another week or two. I was truly relieved to be going home. The uncertainty of my situation, the lack of sleep, and inadequate food had weakened me and made me sick. I contracted a chest cold that I worried would develop into something more serious. Fortunately, I was able to recover in Istanbul.
I found out the Turkish government was responsible for securing our release. They chartered Turkish Airlines jets to Istanbul, put us up in a first class hotel with food, and sent us home business class (as far as Chicago for us) - all at their expense. This stood in sharp contrast to my own government, which has done nothing but give us trouble. When it was over, I felt proud of the Turks, but as ashamed of my government as I can ever remember feeling in my life.
It took me several weeks to overcome the trauma from my capture and imprisonment. I was very angry at how I had been treated. This has taken a toll on my family. Jan’s kids don’t speak to her, and she is not allowed to communicate with her older grandsons.
I’ve since recognized that those who treated me so badly are, as my Swedish friend and crewmate Henry Ascher put it, a fragile people. They are so fearful of the world outside that they need to act like this to protect themselves. With this insight, and the introspection that the High Holy Days affords me, I’m trying to forgive the commandos and my captors in prison.
I’ve reaffirmed my belief that we need to follow our dreams no matter how daunting the journey may be. It is truly better to live with failure for having tried than to live with regret for not seizing the opportunity when it avails itself. And, if you succeed, you will have wonderful memories that will last you the rest of your life. I believe that we must all strive to be human beings first. to set aside labels – Arab, Jew, Muslim, and look to the character of an individual, the principle of an issue first, we can begin to create a world community that, I believe, is the dream we all share, and the only formula for securing a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.