Suhail al-Amoudi spends a great deal of time on Gaza’s shore.
Watching the waves rise and descend fills him with memories. For more than three decades, he supported his family by fishing.
Al-Amoudi, 58, cannot exercise that profession any longer; Israel has confiscated his boat.
In July 2018, he used that boat in an attempt to break the blockade of Gaza.
The attempt took place amid the Great March of Return – weekly protests to demand that Palestinian refugees have their rights fulfilled.
With al-Amoudi as captain, his boat sailed toward Cyprus. Some of his passengers needed medical treatment, while others wished to study abroad.
The boat was part of a small flotilla intending to venture farther than the very limited area where Gaza’s fishers may operate.
When the boat was around 12 miles from the coast, it was surrounded by Israeli naval forces. The Israelis boarded the boat and “there were guns appearing from all sides to attack us – peaceful people with no weapons,” said al-Amoudi.
By his estimate, there were at least 100 troops involved in attacking the boat. Once they had taken control of the vessel, they towed it to Ashdod, a port in Israel.
“Tiny and dirty”
The 16 passengers on the boat were held for a short period, then brought back to Gaza. They reentered it via Erez, an Israeli military checkpoint.
Al-Amoudi was not among them. He was kept behind Israel’s bars.
“I was isolated in a cell for a whole month,” he said.
“It was tiny and dirty. It was the first time in my life I found myself in those kinds of conditions so it was a big shock. I remember the prison guards saying they were going to be tough with me so that nobody else in Gaza would try to break the siege in the way I had done.”
Al-Amoudi was put on trial. In total, he was brought to court 25 times.
“It used to take long hours to reach the court,” he said. “All that time I was handcuffed and prevented from using the bathroom. They treated me very badly. I am an old man in his late fifties, but they didn’t show me any respect.”
Because his lawyer negotiated a plea deal, al-Amoudi was handed a shorter sentence than he had feared. He pleaded guilty to having connections with an organization categorized as “terrorist” and was imprisoned for 18 months.
Israel brands almost all forms of resistance to its occupation as “terrorism.” Although the Great March of Return was an unarmed protest, the Israeli government alleged that none of the participants were civilians.
By making that baseless claim, sought to smear people demanding justice as “terrorists.”
Al-Amoudi met many other Palestinians in Nafha, an Israeli prison. He made some great friends, but that did not compensate for how he was denied any visits throughout his 18 months in captivity.
Two of his grandsons were born while he was imprisoned, but he could not see them until after his release. Both were named Suhail in his honor.
“My father is the center of our family,” said Wael, his eldest son. “We counted the days until we saw him again.”
Israel has threatened al-Amoudi with further imprisonment if he ever tries to break the siege of Gaza again.
It is, of course, deplorable that he should be treated as a criminal when he was trying to save lives. That fact is underscored by the fact one of the passengers on his 2018 voyage has subsequently died.
The passenger in question had cancer and needed treatment that was not available in Gaza’s hospitals. According to the World Health Organization, the year prior to al-Amoudi’s initiative, 54 Palestinians from Gaza died following Israel’s military either denying them permission to travel for treatment or delaying necessary permits.
Israel never returned al-Amoudi’s boat after seizing it when he tried to break the Gaza blockade. So he views going to the shore every morning as an act of defiance.
Even if he cannot venture out to sea, he likes to advise and assist other fishers.
The cruelty inflicted on al-Amoudi is in no way unique.
The waters around Gaza are among the most dangerous in the world – and not because of natural phenomena such as stormy weather.
After opening fire on fishers off Gaza a total of 350 times last year, Israel has repeatedly employed such violence in 2020. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Israeli forces fired on fishing boats operating inside the permitted area 100 times during the first four months of this year.
“Fishing in the sea off Gaza is more than a career,” al-Amoudi said. “It is a form of resistance. When we fish, we expose ourselves to great danger. But we are still willing to defend our rights.”
“I may be on the shore, but I still try to help my comrades to fish,” he added. “This is our land and this is our sea. We have our roots here and no force can kick us out.”
Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.