Closing the Sea

Gideon Levy

Forced to keep their fishing boats within a six-mile limit, Gaza fishermen say that even within this area, they are harassed and abused by Israeli navy patrols

15 February 2002


No motors, no boats, no nothing: The sea off Gaza. (Photo: Miki Kratsman)

Gaza Fishermen

Repairing nets on the beach: Close to shore, there's no fish, but sailing farther out is forbidden

   Piles of rubble are heaped next to the fishermen's wharf on the Gaza shore. Even the most ecologically aware countries do not have such an enlightened recycling program: The mounds of rubble left behind by IDF bulldozers are now being brought to the wharf to be turned into breakwaters. What until recently was a crumbling house in a refugee camp, and was demolished by the occupying army's bulldozers, is being transformed into a protective wall against the sea waves. 

Here is what remains of the houses in Rafah. Maybe the ruins of the Khan Yunis houses are over there. Even in the downtrodden Gaza Strip, some good comes from the bad. Behind these recycled breakwaters, the rusted boats of the fishermen are now moored. They sway from side to side and hardly ever go out to sea. What, on land, is called closure or encirclement - a siege by any other name - also applies to the sea off Gaza. This large prison, a stretch of land fenced in on three sides, is closed in on the fourth side by the sea. Gaza is also under a naval siege that is choking off one of the last sources of income left to its inhabitants. 

At sea as on land, one finds a surprising similarity between the testimonies of the fishermen and those of residents stopped at the checkpoints. The soldiers are the same soldiers, the orders are the same orders and the harassment is the same harassment. On land and at sea, Israel is exerting its stranglehold, and the signs of it are everywhere. 

This week, Gaza seemed more stifled and subdued than ever before. On Sunday evening, warplanes and helicopter gunships were flying overhead once again, sowing more destruction in revenge for the terror attack in Be'er Sheva. But several hours earlier, the routine sights were just as depressing. Hardly anyone passes through the Erez checkpoint anymore, not even the diplomats and foreign journalists who were seen here a few months ago. They, too, have abandoned this devastated area. 

The northern roads are deserted. The new highway paved by the Palestinian Authority with funding from foreign contributors, which was meant to be a bridge to Israel and peace, is now covered with yellowish desert sand. Only a handful of cars move along the shoulders of the road, which were painted black back in the days of hope. The plants on the traffic islands haven't yet had time to bloom, and they're already about to wither. A few haggard-looking donkeys pull wagons that still bear the license tags of the Israeli civilian administration - another remnant of the caprices of a supposedly finished occupation. New traffic lights are not illuminated, traffic cops have no traffic to direct and piles of oranges sit unsold and rotting. Only when you go farther south, toward the heart of the city, does the traffic look like something out of the not-so-distant past. But here, too, the overwhelming poverty and helplessness is inescapable. It is evident in all the empty or boarded-up stores, the countless young people wandering about with nothing to do, and the abundance of security personnel everywhere you look. It is sad in Gaza, very sad. 

The fishermen were waiting in the offices of the Fishermen's Union, located just above the pier. We found several dozen gloomy-looking men, most of them young, almost all of them with mustachioed, unshaven and sunburnt faces, some in tattered clothes, with wool scarves wrapped around their heads to protect them from the chill of the sea wind. They came from the shores of Gaza, Rafah, Khan Yunis and Dir al-Balah, to talk about their troubles. One by one, they told of the abuse they had been subjected to by the soldiers in the Navy patrols, who day and night prevent them from fishing and from sailing out to sea. 

On the white sand below, teenagers work at repairing the green nets spread out before them. A patrol boat crosses the horizon, trailing a white wake behind it. It moves slowly. From the window of the Fishermen's Union, it looks gray and confident, the king of the sea. Some of the fishermen no longer go to sea because of their fears of the patrols. 

Before the Oslo agreements, they were allowed to sail 20 miles from shore. Then Israel reduced the area in which they could fish to 12 miles. Then it was reduced to six miles and now, some of the fishermen claim to have been arrested and sent to jail after having gone no further than three miles. Only during Ramadan was Israel magnanimous enough to let them sail 12 miles off the coast - a kind of "holiday special." They say there's nothing to find six miles offshore. The sardines, tuna and Sultan Ibrahim fish are much further out, in deeper water. 

But even at sea, they are subjected to humiliation and harassment. One was forced to undress, another had his boat confiscated. One was shot at, another had his motor confiscated, another had his fishing license taken away. The group's secretary pulls out a picture from the local Hebrew paper, Scoop. As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words. It shows an Israeli fisherman sitting on the prow of a fishing boat. The caption reads: "`They want to earn a living with dignity and confidence' - a striking fisherman on the Ashkelon shore." But look closely and you notice that the Israeli fisherman from Ashkelon who wants to earn a living with dignity and confidence is perched on the prow of a Palestinian boat from Gaza that still bears license tags issued by the Palestinian Authority. The license number is 1-076; no one can say just how it found its way to the Israeli fishing authority after being confiscated from its owner. 

