Tempers flare on council as pair of flotilla survivors return home
on June 15, 2010
There are now two weeks and thousands of miles separating Kathy Sheetz from the melee that she found herself involved in on May 31, when the Israeli navy raided a humanitarian flotilla of boats trying to deliver aid to Gaza, capturing Sheetz and 677 other activists and killing nine people. But it isn’t totally behind her yet.
“When I got back to the United States, I realized that everything had been confiscated from me on the boat,” Sheetz, 63, said. “I found out that my credit card had been stolen there [and since used]. So in a way, I felt like it wasn’t over. … That violation and that idea of having no security. … There’s something about that that made me bring it home with me.”
Sheetz was one of two Richmond residents present at the Richmond City Council meeting Tuesday who were taken prisoner by Israeli forces two weeks ago when the Freedom Flotilla, which was carrying aid supplies to Gaza, was stopped in international waters. Paul Larudee, the other Richmond resident aboard the ships, also returned home this week. The two were on hand at Tuesday’s meeting to hear the council discuss the adoption of a resolution condemning the Israeli raid, but following a tense and vociforous standoff on the council, the issue was referred to the city’s Human Rights Commission instead.
The tabled resolution, which would have supported a U.N. condemnation of Israel’s actions taken during the flotilla raid, quickly turned into a suprisingly divisive issue for the council. Several members of a packed crowd at Tuesday’s meeting held up pieces of paper displaying the Palestinian flag and cheered as Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who heads the Human Rights Commission, said, “This is so clearly a human rights issue with so much pain. I know the Human Rights Commission will do it justice.”
Two councilmembers, Maria Viramontes and Nat Bates, each questioned why the mayor would introduce such a resolution, arguing that the city council had no business weighing in on international politics.
“This is something we have no control over,” Bates said. “Israel and Palestine don’t give a damn what Richmond thinks.”
His statement was met with a mixture of cheers and boos from the crowd. Once the issue was tabled, the crowd thinned out considerably.
The flotilla, organized by a Cyprus-based group called the Free Gaza Movement, was to deliver food, medical supplies and construction supplies to Gaza City, where the group says that 1.5 million people live in virtual isolation and are denied basic supplies by the Israeli government. The flotilla was stopped before it reached Gaza and boarded by armed Israeli forces, who killed nine of the activists. The incident has drawn international outrage and led to terse relations between the U.S. and Israel, a longtime ally.
Israel and Egypt have blocked maritime access to the Gaza strip since 2007, when the militant Islamist group Hamas took control of Palestine.
After the raid, Sheetz was taken to an Israeli prison, and eventually transported by Turkish officials to Istanbul, and then to New York. She returned to the Bay Area late Saturday night before arriving at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Sheetz, a retired nurse and mother of three grown children, moved to Richmond about a year ago from Marin with her partner, Steve Greaves, a preschool teacher. Greaves expressed frustration with not only the Israeli response to the flotilla, but with the lack of response from the U.S. government.
“My own government did not rescue my wife — it was up to the Turks to rescue her,” Greaves said. “They gave her a hotel room and a plane ticket to come back to the United States. My government completely failed it its duties to protect my wife. It’s shameful.”
Sheetz, who has taken part in two other similar humanitarian trips to Gaza — one successful and one that was stopped by Israeli forces — said that despite the violence this trip, the awareness it raised made the ordeal at least partly a success.
“It’s always dangerous to do this,” she said of trying to break the blockade. “But if that keeps us from doing it — and I think our government is too weak to do it — then this [oppression] will just go on forever. This was an awful tragedy, but we’re going to go back. This has just increased the amount of people interested in participating in this non-violent effort to end the blockade.”
Larudee, the other Richmond resident aboard the flotilla, had been taken to Greece after the stand-off, where he recuperated from injuries he suffered during the raid, before flying home. Larudee says he was beaten and tased by Israeli forces while in prison. An Israeli ambassador in San Francisco has since confirmed that Larudee required medical care, but did not say how he suffered the injuries.
An Associated Press photograph of Larudee arriving in Greece showed severe bruising on his arms.
Lindsey Baggette, a family friend who has been living with the Larudees in their home in the Richmond hills, said in an email that he is still recovering. “You can still see a lot of his bruises, but he’s healing OK,” she wrote. “I guess he still has joint pain, but hopefully that will go away soon.”
McLaughlin, who has already personally condemned the Israeli attacks, and Vice Mayor Jeff Ritterman sponsored the proposed council resolution. McLaughlin said during the council dust-up Tuesday that the Human Rights Commission would report back to the council to discuss the resolution, although she said it may be several months before that happens.
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