Gaza’s sea a “no-go zone” for fishermen

A Palestinian fishing boat in Gaza destroyed by Israel. (Emad Badwan/IPS)

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - “They told us ‘go west or we will shoot you,’” says Ashraf Sadallah. “Initially, we refused, so they began shooting very close all around our boat.”

At 6am on 16 June, Sadallah and his brother Abdel Hadi Sadallah, in their early twenties, went roughly 400 meters out to sea off the coast of Sudaniya in Gaza’s northwest. “We wanted to bring in nets we had left out the night before,” says Sadallah.

Their small fishing boat, known as a hassaka, was in Palestinian fishing waters when three Israeli navy boats approached the brothers.

“After they opened fire on us, we paddled about three kilometers west where a larger Israeli gunboat was waiting. When we were about 30 meters from the gunboat, Israeli soldiers ordered us to take off our clothes, jump into the water, and swim towards them.”

The gunboat, Sadallah said, moved half a kilometer away after the two fishermen had jumped into the water. “We swam for about 15 minutes to reach it,” he said. “Then they took us aboard and handcuffed and blindfolded us.” In illegal detention later in Israel’s Ashdod port, the two were interrogated, but not charged. They were released at the Erez crossing more than 14 hours after their abduction.

The Sadallahs’ hassaka remains in Ashdod, along with what Palestinian fishermen attest are an increasing number of their fishing vessels.

The hassaka will cost 4,000 shekels (about $1,000) to replace, double the normal price because of the siege on Gaza. The missing nets cost more: 6,000 shekels. “And fishing is our only source of income,” the now jobless Sadallah says.

Jihad Sultan, also from Sudaniya, spoke of his abduction by the Israeli navy a month earlier, on 27 May.

“It’s the third time I was abducted,” he said. “The Israelis accused me of crossing into the ‘no-go zone,’ but I didn’t.” In Ashdod, Sultan said he saw “a building filled with nets which I’m sure are stolen Palestinian nets.”

Zaki Taroush and his 17-year-old son Zayed were fishing 600 meters off the coast and 200 meters south of the closed zone the same day Sultan was abducted. They were likewise forced under the live fire of Israeli soldiers to paddle their hassaka west to a waiting Israeli gunboat where they underwent the same, standard, procedure: strip, swim, abduction, handcuffing and blindfolding.

In detention, they were accused of being in off-limits waters, in what is known as the “K” zone. Tarroush had been abducted along with seven other fishermen just three months earlier, on 13 March, under similar circumstances, also losing his net when Israeli soldiers cut the ropes. Following that abduction, the Israelis kept his hassaka, returning it nearly two months later, the 150 shekels transport of which he had to pay.

Under the Oslo interim agreement, Palestinian fishermen were accorded a 20 nautical mile fishing limit, one which Israel has since repeatedly, unilaterally, downsized to as little as three miles.

In Sudaniya, Jihad Sultan explains his work on a beached, broken hassaka. “This was taken by the Israelis. When it was returned to us, it had been badly damaged. I’m certain it was dropped on cement,” he said, pointing to long splits in the wood. “It needs to be entirely rebuilt.”

One of the problems now, Sultan explained, is the lack of materials for repairing the boat. “It will cost nearly 3,500 just to repair the boat.” Fishing nets also are comprised of several unavailable or highly expensive parts.

“The steel bits on the netting cost 15 shekels a kilo, versus six shekels before the siege. But they are very hard to find now. Rope used to cost 20 shekels per 100 meters, but now it’s 50 shekels and completely unavailable. Sometimes it is brought through the tunnels, but the quality is poor. Even the buoys which hold the nets up are triple the price, at two shekels apiece, and can’t be found in Gaza.”

With so many parts unavailable in Gaza, Sultan said that to make a “new” net fishermen sew together bits from old nets. To worsen matters, “when the Israeli soldiers don’t find any fishermen to arrest, they often cut or take our nets.”

On the beach near Sultan’s broken hassaka, Awad Assaida’s bullet-latticed hassaka sits unused, waiting for repairs. “I was in the boat when the Israelis attacked,” said Salim Naiman. “They shot at me for around 30 minutes, from all around me.” Naiman said that when the Israelis finally left, a Palestinian fishing launch nearby towed the boat to shore. Over 50 bullet holes punctured the sides, top and interior of the hassaka. The attacks are by no means limited to the northern areas, but occur all along Gaza’s coast. Nor are the attacks limited to recent times — they go at least a decade back. The Israeli navy’s policy of assault and intimidation has killed at least six fishermen in the last four years, including Hani Najjar, shot in the head by Israeli soldiers in October 2006 while fishing roughly 2.5 miles off the coast of Deir Al-Balah.

Since 18 January this year when the assault on Gaza ended, five fishermen are known to have been wounded at sea, five more injured on the shore, more than 40 abducted, at least 17 boats taken, and dozens more damaged. Of the boats that have been returned, all have suffered damage or theft of equipment while in custody of the Israeli authorities.

Sultan believes one reason for the severe attacks on Palestinian fishermen is political. “The water near the ‘K’ area is rich in fish. The Israelis know this and don’t want Palestinian fishermen benefiting from it. It’s part of the siege.”

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