I am writing this exactly twelve hours after I was attacked by an Israeli warship, off the Gaza coast.
As a member of the Civil Peace Service, I board the Oliva boat around twice a week to monitor Gazan fishermen’s human rights. But today, it wasn’t just the fishermen who were targeted.
We approached a cluster of hasaka fishing boats that were being attacked with water cannons at midday on July 13. As we got closer all I could focus on was the officer manning the machine gun, covered from head to toe with black, which struck me as very medieval, if you know what I mean.
Our boat, along with the fishing vessels, was around two miles out to sea, well within the three-mile fishing limit imposed by Israel. We saw marines congregate on deck to watch as the water cannon was angled slowly but deliberately towards us. To my delight they struggled against the wind initially, but eventually managed to angle round us as we fumbled with the water-logged engine. I took one look at the jet being generated vertically and knew what was coming. Sure enough, pellets of water began to rain down on us with stinging force. Then I, camera in one hand, felt the jet stream slap my face directly, staying there for several seconds, before the boat was yanked away by the fishermen around us. I was flung backwards and words I never utter escaped my lips. Struggling to stay up, I forced myself to take it on the chin. Literally. As the assault continued, they repeatedly aimed at my face and each time my nose, eyes and mouth filled with seawater. At one point I even saw a naval officer indicate to the marine controlling the cannon to aim for me. He gleefully obliged.
Israeli naval water cannons are able reach high into the air; even when fired vertically they can reach about four times the height of the gunboat. This warship was about 10 metres away. Imagine someone boxing your face. Imagine that their fist is larger than a bowling ball. Now imagine that punch lasting for ten minutes. This is what it felt like.
For ten minutes we were pursued as we tried to escape the gunboat. There were several fishing boats around us and, if there is a silver lining, it is that our presence distracted the Navy from attacking them.
Our boat began to fill with water and we struggled, along with the fishing boats around us to return to shore. Even as we picked up speed, the gunboat honed in on us, with relentless attack after attack. Eventually at just over one mile off the Gaza shore, the gunboat lagged behind and we were on the home straight.
We were completely drenched through. Our captain had to order us to corners of the boat, worried it was about to capsize or sink from all the water with which it had been filled. My body started to buzz and I’m surprised I didn’t electrocute everyone with the static that was building in my bloodstream. The fishermen were safe, we escaped and I felt like we had won. Even though rinsing my mouth with the salinated Gazan water to make wudu that evening brought my brain right back to gargling waterjets on the Oliva boat, the footage is gold dust and we refused to cower from their water-taunting and domination.
Although the attack was challenging for those of us who experienced it, it is essential to remember that this an everyday occurrence for Gazan fishermen. Earlier that very day, the boat of one fisherman was shot at repeatedly. There were too many bullet holes in the bow of his boat for me to count. His netting cables were shot through and he lost his catch. I’m sure he must have been fishing for grenades or something, right? Whereas I returned to shore simply with a stinging face and drenched clothes, when fishermen are attacked, they are unable to make their living. For the one attack on CPS Gaza, there have been tens if not hundreds of attacks on fishing boats.
International observers of Gaza are being targeted evermore frequently, as witnessed with the sabotage and interception of the 2nd flotilla fleet. Such attacks prevent those who have easier access to the world beyond the siege from witnessing attacks on Gazan civilians. These are the actions of a nation that has something to hide.
Human rights volunteers will continue to monitor violations, regardless of what the Israeli Navy fires at us, not only because we aren’t doing anything wrong, but because we know, and I mean this graciously, we are doing what is right and is what no authority is willing to do: ensuring that when fishermen are shot and attacked, somebody is there to witness and document it. Not everyone is able to get to Gaza, so hopefully the video footage and this account will help to bring Gaza to you.
Update - The Civil Peace Service - Gaza sent out the following press release this morning:
For the second consecutive day, the CPSGAZA human rights monitoring boat came under sustained attack by Israeli naval forces, and was threatened for the first time with lethal force.
Civil Peace Service Gaza is an international third party non-violent initiative to monitor potential human rights violations in Gazan territorial waters.
Restrictions on the fishing zone are of considerable significance to Palestinian livelihood. Initially 20 nautical miles, it is presently often enforced between 1.5 - 2 nautical miles (PCHR: 2010). The marine 'buffer zone' restricts Gazan fishermen from accessing 85% of Gaza's fishing waters agreed to by Oslo.
During the Oslo Accords, specifically under the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994, representatives of Palestine agreed to 20 nautical miles for fishing access. In 2002 the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan empowered Catherine Bertini to negotiate with Israel on key issues regarding the humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and a 12 nautical mile fishing limit was agreed upon. In June 2006, following the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit near the crossing of Kerem Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom), the navy imposed a complete sea blockade for several months. When the complete blockade was finally lifted, Palestinian fishermen found that a 6 nautical mile limit was being enforced. When Hamas gained political control of the Gaza Strip, the limit was reduced to 3 nautical miles. During the massive assault on the Strip in 2008-2009, a complete blockade was again declared. After Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli army began imposing a 1.5 - 2 nautical miles (PCHR: 2010).
The fishing community is often similarly targeted as the farmers in the 'buffer zone' and the fishing limit is enforced with comparable aggression, with boats shot at or rammed as near as 2nm to the Gazan coast by Israeli gunboats.
The fishermen have been devastated, directly affecting an estimated 65,000 people and reducing the catch by 90%. The coastal areas are now grossly over-fished and 2/3 of fishermen have left the industry since 2000 (PCHR: 2009). Recent statistics of the General Union of Fishing Workers indicate that the direct losses since the second Intifada in September 2000 were estimated at a million dollars and the indirect losses were estimated at 13.25 million dollars during the same period. The 2009 fishing catch amounted to a total of 1,525 metric tones, only 53 percent of the amount during 2008 (2,845 metric tones) and 41 percent of the amount in 1999 (3,650 metric tones), when the fishermen of Gaza could still fish up to ten nautical miles from the coast. Current figures indicate that during 2010 the decline in the fishing catch continues. This has caused an absurd arrangement to become standard practice. The fisherman sail out not to fish, but to buy fish off of Egyptian boats and then sell this fish in Gaza. According to the Fishermen's Union, a monthly average of 105 tons of fish has been entering Gaza through the tunnels since the beginning of 2010 (PCHR 2009).
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). "The Buffer Zone in the Gaza Strip." Oct. 2010.
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. "A report on: Israeli Attacks on Palestinian Fishers in the Gaza Strip." August 2009.
Hama Waqum is a volunteer for CPS Gaza, she writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @WelshinGaza.