For years, Palestinian fishermen have been subject to routine attacks, shootings and arrests by the Israeli navy as they attempt to ply their trade in the seas off the coast of Gaza.
A month ago, Oliva, the first boat to monitor human rights violations in the Palestinian territorial waters, was launched. The project was organized by the Civil Palestinian Service (CPSGaza - CPSgaza.org) in cooperation with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and Fishing and Marine Sports Association.
Mahfouz al-Kabariti, the president of the Fishing and Marine Sports Association, explained to The Electronic Intifada how the idea of this monitoring boat came to life.
“In the beginning, many international activists escorted Palestinian fishermen on six-mile voyages to break the siege enforced on the fishing area until Israel began sending waves of aggression against the fishermen and the international activists themselves. They arrested them and deported the activists,” he said.
Fishing boats were usually impounded for two to three months, al-Kabariti explained, “So we came up with the idea of establishing an independent boat entrusted to observe human rights violations and to help the Palestinian fishermen in cases of sabotage or accidents. We thought that having a civic, peaceful boat crewed by international observes will carry out the mission of documenting violations of human rights.”
According to the 1994 Oslo Accords, Palestinian territorial waters for the purposes of economic activity extend to twenty nautical miles offshore. However, Israel continues to break most, if not all, of the agreements between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, and between Israel and the international community.
Attacks by the Israeli navy
In fact, the twenty nautical-mile fishing area was unilaterally reduced by Israel to just three nautical miles in 2008, only exacerbating the crisis in yet another sector of the already-exhausted Gaza economy. This reduced the quantity of fish available to be caught by fishermen. Not only have the fishermen been deprived of their livelihoods, but they are also constantly attacked and arrested by the Israeli Navy, which frequently confiscates or deliberately damages fishing boats and other property.
The fishing industry is a main source of living in Gaza. A high percentage of the Gazan population depends on it to feed and shelter their families. However, the Israeli government, which claimed to have “disengaged” from Gaza in 2005, still controls exports, imports, movement and access to what are supposed to be Palestinian territorial waters.
One fisherman who gave his last name as Bakr but chose not to provide his first name, was inside the three-mile offshore limit when he was shot twice in is leg almost three months ago.
“We were just two miles offshore; not even three as the Israelis want,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “We heard the sirens of their gunboats so we knew there was something wrong and we turned off the engine. They came across and fired at us. When my cousin took off his shirt to wrap my leg, they knew someone was injured and went away.”
Another fisherman, Omar Bakr, was arrested by Israeli forces. “A while ago, the israelis arrested me and impounded my boat,” he said. “I was asked about the purpose of my voyage and they suspected I was smuggling something.”
With these sorts of routine attacks, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, there is a clear impetus for an independent human rights monitoring project on the seas.
Practical support and a symbol of Palestinian heritage
Oliva, the monitoring boat, is identifiable and can be clearly distinguished from boats used by the fishermen. Small and white it is 7.4 meters long. It has the CPSGaza logo painted on its body and a flag carrying the same logo. It is crewed by international observers, many of whom are activists with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).
The name Oliva was chosen for its strong roots in the 63-year-old Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation. Joe Catron, an activist with the ISM, told The Electronic Intifada that the group “envisioned the olive as a symbol of Palestinian heritage and struggle.” Catron added that the name of the boat was supported by the group’s co-founder, Vittorio Arrigoni, who was kidnapped and murdered in Gaza in April.
The first mission
The first real mission (a symbolic launch had been done in April) was carried out on 8 June. At 9:15 in the morning, Oliva set sail from the aging port of Gaza. It was followed by three boats with journalists and TV correspondents on board.
As part of the land team, this writer had to stay in a small office and maintain the connection with the crew. We would ask them at least every ten minutes to specify their position and report the situation. At 10:24am they were two miles south of the port, among half a dozen fishing boats. An Israeli gunship was visible but neither calls to retreat nor firing incidents were reported.
At three nautical miles out to sea, things remained calm except for a few number of gunships roaming the sea to demonstrate their control of the waters. The mission ended at 10:55am.
Israeli reaction “muted”
The Israeli navy did not fire at the fishermen when Oliva accompanied them, which indicated the success of the first mission. The same scenario occured on other occasions the fishing boats were escorted by Oliva. The standard number of activists aboard the boat is two, in addition to one Palestinian captain.
Catron, who is most often one of the two activists aboard, says that “the Israeli reaction so far has been muted.”
“We have received no direct threats,” he added, “but when we are at sea, the Israeli navy will frequently come onto our civilian radio frequencies and converse with each other in English. I find it hard to believe they would do that under normal circumstances. Presumably, they do it to remind us of their presence.”
But how will international observers react if Israeli naval forces commit any violent action against the fishermen?
“Our first reaction would be to inform them that their actions violated international humanitarian law. From there, we would proceed depending on their reaction, and according to the exact circumstances. For example, we would draft a brief report on the facts of the incident. This will be published, widely distributed, and analyzed by our coalition partners for advocacy efforts and possible legal action,” Catron explained.
“I feel very comfortable when Oliva escorts us”
Such violent action took place on 29 June when the Israeli gunboats shot at the fishing boats in the presence of Oliva. Oliva was escorting a number of fishing boats in an attempt to break the three-mile siege when Israeli warships appeared to be closer than usual. They began with shooting in the water and ended with riddling the boats — though not the Oliva. This account was provided to this writer by an ISM activist, though nothing else has been published about it.
Despite those sporadic assaults even when Oliva escorts his boat, fisherman Jalal Bakr still thinks the project can protect hundreds of fishermen like him.
“When Oliva comes along, we can fish beyond three miles. The Israelis would usually roam around, but not fire. I feel very comfortable when Oliva escorts us,” he said.
Mahfouz al-Kabariti, the head of the fisherman’s association, told The Electronic Intifada while gazing at the sea: “Oliva was a result of a collective effort. Let me name it Oliva One because one boat is not enough and we look forward to developing more boats.”
Rana Baker, 19, is a student of business administration and a member of the Gaza-based BDS organizing committee. Rana’s blog is ranabaker.wordpress.com and she can be followed on twitter at: @RanaGaza.