Betty Larudee has experienced her entire range of emotions this week: From the shock she felt after learning on Monday that the fleet of humanitarian aid boats her husband Paul was aboard had been raided by Israeli troops in the Mediterranean Sea, to the massive relief she felt upon finally hearing her husband’s voice on the phone Wednesday, telling her he is OK.
“You have no idea,” Larudee, who lives in Richmond, said. “When I heard his voice, I kept asking him, ‘Are you OK? You sound tired.’ He said, yes, he’s tired, but he’s OK. And it was so nice — so, so nice. I didn’t even know what other questions to ask. Nothing came into my mind except just that he’s alive, and he’s OK. I wanted to know when I’m going to see him. His children are waiting to see him. I can’t wait to take care of him.”
Paul Larudee, a former linguistics professor who now makes his living tuning pianos, was aboard a fleet of boats called the Freedom Flotilla seeking to deliver food and other supplies including wheelchairs, cement and children’s toys, to Gaza when Israeli forces stopped and then boarded his ship. According to his wife, Larudee initially escaped capture by jumping overboard. Friends say he remained in the water for close to an hour before being pulled out and taken to a detention facility, where, according to multiple news reports, he says he was beaten and tased by Israeli authorities.
According to a report in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle, a spokesman at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco acknowledged that Larudee required medical attention, but would not say how he suffered his injuries.
At least nine members of the flotilla were killed, and some are still missing. Many of the humanitarian workers also suffered injuries during the melee, although according to news reports, they were not as serious as Larudee’s.
Some among the 678 volunteers were taken to Istanbul by Israeli troops, and will return home over the coming days. Richmond resident Kathy Sheetz, a retired nurse, was aboard the flotilla and is presumed to be in Istanbul, said Henry Norr, a member of the Free Palestine Movement that both Sheetz and Larudee belonged to, although Sheetz’ husband hadn’t heard word from her as of Thursday.
Larudee is now at an Army base in Greece, where his wife says he may stay until June 11 to recuperate, although she’d like him to come home as soon as he’s able.
“I saw his picture is in the paper today,” Betty Larudee said. “He looks skinny and tired, and he’s very bruised. I was shocked when I saw the picture. I’m worried about him. I spoke to him yesterday, and he sounded OK over the phone. So I’m trying to figure out if he can stand coming home right away, or if he needs to stay in Greece for a few days.
“I just want to cry,” she said at her home in the Richmond hills, holding a newspaper report about the incident that featured an Associated Press photo of Larudee, clearly bruised. “I want to hug him. … Even when I see photos of him like this, I’m so proud of him.”
The Larudees have two adult sons, who also live in Richmond.
This was Paul Larudee’s second mission to deliver aid to Gaza by sea. He is one of two founders of the Free Palestine Movement, a local humanitarian nonprofit group, and had been to Palestine several times.
Israel has blocked maritime aid shipments to the Gaza strip since 2007, when the Islamist Hamas movement came to power there. While the Israeli government does allow some food and aid materials to reach Gaza, groups like the Free Palestine Movement insist that the region that is home to 1.5 million people is still sorely lacking for even basic medical and construction equipment.
Larudee was part of a mission in August 2008 that successfully broke through the blockade and delivered food, clothing and medical equipment to Gaza. According to his wife, few thought Monday’s mission, though dangerous, would become violent.
“They all understood that there was some element [of risk] in this, but nobody expected that kind of risk,” she said. “They all expected that the [Israeli] boats would surround them and take them captive to Israel and they’d be put in prison, and then everyone would be released to their country of origin. Nobody though or expected this type of raid from the Israelis.”
Norr, of the Free Palestine Movement, said that while he was horrified at the news, he wasn’t completely surprised. “Of course it’s horrible,” he said. “But those of us who’ve experienced the way they treat the Palestinians are not entirely surprised by this, because we know they’re capable of being very vicious — and I say that as a Jewish person. It seems monumentally stupid even from their point of view, but we all know they’re capable of such things.”
Lindsey Baggette, a family friend of Larudee’s who has been living with the family for a few weeks, said the past few days have been a blur. “We definitely discussed [the dangers of the trip], and we were scared the whole time,” Baggette said. “But we weren’t expecting anyone to actually die. I didn’t know it’d get that violent, so when we first heard that, it was a real shock. I’ve pretty much been in shock since then. We’re all exhausted. People have been calling off the hook.”
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin put out a press release Wednesday condemning the Israeli attack, which has led to international protest. “I have worked with Paul Larudee on local housing issues in Richmond, and I know his track record of commitment to nonviolence in standing up against the oppression of Palestinians,” McLaughlin said in the press release. “It is unconscionable that he was brutalized by his captors while he was resisting peacefully following the tradition of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
According to the press release, Congressman George Miller received word from the U.S. State Department that both Sheetz and Larudee were alive and were set to leave Israel Wednesday night.
(For video of Larudee speaking to a group of protesters in Turkey, click here.)