The first man who gets up to speak is Abed Bakher. The 42-year-old father of 11 has been going to sea for 30 years. Ten months have now passed since his nightmarish experience, but all the details are still vivid in his mind. It was April 27, 2001. At four in the afternoon, he and his six brothers, two sons, two cousins and two nephews went to sea in their large boat, which had four smaller boats tied to it. The 13 fishermen managed to fill 40 crates with sardines and, at five in the morning, were ready to head back to shore. 

"Suddenly I saw the patrol boat coming from the direction of Rafah. There were six boats ahead of me - everyone finishes in the morning. They were all further away from shore than I was. The patrol comes, circles around one of the boats and then leaves it alone. Then it comes to me. The soldier told me to stop the boat. I kept the boat still for more than half an hour. Then he said to me: Put the children on the small boats. The children were afraid. He told them to sail to the shore. Then he said to me: Take off your clothes. All I had left on was my underwear. I went up onto the patrol boat and they tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me. It was very cold. 

"I stayed there for three or four hours. Then he said to me: Get back on your boat and come with me to Ashdod. I was afraid. He shot into the sea. He wanted to scare me. He said: If you don't come with me, I'll kill you. I'm crazy, he told me. Before we got to Ashdod, he told me: Stop, kill the motor. And then he took my brothers and me onto the patrol boat. Then he tied me up again. 

"In Ashdod, people from the Shin Bet were waiting. Two soldiers shoved my head against the wall and said: Sorry, we didn't see you. Then they said: You were in a forbidden area. There were 20 other boats there, I said. Why me? 

A human rights lawyer, Naila Atiya, asked them what I had done. They told her: We caught him in a forbidden area. I spent 11 days in jail at Erez. They kept the boat for a month. I haven't been to sea since. I'm afraid. Now I'm living off of UNRWA aid." 

Rashed Bakher, also 42, has nine children; he has been going to sea for 30 years. On September 4, he went out with his trawler, a medium-sized fishing boat, to fish for crabs and Sultan Ibrahim fish. "The patrol boat came and poured water on us. It has a strong pump, and the windows of the trawler broke. My hand was injured by the glass. The patrol saw the blood, but didn't offer any help. Two weeks later, on the 16th of the month, we were working six miles offshore. I'd finished working, and then a patrol came over to us and turned on a very bright light. He was shouting at us, but we couldn't tell what he was saying. Then they fired their guns. One hit the boat and hit me in the ass, pardon me. We went to the hospital. I've gone back to work, but closer in, since it's forbidden to go farther out. I haven't been able to earn anything since November. Even if you go out, you come back with no fish." 

Hisam al-Habil, 23, has two children and has been going to sea for nine years. "On September 7, the trawler broke down near Khan Yunis. The patrol boat came and told me to stop. He shot in the air to frighten me. He asked for permits and took them. I told him the boat had broken down. I asked for an hour to fix it. The captain of the patrol boat said: Fix it in 10 minutes. I told him that 10 minutes wasn't enough time, so then he went and called for another boat to come and tow mine. An hour later, another patrol boat came, took all the permits and asked who the captain was. I told him that I was. He said: Take off your clothes and jump into the sea. 

"I didn't want to throw myself into the sea. He fired his gun. Then I threw myself in the sea and swam to the patrol boat. They took me on and put their shoes on my head and tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me. Every five minutes, he would hit me on the head. Then they took the boat to Ashdod. I sat there from eight in the evening until five in the morning, tied up in my underwear. They put me in prison for eight days and then took me to court. They said I had been 12 miles out, but, at most, I was four miles from shore. I was sentenced to three months on probation and a NIS 300 fine. The lawyer cost me NIS 500. They kept the boat for two months." 

The eldest of the fishermen, Eid Abu Hasira, 60, has seven children and has been going to sea for 50 years. His friends told him what happened to his two sons a week ago. "On February 6, my two boys - Adel, 27, and Kamel, 19 - left the port at six in the morning along with their worker, Naim, 50. The patrol came next to the boat and took them to Ashdod. They've been in jail ever since. They have a lawyer who costs 300 dollars. We have a 40-horsepower motor. The patrol said that was forbidden. Why forbidden? Years ago, there was a commander in Gaza named Sassi. They told him that the small motor wasn't strong enough to move the surfboat. The surfboat has a net that weighs more than half a ton, and five workers. Sassi told us: You can use a 40-horsepower motor, but only on the shanshula. A shanshula is like a small launch, seven and a half meters in length. Sassi gave permission. Then came the Palestinian police and they also gave permission. The shanshula has been using this motor for eight years. My children go to court tomorrow." 

