Gaza fishers caught in net cast from all sides

Ismail Abu Riyala’s mother Kifa mourns during her son’s funeral on 15 March. Abu Riyala was killed by the Israeli navy on 25 February.

Mohammed Asad

It took weeks before Saleh Abu Riyala could bury his son.

Ismail Abu Riyala, 18, was shot in the head by the Israeli navy off the al-Sudaniya coast of northwest Gaza on 25 February where the young man had been fishing.

His body was then recovered and held for 18 days by the Israeli military due to pressure from the family of Hadar Goldin, an Israeli soldier killed during Israel’s 2014 offensive on Gaza whose remains are believed to be held by Hamas.

Ismail’s body was finally released on 14 March. Only then could the young fisher’s family bury him.

It was a relief. In one of many pictures from the well-attended funeral, Ismail’s mother, Kifa, is smiling over her son’s body.

“I didn’t expect to hold him again,” she explained to The Electronic Intifada during the days of mourning that followed. “My heart was torn in pieces every time I imagined his body kept inside the Israeli mortuary. Now, I can live in peace.”

Saleh, 50, also confessed that “at last” he could take some comfort after being “able to bury my son with my own hands.”

A murderous pattern

The Israeli navy claimed that it shot at Ismail’s boat after the fishermen on board ignored warnings and crossed a shifting Israeli-imposed limit on Gaza’s territorial waters.

But eyewitnesses say the reality is different. There were three men on the boat that day; the other two were both injured and arrested. One said, after his release, that the boat was only three miles from Gaza’s shoreline – well within the six-mile limit – and was heading back toward Gaza, not toward Israel, as the military said.

Nizar Ayyash, head of the Palestinian Fishermen’s Syndicate in Gaza, called the killing “intentional,” citing eyewitness statements that the Israeli navy had taken photos of the fishing vessel over a period of time before attacking it.

“This crime is not the first,” Ayyash told The Electronic Intifada, laying out a span of time from when Hamas captured an Israeli soldier in 2006. “Israel has been carrying out systematic crimes on the sea for 12 years, from murder to destruction and arrest.”

The Abu Riyala family has already lost one other relative to Israeli violence. A cousin of Ismail’s, Tawfiq, was killed in March 2015 by Israeli gunfire, also while fishing.

Lasting scars

There are plenty of similar stories at sea.

Fahmi Abu Riyash was killed in 2012 while fishing off the shores of Gaza City. He was 22 at the time, and was working with his brother who told The Electronic Intifada that they had not been more than 500 meters from shore when they were attacked. Yousef, now 26, said he has not returned to sea since.

“Every time I go to the beach, I remember that day. I see the color of the sea as red instead of blue. I stopped fishing forever.”

Since 1994, when the Palestinian Authority took over some governance functions in Gaza, Israel has repeatedly moved to prevent Gaza’s fishers from reaching the full and agreed fishing limit, stipulated as 20 miles under the 1993 Oslo accords. At most, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, Gaza’s fishers could reach 12 miles out. At its most restrictive, Israel kept the fishermen confined to three miles from shore.

Currently the limit stands at six miles, though for the past two years, Israel has allowed a nine-mile zone during high season in the fall in Gaza’s south, a measure Ayyash decried as a pointless PR stunt to Al Jazeera last year.

Meanwhile, arrests, confiscations and aggression against Gaza’s fishers have continued unabated. In 2016, the Israeli navy arrested 113 fishermen and expropriated 46 boats.

In 2017, according to Zakaria Baker, also with the Fishermen’s Syndicate, the navy apprehended 39 fishermen, expropriated 13 boats, killed two people and injured 11.

Since the year 2000, the rights group Al Mezan has documented nearly 1,300 Israeli violations against Palestinian fishers in Gaza.

Fishers, whose trade has long been part of Gaza’s culture and economy, have become one of the poorest groups in the territory, requiring sustained humanitarian aid, according to Al Mezan.

Of the 3,800 fishers registered with the Fishermen’s Syndicate, only around half of them still practice the profession.

Yet more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza “still depend on this industry for their livelihoods,” according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Egyptian violations

Palestinian fishers don’t just have to fear the Israeli navy. In January, Abdullah Zeidan, 33, from Beach refugee camp was killed while fishing in Rafah in the south.

Zeidan went to southern Gaza – where fish stocks are higher than in the more rocky seabed elsewhere in the six miles allowed around Gaza – hoping to find enough fish to cover the needs of his 12-member family.

However, he was shot by the Egyptian military despite not entering Egyptian waters, according to Gaza’s ministry of interior, which investigated the incident. The shooting caused Gaza’s authorities to demand an investigation by Egypt.

Ramadan Zeidan, 62, Abdullah’s father, said his son was an experienced sailor.

“My son has been fishing with me since he was a child. I don’t know why Egypt killed my son, he was only making his living.”

Gaza’s fishers enjoyed a brief period of openness when they were allowed to fish all the way south to El Arish by Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president who was deposed in the coup of 2013 that brought Abdulfattah al-Sisi to power.

Since then, Cairo has reimposed stringent restrictions on Gaza, including in the coastal waters.

One video, shot in December 2015, showed the moment when Ishaq Khalil Hassan, 28, who was said to be mentally ill, stripped naked and walked into the sea by the Egyptian border, crossing into Egyptian waters.

A Palestinian security officer can clearly be seen signaling to the Egyptian military not to shoot, but to no avail: Egyptian soldiers open fire and the footage ends with the fatally wounded young man slumped in the water.

Another video uploaded to YouTube similarly captured the last moments of Firas Muhammad Miqdad, 17.

On 5 November 2015, Firas went fishing with his father Muhammad, 42, and uncle Ziad, 37, on their small boat to the south shore near the Egyptian sea border, trying to make their living.

Ziad told The Electronic Intifada that “we settled in an area that we were used to. But suddenly, the Egyptian army started to shoot.”

Ziad was adamant that their vessel was in Palestinian waters and to this day, he said, he doesn’t understand why they opened fire. Gaza’s ministry of interior has asked the Egyptian authorities to open an investigation. A Palestinian investigation found that the boat had not crossed any boundaries.

“If the Egyptian army didn’t want us to settle in that area, they should have sent a boat to warn us, but they just shot us directly.”

Firas was killed in the shooting.

Ziad had a baby boy in 2016 and named him Firas after his nephew. He would never, he said, take his son fishing.

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.