He had just returned from a flotilla that spent the morning sailing the Mediterranean coast of the Gaza Strip from the seaport to Beit Lahiya and back.
With more than 50 boats, the flotilla was part of a campaign against the Israeli navy’s attacks on Palestinian fishermen and to demand that Israel return 36 fishing boats it has seized. The protest was organized by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC).
The event followed a series of protests the UAWC mounted last month as part of a global day of action for boycotts of Israeli agricultural companies.
For the several hundred fishermen who spent their mornings in the seaborne rally, accompanied by international activists and television cameras, it offered a rare window of relative safety at sea.
Israel gave a commitment in its 21 November 2012 ceasefire agreement with Palestinian resistance groups to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals” and “refrain … from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas.”
The Hamas-run administration in Gaza announced the next day that negotiations for the truce in Cairo had expanded the three-nautical mile fishing limit imposed by Israel, as part of its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, to six nautical miles.
Violations of ceasefire deal
But attacks on fishermen quickly resumed. According to Zakaria Baker, another fisherman who facilitates the UAWC’s five local fishing committees in the Gaza Strip, Israel has captured nine more boats since 21 November.
“They have kept more boats since the ceasefire than between 1994 and 2005,” he said, adding that since the truce, at least five additional boats have been shot and three fishermen wounded. “As for the boats the Israelis capture, they shoot nearly all of them first.”
“I was injured when two Israeli warships approached my boat” on 17 December, Mos’ad Baker said. “One circled it, creating turbulence, while the other sprayed it with gunfire.” A bullet struck his left thigh, he added. “Then they arrested me and confiscated my boat, which is now in Ashdod [a port in Israel].”
Zakaria Baker said that since the ceasefire, most of the boats Israel has targeted lay within the six-nautical-mile area Israel has unilaterally declared permissible for fishing, but several were north of Gaza’s al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp, where he, like Mos’ad and much of the extended Baker family, lives.
Israel has claimed to agencies like the United Nation’s Ofﬁce for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that fishermen can sail northeast along the Gaza coast to 1.5 nautical miles from Israeli waters safely. But according to Zakaria Baker, the miles of sea between this nautical extension of the “buffer zone” and the camp are now the most dangerous.
“The Israelis are trying to push the limit down to al-Shati camp,” he said. “They want to drive fishermen further from them and establish new boundaries for the siege.”
Because the Baker family includes many fishermen, the Israeli navy’s targeting of the profession has hit the family particularly hard.
“Three of my family’s other boats have been confiscated,” Mos’ad Baker said. “They are also in Ashdod. Three of my nephews have been detained at sea.”
Boats rarely returned
The limitations and threats against fishermen have driven many from the profession, while impoverishing many who remain. A 2010 report by the UN’s Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the territory’s registered fishermen had declined from 10,000 in 2000, just before Israel began tightening its restrictions, to 3,500. The same document estimated that five years of the siege would cost fishermen 7,041 metric tons of fish and $26.5 million in income (“Between the fence and the hard place,” August 2010 [PDF]).
Israel rarely returns boats it has impounded, Zakaria Baker said. “Five boats have been returned over the last year, without their engines, GPS systems, or nets. Only the bodies of the boats came back. Each fisherman had to pay 600 new Israeli shekels [$160] for his boat’s transportation.
“They have said they will return two other boats, but with terms that the fishermen must sign,” Baker explained. “The first [term] is that the fisherman must pay for storage of his boat in the Ashdod seaport. The second is that they will follow the orders of the Israeli military. The third is a continuation of the second: if the Israeli navy captures the same boat again, the fisherman will have already agreed for them to confiscate it forever. The fourth is that if the engine of the boat is over 25 horsepower, the Israelis have the right to do whatever they want, including shooting the boat with the fisherman in it.”
In August 2011, eight fishermen refused to pay for the return of boats, stripped of their engines and equipment, which Israel offered under similar conditions.
Adalah and Al-Mezan, two Palestinian human rights organizations involved in their cases, wrote then “that the impounding of the fishing boats and the conditions imposed by the Israeli navy constituted a grave violation of the rights of Gaza residents to occupation and property under both Israeli domestic law and international law.”
For Zakaria Baker and the other fishermen who sailed the coast of Gaza Sunday, crimes against them by Israel are routine.
“Israel’s violence against Palestinian fishermen has not only continued, but escalated,” he said. “These attacks could only happen with the silence of the international community. Our action is an appeal for global support to end them and make Israel return the boats.”
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @jncatron.