Israel forces Gaza fishermen to undress in attack violating ceasefire deal

Palestinian fishermen unload their catch at the Gaza City seaport on 7 August.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Nearly a month after Israel’s military offensive against the Gaza Strip ended in an indefinite ceasefire on 26 August, Israeli forces continue to shoot at and detain Palestinian fishermen.

The Israeli military has captured ten fishermen and confiscated four fishing boats, while firing live ammunition in dozens of attacks on both the sea and shore of the besieged coastal enclave.

A day before its security cabinet ordered the military operation on 7 July, and two days before its forces started intensely bombarding the Gaza Strip, Israel unilaterally reduced the permitted zone it had imposed on Palestinian fishermen to three nautical miles from the shore.

Its navy had previously allowed them to sail as far as six nautical miles after a ceasefire ended eight days of Israeli attacks on Gaza and retaliatory Palestinian rocket fire in November 2012.

“War against livelihoods”

In a statement released to media, the Palestinian agriculture and fisheries ministry called the reduction “a war against thousands of the Palestinian fishermen and their livelihoods.”

During this summer’s offensive, Gaza fishermen endured severe losses. Only during occasional lulls in the violence did a few dare sail, sometimes keeping their boats in the relative safety of the Gaza seaport.

By 10 August, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that Gaza’s fishing sector had already lost 234.6 tons of fish, or 9.3 percent of its annual catch.

On 28 August, two days after the ceasefire agreement, Israel once again extended its limit to six nautical miles.

Nizar Ayyash, chairperson of Gaza’s General Union of Fishermen, hoped the change would indicate further improvements. At the time, he told reporters the area “will be nine miles by next week and will increase to twelve miles within the next month according to the agreement reached in Egypt on Tuesday.”

Instead, Israel began to reverse the shift as soon as attention from international media and foreign governments dissipated, reducing the zone back to five nautical miles on 8 September.

By then, its navy’s attacks had already resumed in earnest. Regular bursts of machine-gun fire and the occasional thuds of naval artillery punctuated the silence of early mornings along the Gaza coast.

The first capture of fishermen came on 3 September. At 6:00am that morning, Muhammad Ishaq Zayid told The Electronic Intifada last week, he and his cousin Mousa Talal al-Soltan had paddled their fishing boat off the coast of Sudaniya in the northern Gaza Strip.

Escape attempt

“We were gathering our nets, which we had thrown into the sea the day before,” Zayid said at his family’s home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia. “This was only one mile away from the shore. Then two Israeli gunboats came and started shooting. They ordered us to take off our clothes and jump into the water.”

Despite their craft — a small, motorless boat known as a hasaka — the cousins’ first reaction was to flee from the Israelis’ sophisticated vessels, Zayid said.

“When they approached, we had already gathered our nets,” he recounted. “We started escaping, but the gunboats shot into the water and surrounded us, one from the north, the other from the south. They told us to stop, but we didn’t. We kept moving. So they shot into the water again and commanded us to put our hands up. This happened in seconds.”

After the Israeli gunfire forced them to undress and plunge into the water, the pair were blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to a larger warship which transported them to the naval port at Ashdod in present-day Israel.

“They kept us in an isolated room,” Zayid said. “They took me for interrogation for twenty minutes.”

Meanwhile, al-Soltan said, “They interrogated me in the same room where they had been holding us.”

After their interrogations, the cousins were taken by the Israeli military to its Erez checkpoint at the northern end of the Gaza Strip.

“We were taken from the port at 3:30pm and arrived at the Erez checkpoint at 4:30,” Zayid said. “We were held there two hours, then came home. At 7:00, we reached our house.”

Like many fishermen in the Gaza Strip, the cousins share both their profession and their experiences of detention with other members of their family. Zayid’s father has been detained, as has another cousin, who sat in Zayid’s courtyard repairing a net last week.

“They have everything”

Fishing families’ losses to Israeli aggression mount over time, far exceeding the potential catches of their days spent in captivity. Al-Soltan noted, “It was our first time.” He then added, “They have everything: the boat, the nets and the fish.”

Zayid, whose family owned the craft and equipment, estimated the cost of replacing them at $2,300.

Other detentions have followed those of the cousins, including the captures of four fishermen in two separate incidents on 9 September, and an additional four earlier this week.

The most recent detentions came days after Israeli naval gunfire injured Yousef Zayif, a seventy-year-old fisherman, on 17 September as he waited for his sons on the beach at Sudaniya.

Nearly all attacks have occurred on or near the shore of the northern Gaza Strip, an area that, many fishermen say, Israel aims to render inaccessible to them, regardless of its public statements.

Gunfire continues along the length of the coast, breaking the morning stillness wherever fishermen sail.

By 9 September, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights had recorded 25 shootings, nearly two per day since fishing resumed after the truce.

But a trade marked by at least five killings, dozens of injuries and countless detentions during an eight-year siege remains a potent symbol of history and resilience for the 3,500 who still ply it.

Asked if he and his cousin would return to the sea, Zayid replied proudly, “We have already gone.”

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. Follow him on Twitter: @jncatron.