Gaza fisherman jailed for serving Hamas coffee

18 December 2012

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Two of Mohammed Baker’s sons were among the 14 fishermen attacked by Israeli gunboats on 1 December.

(Eva Bartlett / IPS)

GAZA CITY (IPS) - Shortly after Israel and Hamas signed a ceasefire agreement on 21 November, the Israeli navy abducted thirty Palestinian fishermen from Gaza’s waters, destroyed and sank a Palestinian fishing vessel, and confiscated nine fishing boats in the space of four days.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that 14 fishermen from a single family, stationed just three nautical miles from the coast of the Gaza Strip, were all arrested on 1 December.

Some fishermen were only two miles off Gaza’s coast when they were attacked with machine gun fire and arrested by the Israeli navy. Ranging from the ages of 14 to 52, the majority in their late teens and early twenties, these fishermen come from some of Gaza’s poorest families (“In new violation of ceasefire, Israeli forces arrest 14 fishermen and confiscate three fishing boats,” 2 December 2012).

According to Mifleh Abu Riyala, a representative of the General Syndicate of Marine Fishermen, the ceasefire has made no difference to Palestinian fishermen.

Palestinians are allowed, under the current Israel-Hamas ceasefire, “to fish six miles out,” he said, “but the Israeli gunboats still attack us, whether we are six or three miles out.”

The Oslo accords granted Palestinian fishermen the right to fish twenty nautical miles out at sea — a right the Israeli navy has unilaterally vetoed, downsizing the fishing “limits” since the 1990s to a mere three miles until last month’s ceasefire allowed a slight increase to six nautical miles.

“It’s our sea”

“But there are no fish at six miles, the sea floor is still sandy. It is only after seven miles out that the sea floor becomes rocky and the fish are plentiful,” Abu Riyala said. “It is our sea, in order to live we must be able to access it.”

Mohammed Baker, 70, has been fishing for half a century. He remembers the days when Gaza’s sea was open to Palestinian fishermen, and when there was no fear of being attacked, arrested or killed by the Israeli navy. Two of his sons, Amar, 34, and Omar, 21, were among the 14 fishermen attacked by Israeli gunboats on 1 December. The Israeli navy has still not returned their hassaka (a small fishing boat).

Like many of Gaza City’s fishermen, the Bakers live in the Beach Camp, one of the Strip’s most overcrowded refugee camps.

Amar, married with six children, was still being held by Israeli authorities on 5 December when his father, Mohammed, recounted the events of that fateful day.

“Israeli gunboats and smaller zodiacs surrounded my sons’ hassaka and made them strip naked, jump into the sea and swim to one of the Israeli boats,” Mohammed said.

“They put a bag on Amar’s head and took him to Ashdod [a port in Israel]. Amar has asthma, I’m very worried about his health.” Mohammed has still not been able to speak with his son.

Four days after Amar’s abduction, Mohammed went to the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose work includes visiting and monitoring Palestinian prisoners’ conditions in Israeli jails and detention centers.

Ambushed

“They told me Amar is forbidden from talking with anyone. He is under interrogation,” Mohammed said. Amar now stands accused of “being part of the Palestinian resistance,” a charge based on his previous job of making coffee and tea for Hamas officers.

“My son was a ‘kitchen boy.’ People who work for the government are still civilians,” Mohammed said, echoing the tenets of international humanitarian law.

Stripped of their only boat and a member of their family, the Bakers face even more dire circumstances than ever. “There is no ceasefire for fishermen. We’re ordinary people, we work to earn just 30 or 40 shekels [$8 to $10] per day to feed our families,” Mohammed said.

Khadr Baker, 20, was lucky that he was not killed during an encounter with the Israeli navy on 28 November, during which his boat was gunned down as punishment for fishing just over three miles from the coast.

His father, Jamal Baker, 50, spoke about Khadr’s arrest, explaining that Israeli gunboats appeared without warning and began firing at close range on Khadr’s boat.

“The Israelis ordered the four fishermen on Khadr’s hassaka to strip and jump into the sea, which is extremely cold this time of year,” Jamal said.

“They made Khadr tread water for half an hour, and kept machine-gunning around him,” said Jamal. The hassaka eventually caught fire and exploded, sinking soon after.

“The Israelis took Khadr on their boat, handcuffed him naked, and beat and interrogated him for three hours, accusing him of working with the Palestinian resistance,” the boy’s father said.

Without their boat, the family of ten has no income. “I sold my nets so that we can eat,” Jamal said simply.

“Ceasefire means nothing”

The PCHR reported other attacks on fishermen that day: in one case, the navy attacked and abducted five fishermen from the al-Hessi family, damaging — and eventually confiscating — the large fishing trawler they were on. The boat has not yet been returned (“15 fishermen arrested and six fishing boats confiscated and destroyed,” 29 February 2012).

In February 2009, Rafiq Abu Riyala, then 23, was shot in his back — by an Israeli soldier standing less than 20 meters away — with a “dum-dum” bullet, which explodes on impact.

The fisherman was only two miles off Gaza’s coast when attacked. One of two breadwinners in his family, Rafiq Abu Riyala cannot now fish in cold weather. “The shrapnel bits in my back make it too painful when it is cold out,” he said.

Mahar Abu Amia, 40, has 16 persons to provide for.

“My wife fishes also,” he said. “But we have no chance: we reach six miles and they shoot, we go only three miles and they shoot. What is this ceasefire? It means nothing for us.”

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