Woods Hole Resident Recounts Gaza Mission

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By: Elise R. Hugus
Published: 06/15/10

Katherine E. Sheetz was deported from Israel for the second time in two years— but she plans to sail to Gaza again.

Three weeks after a deadly raid on a flotilla attempting to bring aid to Gaza, international attention is focusing on the Israeli military blockade of the Palestinian territory. And while the resulting deaths were tragic, the point of the Free Gaza voyage was to draw attention to a growing humanitarian crisis, Ms. Sheetz said.

Having taken part in the international coalition’s first mission to the territory in 2008, Ms. Sheetz has seen Gaza’s poverty and isolation firsthand. But she has also seen the better side of human nature, she said, as thousands of Palestinians welcomed the first ships to visit their territory in 41 years.

Katherine Sheetz has taken part in four voyages with Free Gaza

“I was really excited. I really thought they couldn’t stop this [flotilla],” Ms. Sheetz said in an interview in her Woods Hole summer home.

As a retired nurse and documentary filmmaker, the 63-year-old resident of Woods Hole and Richmond, California, has joined Free Gaza on several voyages, hoping to bring attention to the effects of the blockade and work toward “a peaceful resolution to the siege and its suffering on all sides.”

Joining citizens from 44 countries, including parliamentarians from Israel, Germany, Norway, Greece, and Sweden, Ms. Sheetz was hoping get some more footage for a documentary she is working on about the Free Gaza missions.

Instead, one of her cameras was smashed and the other was seized while she and 500 others were held in detention in Israel. Her tapes, along with her money, clothes, and credit cards, were confiscated by Israeli officials. Upon her return to the US on June 4, she discovered numerous attempted credit card charges in Tel Aviv, charges she had no way of making while in jail.

Yet she reserves her outrage for what has happened in Gaza since Israel imposed the air, land, and sea blockade three years ago, in what she calls “an act of war.”

Her biggest concern is the “radioactive waste” left from the December 2008 bombing campaign in Gaza, which has yet to be contained. In addition to paper, crayons, and medical supplies, the flotilla ships were carrying cement needed to rebuild Gazans’ homes—and cap the bombs.

Ms. Sheetz said international outcry over the deaths of nine Turkish citizens could help ease the blockade.

“Nothing will happen but a bigger [flotilla]. Because everyone realizes that it is legal. It is nonviolent,” she said. “The legal case will make it very difficult for Israel to stop us next time. And I also think that we’ll have more Israelis on our side next time.”

Other activists, including a boat of German-Jewish passengers, are expected to join a Free Gaza voyage in the fall, she said.

Admitting that it will take “a leap of faith” for Israel to end the blockade, she said that such a gesture might motivate Gazan militants to stop firing rockets into Israel.

“I believe it is worth pursuing the nonviolent route,” she said.

Asked why she puts her life on the line to take part in these missions to Gaza, Ms. Sheetz is adamant that it is her duty as a US citizen to draw attention to what Israel does with taxpayer money.

“Since my government has given the state of Israel billions and billions of dollars to create one of the mightiest armies on Earth, my government must also monitor what this state does with this tremendous firepower,” she said.

From 300 feet away aboard the Challenger One, Ms. Sheetz and 16 other passengers—mostly women—witnessed the attack on the Mavi Marmara, on which nine Turkish citizens were killed.

With helicopters hovering nearby, yellow tear gas in the air, and sound bombs going off, she and several other passengers barricaded themselves in the ship cabin, while others stayed on the deck to non-violently ask the soldiers not to board. Yet soldiers boarded the Challenger from Zodiacs, using paintball guns and Tasers to subdue passengers. They tied up and hooded two women on the deck and shattered the glass walls of the cabin, said Ms. Sheetz.

“They knew we weren’t posing any risk, because they didn’t ask us for weapons. They asked us for our cameras and cellphones,” she said.

Passengers aboard the Challenger may have been treated differently than those aboard the Maramara, said Ms. Sheetz, because several German members of parliament were supposed to be making the voyage on that ship. But because of technical problems—which she calls “sabotage” since the steering on two flotilla ships failed at precisely the same time—the German and Swedish MPs were moved to other boats, she said.

Ms. Sheetz and over 500 other passengers—including 11 other Americans—were taken to Ashdod, Israel, where they were charged with “entering Israel illegally.” After refusing to sign papers written in Hebrew, the prisoners were released after three days. A Turkish jet transported them to Istanbul, and she returned home to the United States on June 4.

Ms. Sheetz spent last week in Woods Hole, adjusting to a very different pace of life. Over dinner with a Jewish friend, she said the conversation revolved around issues of anti-Semitism and balance when it comes to criticism of Israel.

Ms. Sheetz, who draws her passion for the Palestinian cause from Jewish thinkers such as Avraham Burg, Jeff Halper, and Holocaust surviver Heddie Epstein, said she has made a decision “to tell the truth of what I witnessed instead of walking away.”

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