Khaled Bakher is boyish looking. He is 22 years old, has one child and has only been going to sea for five years. He is dressed in his finest clothes. On January 13, he was two miles off the coast of Gaza. At nine in the morning, the patrol approached. "He told me to turn off the motor and he fired his gun. They like to shoot. They told us to stand on the deck. To put our hands up and stand there. All 11 of us stood there with our hands up. They took our licenses. We stood there for three hours with our hands up. We told them that one of the guys had heart problems, that they should let him have a drink. They said: No one moves. 

"After three hours, they called out names. If they called your name, you had to take off your clothes and go over to the patrol. They called four names. On the patrol boat, they tied us up and took us to Ashkelon. We sat there tied up in our underwear until 10 at night. They gave us blankets. Then they took us to the police station and interrogated us. They asked: Why did you enter a forbidden area? We said: We were in a permitted area. They said: It's forbidden. They change the law and don't tell us. And whatever the patrol says is the truth. The patrol is God. If I'm asleep in my room and the patrol says I'm a fish, then I'm a fish. They arrested us at Erez. We were sentenced to three months on probation and a NIS 300 fine. They let us out after 10 days, but they haven't returned our licenses, and without them, we cannot work." 

This is the story of a fisherman from Rafah, who asked not to be identified: "On January 8, at five in the afternoon, Israel got the Palestinian policemen to leave the police station on the Muisi beach. At night, Israeli soldiers came and asked where the mukhtar of the fishermen was. There were maybe 30 soldiers. The soldiers told the mukhtar to climb over the fence and open the Palestinian police station for them. The mukhtar is 70 years old. Then they told him to open up the fishermen's storerooms. He told them he didn't have the keys, that each fisherman had his own key. They said they would open them by force. 

"They started breaking the locks and opening all the doors. They opened 20 storerooms and took 22 motors. The mukhtar tried to stop them, but he's an old man. They tied the hands of some of the fishermen there. When they finished, they took the motors away in a truck, $80,000 dollars' worth. All gone; 22 families without work. No motor, no work, no Palestinian police, no nothing. There are 270 fishermen in Rafah and not one of them can go to sea now. It's forbidden. They took five motors from Khan Yunis a week ago." 

The IDF Spokesman: "There are security guidelines that define a fishing area in which fishermen from the Gaza Strip are free to earn a livelihood and those areas that are closed and where no vessels are allowed to enter. The fishing zone is determined by the defense minister based on the recommendation of the navy and the coordinator of operations in the territories, and it changes in accordance with intelligence warnings and attempts by the terror organizations to exploit the freedom to fish to smuggle weapons to be used in terrorist activities. For example, after the Karine A episode, the fishing area was reduced. 

"The Navy is taking firm action against fishermen who work in closed areas and is enforcing the fishing regulations in accordance with the set procedures, which, first, include the spraying of water as a warning and deterrent measure, and does not include shooting at innocent fishermen. Fishermen who violate the regulations are arrested and taken for interrogation, as all precautions are being taken to prevent suicide bombings. The confiscation of boats and licenses is carried out according to the law and in accordance with the rules of the region. The motors that were confiscated [in Rafah - G. L.) are of a size that is not allowed according to the rules of the region. Therefore, they were properly confiscated." 

The boat Chandle leans on its side. Its engine room is burnt out and sooty. Melted pieces of metal attest to what occurred here. The iron cables attaching it to the old bulldozer standing on the shore keep it from sinking to the depths. This is the PA ship that the Navy blew up here, near this pier, in reaction to the capture of the Karine A. weapons ship. The fishermen say that the Chandle was just a fishing boat. The union secretary, Atef Bakher, and Abu Malek Sanwar, a colonel in the Palestinian navy, say that these fishermen are not involved in weapons smuggling. "All they want is to feed their children." 

"We're not doing an intifada and look how much we're suffering," says one of the fishermen from the Hassan. The boat's side is cracked, from a patrol boat, he says. And this is the Ala, the trawler belonging to the union secretary and named for his daughter. It hasn't been out to sea for a month. Bullet holes are clearly visible on the side of another boat. 

Usama al-Ali, a Palestinian general who came to look: "At sea, there is just one big God over the patrol boat and the fishermen. There are no other witnesses. They treat these fishermen like monkeys. Sometimes they piss on them. Imagine what would happen if we treated one Israeli this way, if we made him strip in the middle of the sea. The whole world would be up in arms. And this isn't something that happened only once; it happens every day. This isn't violence? This isn't terror? At least you can count our terror, but your terror is impossible to count."





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