TORONTO - Sandra Ruch fell asleep around 11 pm Sunday evening, confident that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was going to sit still in international waters before making a move Monday to deliver desperately needed aid and supplies to Gaza.
The impoverished Palestinian territory is still reeling under a 3-year-old blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.
Fifteen minutes later, she received a text message from a colleague saying the flotilla of three cargo ships and three passenger ships that were carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists had been attacked, killing some activists while wounding others.
She ran quickly to her computer to check out the live streaming video feed on the Gaza Freedom March website. “It was showing them being attacked,” said Ruch, Canadian co-ordinator of the Gaza Freedom March.
Black-clad commandos rappelled down from helicopters. Naval vessels surrounded and boarded aid and cargo ships. People were screaming. Shots were fired.
“I started crying. I couldn’t believe it. I was angry. I was swearing. It was just horrible.”
The flotilla was expected to reach the Gaza waters some time early Monday morning. But since the attacks Ruch hasn’t heard anything more about the plight of the aid activists.
The New York Times reported: “The I.D.F. said the ships from the convoy would be taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, where “naval forces will perform security checks in order to identify the people on board the ships and their equipment.”
The exact number of dead and wounded humanitarian workers is still unknown. Some news outlets are reporting that nine people were killed. Others are saying there were as many as 19 deaths.
“We don’t know where everyone is,” said Ruch. “We don’t know where our friends are - like Ann Wright.”
Wright was in Toronto a couple of months ago and wrote a piece for Rabble.ca five days ago where she reported that she would be on one of two U.S. flagged ships that would be joining a 600 passenger ship from Turkey and a 50 passenger ship from Athens.
Wright anticipated that the Israeli military would fire shots over the bows of all the ships and possibly even try to ram or board the vessels. She predicted that the Israeli navy would try to prevent their ships from docking in Gaza and that the military was preparing a warehouse in the Ashelod area to be used as a detention camp for the 700 activists.
But not even Wright, a 29 year US Army/Army Reserves veteran who retired as a Colonel and a former US diplomat who resigned in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq, anticipated the kind of deadly military action used by the Israelis this morning.
“Who are the ten (dead activists)?” asked Ruch. “These are our friends.”
The Israelis contend that they met “unexpected resistance” forcing them to open fire on humanitarian and aid workers, all considered to be peace activists who don’t carry weapons or invade other countries to fight against foreign militaries.
But Ruch believes that this is “an Israeli lie, a spin by a terrorist state.”
“This is not my Judaism,” she said. “My Judaism is about healing the world – not about murder or terror or disrespect for human rights.”
Ruch arrived outside the Israeli Consulate on Bloor Street West at 6:45 am to protest and express her outrage over the attacks. Half an hour later, she was joined by others. As the crowd grew, the protesters moved across the street under the shade of the Royal Ontario Museum, where they had more room to move around without blocking pedestrians.
By noon more than 50 activists of all ages had joined the protest, carrying signs and banners that read ‘Flotilla Massacre. Israel is a Terrorist State’ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Violate International Humanitarian Law’.
More than anything, the protesters wanted their friends to be released, safe and unharmed.
“We’re here until then,” said Ruch, who began a hunger strike Monday morning with five other activists.
Besides aid, the flotilla was carrying cement and other building materials so Gaza could begin the rebuilding process after the horrific massacre last year. “There’s no rebuilding going on because there’s nothing to rebuild with.”
Ruch, who visited Gaza twice last year, visited a hospital that had cardboard windows because no replacements were available. People living nearby regularly saw snakes crawling around on the ground.
And middle class people who once owned homes were now living in tents with a plastic box for their belongings and a small hibachi to cook their food with.
When Netanyahu praised the Israeli military for their actions, after they killed at least 9 peace activists and injured many more, it made Ruch feel sick inside. She’s horrified that this is the elected Prime Minister of the state of Israel.
For now, she’s hoping and praying that other countries around the world “will stand up, pull their ambassadors, close their embassies and send Israeli ambassadors back to Israel.”
While many countries have openly condemned the Israelis, the Canadian government has yet to issue an official statement, preferring to wait until more information about the attacks is known.
In the meantime, Ruch wants Canadians to phone their MP’s, come to the Israeli Consulate and stand in solidarity with other protesters and hunger strikers and boycott Israeli products.
“Stand with people of the world and say this is enough,” she said. “I will not be held hostage to the memory of the Holocaust and I will not be part of this terror.”
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