Israeli army prohibits fishing off Gaza coast and abuse fishermen

A Mawassi fisherman untangles his fishing net as the sun sets along the shores of Gaza, 24 July 2005. (MaanImages/Inbal Rose)

B’Tselem’s research indicates that, since the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, on 25 June 2006, Israel has forbidden boats, including fishing boats, to sail off the Gaza coast. The prohibition has struck a severe blow to the fishing sector, which provides a livelihood for tens of thousands of residents of the Gaza Strip. Lacking other means of employment, and despite the Israeli navy’s patrol of the coast and occasional shooting at Palestinian fishermen, some fishermen have risked their lives and violated the prohibition.

‘Adnan al-Badwil described the naval gunfire at his fishing boat:

Last Wednesday [12 December], around five in the evening, I went to sea in a small, seven-meter motorboat I own. My brother Sa’id and another fisherman who works with us, Hamdan Barhum, were also in the boat … We threw out the nets and waited for the fish to get caught … After waiting about ninety minutes, I felt that fish were in the net, and we began to lift them out of the water … Then we started back to shore.

When we got to about one hundred meters from shore, I heard shooting. It was about seven o’clock and it was dark. The boat started shaking a lot, we fell into the sea. I didn’t see where the shots came from, but I am sure it came from the Israeli warship that was at sea. I didn’t see anything else in the water … The boat was hit, apparently by a shell. The three of us were injured by shell fragments … Sa’id and I were hospitalized for three days. Hamdan was very seriously injured, so he is still in the hospital.

In addition to shooting, in recent months Israel navy crews have used a new method of humiliating and abusing the fishermen. B’Tselem has learned of many cases in which the sailors stopped fisherman off the coast, particularly opposite Rafah, forced them to go further out to sea and then ordered them, under threat of firearms, to undress and swim dozens of meters in the sea to the navy ship, despite the bitter cold. The sailors threatened to shoot anyone who did not want to jump in because he didn’t know how to swim. The fishermen were ordered to swim to a rescue float that the soldiers threw into the water, but the soldiers yanked at the float just before the fishermen reached it. After being taken on board, the ship sailed to Ashdod Port. On the way, the fishermen were kept on deck in their soaked underwear, exposed to the wind and the spray of water. At the port, the fishermen were held for from fourteen to twenty-four hours, their hands cuffed and their eyes covered, and interrogated. In some cases, they were given military clothes and were offered food and a hot beverage. At the end of the interrogation, they were taken back to the ship and returned to where their boat had been anchored. The sailors then forced them to undress again and swim to their boat. In some instances, their clothes had been blown into the sea, so they had to make their way to shore in their soaked underwear. In rare cases, the fishermen were returned to the Gaza Strip via Erez Crossing.

Isma’il Basleh described what happened to him:

On Monday [ 1 January 2007 ], I went out to sea with my brother Samir and with Aymen al-Jabur. We were going to fish … In the distance, I saw an Israeli warship approaching us. It stopped about thirty meters from us and fired into the air … The captain ordered me to follow him … We went about 6.5 kilometers, and then he ordered me to stop and turn off the motor. The captain ordered me to disconnect the gas lines … and to take off my clothes. I stood there in my underwear. It was very cold and there was a strong wind … The captain ordered me to swim toward the Israeli ship, which was about twenty meters from my boat. I began to swim, and when I got close to the ship, it moved further and further away, until it was about one hundred meters from my boat … I told the captain “Have mercy. I am tired,” but he told me to shut up. … The sailors threw down a ladder and pulled me up to the deck. They shoved me onto a rough iron plank that the sailors stand on so they don’t slip. One of the sailors blindfolded me and bound my hands and legs from behind. He dragged me about twenty meters on the rough iron board and then ordered me to sit on one of the cannons on deck …
In response to B’Tselem’s inquiry to the IDF spokesperson, the IDF responded that they restrict the fishing area off the Gaza Strip to six nautical miles (11 kilometers) from the coast, and that these restrictions are based on security needs, primarily to prevent the smuggling of weapons and terrorists into and out of the Gaza Strip, attacks from the sea in boats loaded with explosives, and the smuggling of the captive Cpl. Gilad Shalit out of Gaza. But these security needs do not justify the arbitrary detention and abuse of fishermen. Firstly, the fishing boats from which the fishermen were taken did not sail far from the Gaza coast, and certainly did not exceed the six nautical mile (11 kilometer) limit at the time that Navy patrol boats constantly patrolled the coastline. The fishing boats were far from the Israeli navy’s ships, and certainly didn’t pose a threat to their security. Therefore, it seems that the detention of the fishermen and the inhuman and degrading treatment were a means of adding to the pressure that Israel has put on the residents of the Gaza Strip since the abduction of Cpl. Shalit. These fishermen were detained and abused as collective punishment of persons who breach Israel ‘s unofficial prohibition on fishing.

In September 2005, Israel completed its Gaza disengagement plan and declared the end of the military government in the Gaza Strip. It is not clear, therefore, on what authority Israel forbids sailing off the Gaza coast, or what is the legal basis for detaining the fishermen, who are no longer subject, according to Israel ‘s contention, to its control.

B’Tselem calls on the government of Israel to remove the unofficial prohibition on fishing off the Gaza coast, to cease detaining and abusing fisherman, and to respect their rights, including the right to earn a living in dignity.

Related Links

  • B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
  • Israelis Keep a Fishy Watch, Jon Elmer (16 February 2007)
  • Fishermen suffer naval restriction, IRIN (17 September 2006)