It is early morning, sunny but with a cool breeze. Jihad al-Hissi is busy helping fellow fishers to prepare a boat for a day at sea.
There should not be anything unusual about the tasks they perform: fishers around the world do them all the time. Yet the tension is almost palpable: Jihad, 56, is worried that his boat will not return to the port.
For eight months last year, the boat was held by the Israeli authorities after its crew ventured a short distance beyond the small zone in which Gaza’s fishers are permitted to operate.
Being away from the vessel was heartbreaking for Jihad.
“Feeding our families was very hard during those months,” he said. “All we know how to do in life is fish.”
Eventually the boat – named Al-Haj Rajab after Jihad’s father – was released to him under strict conditions. He was required to pay approximately $5,500 and warned that he may not go farther than three nautical miles from the shoreline.
Jihad fears that the boat could be seized once again at any moment. The Israeli authorities have initiated court proceedings in an effort to confiscate the boat permanently.
“Terrifying and cruel”
The ordeal began on 14 February 2022.
On that day, Jihad’s brother Nihad was captaining the boat. Nihad and other members of his extended family were lowering their nets into the sea, when three Israeli naval vessels approached them at high speed.
The Israelis attacked Nihad and his crew with rubber-coated steel bullets and water cannons. Once they were beside the boat, three Israeli commandos jumped on board, screaming and continuing to shoot.
“They even used electric shock weapons on us several times,” Nihad said.
“It was the most terrifying and cruel experience of my life,” he added. “Not only because I was in danger but because it was hard to see my sons and nephews injured and in handcuffs.”
All six fishers, including Nihad, were arrested and brought to Ashdod, a naval base in Israel.
Later, the fishers were taken to the Erez military checkpoint which separates Israel and Gaza. They were interrogated before being released in the late evening.
The excuse offered by Israel for its brutality was that the boat was outside the permitted fishing area.
Nihad pointed out that it is often impossible to catch enough fish inside the permitted zone. Fishers have to go farther in the hope they will have a large enough daily catch.
Otherwise, their activities would not be economically viable.
Under the Oslo accords – signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s – Gaza’s fishers may venture up to 20 nautical miles from the shore.
Israel has not respected the accords.
It has repeatedly changed the limits applying to fishers. At times, Israel has reduced the zone to as little as three nautical miles and even banned fishers from going to sea completely for certain periods.
While naval attacks on Gaza’s fishers are frequent, the court proceedings Israel has initiated against the al-Hissi family is regarded as unprecedented.
According to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, the authorities are wrongly trying to invoke provisions of international law. These provisions concern the seizure of enemy ships and, in Gisha’s view, should not be applied to civilians.It is deeply ironic that Israel is posing as a defender of international law in this case.
The restrictions Israel has imposed on fishers and the violence to which Israel has subjected them constitute collective punishment. That crime is outlawed by the Fourth Geneva Convention, a cornerstone of international law.
Al Mezan, a Gaza-based human rights group, has found that Israel carried out hundreds of attacks on Palestinian fishers in 2022 alone. Such attacks have continued in the first few months of this year.
Israel’s seizure of his boat caused major problems for Jihad.
As he had no income, his debts mounted. And when the boat was finally handed back to him, it had sustained serious damage.
Some of the damage resulted directly from the attack. Other damage resulted from the boat’s engine being exposed to the elements during the eight months it was kept in Ashdod.
Repairing it cost approximately $11,000.
Jihad also lost nets and other fishing gear that had been cast into the sea just before the attack occurred.
Replacing the equipment cost an additional $10,000. Jihad had to borrow heavily so that he could pay those bills.
While many fishers have left the profession since Israel imposed a full blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2007, Jihad is determined to keep plying his trade.
He regards it as his duty to do so as he comes from a family of fishers. He recalls hearing stories that his father told him about working as a fisher in Jaffa.
The family hails from that port city in historic Palestine. They moved to Gaza after being uprooted during the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
“Even when my boat was taken away from me, I insisted on going down to the port [in Gaza] every morning,” Jihad said. “Life away from the sea’s breeze is unbearable.”
Abdallah al-Naami is a journalist and photographer living in Gaza.