Gaza port. (All photos: Dooler Campbell)
Since the ceasefire was put into effect on Thursday, 22 November 2012, 29 fishermen have been arrested while out at sea, including 14 fisherman arrested on Saturday, 1 December 2012. An announcement was issued by the Hamas government stating that the maritime boundaries had been extended from three to six nautical miles under the terms of the recent ceasefire. International standards set the limit at 12 miles, while the Oslo Accords granted Gaza fishermen 20 miles in 1995. However, this limit was reduced to three miles in January 2009 after the attacks of Operation Cast Lead.
In late January 2009, when fishermen returned to the sea after Operation Cast Lead, they were viciously attacked. Boats were completely destroyed, and many fishermen were shot, with serious injuries. Some were even shot in the back as they attempted to return to the shore.
Nearly four years later, immediately following a ceasefire, Gaza fishermen are once again under attack. The majority of these attacks have occurred between Wednesday, 28 November, and Saturday, 1 December. In this time, at least 29 fishermen have been arrested, at least 9 fishing boats have been impounded (including a larger trawling vessel), and one boat has been destroyed. The fishermen’s reports are generally the same: they are fishing within the new 6 mile limit (or even within the former 3 mile limit) when Israeli gunboats approach and start firing at them, oftentimes aiming at the motor. They order fishermen to strip down to their undergarments, jump into the water, and swim towards the gunboat, where they are handcuffed and blindfolded, and sometimes beaten. Some are taken to Ashdod or Erez and interrogated. Most are released the same day. Most have belonged to the Bakr family, while the Hessi family has also been attacked.
Many of these fishermen are the sole supporters of large families and don’t know how they will survive with their boats destroyed or impounded. Khadr Bakr, 20 years old, was arrested from his boat on Wednesday, 28 November. He is the only breadwinner in his family of ten, which consists of his parents and eight children. Khadr was fishing with three other people when the Israeli navy appeared and began firing at his ship. He was only 3.5 miles from the shore. Four large Israeli gunboats began firing at the fishing boat from a range of about 5 meters. They ordered the fishermen to take off their clothes and jump in the water. After they jumped in, they continued to fire at the boat until it caught fire and the outboard engine exploded. They also shot around Khadr while he was in the water. He said later in an interview, “I thought they were going to kill me while I was in the water.” The other three fishermen were able to escape with help from another fishing boat, but Khadr was taken aboard, where he was handcuffed and blindfolded. He was held like that for three hours, while the captain of the gunboat kicked him and accused him of aiding terrorists.
On the same day, at approximately 10am, the Israeli navy confiscated a trawling vessel belonging to Morad Rajab al-Hissi. Two Israeli gunboats approached from the West and began firing immediately upon approach. Fishermen were ordered by Israeli soldiers to strip and jump into the sea, but they refused and retrieved their nets from the water in order to leave. Two smaller Israeli naval vessels then arrived, and the order to strip was repeated. This time the fishermen obliged and were ordered to jump in the water and swim to one of the gunboats, where they were arrested. The family does not expect their boat to be returned for 2-3 years, and even then it will be with a damaged motor or no motor at all. The large trawling vessels support about 20 families, leaving all of them without a source of income. The Hissi family invested $70,000 in the trawler and fishing equipment, and are now left in debt as a result. This is the fifth time their trawler has been seized.
Sabry Mahmoud Bakr and Jamal Bakr
On Saturday, 1 December, Amar Bakr was one of 14 fishermen arrested that day, and he is still held in the prison in Ashdod. He used to work for Hamas in a civilian capacity, making coffee, but his father fears that under torture he will be coerced into saying that he was a military combatant. Amar has never been involved in the military, but because he served them coffee, his father fears he may never see him again. His household consists of 20 family members, including three disabled children (paralyzed). Fishermen bring in only meager wages, but it is often all they have to support their families. Amar’s uncle Sabry Mahmoud Bakr was also arrested on the same day. He tried to explain to the navy that Amar had never been involved in the military. He pointed out that if Amar was really dangerous, he wouldn’t be out fishing, for he would know that there would be a chance that the navy would capture him at sea. Sabry and other fishermen were transferred from Ashdod prison to Erez, where they were interrogated, then released later that night. Amar’s cousin Mohammed Bakr, also a fisherman, was killed in September 2010 by the Israeli navy.
Now is the last opportunity for these fishermen to fish during the peak season, which ends in December. The blockade prevents fishermen from bringing in major hauls on a normal day, and the situation is made worse by these attacks. Many of these fishermen have been working on boats since childhood and don’t know anything else. Therefore, when boats are impounded or destroyed, their families are sentenced to slow starvation. The high rates of unemployment in Gaza (31.5% in May 2012) make it difficult for them to find alternative work.
Israel has been violating the ceasefire nearly everyday since it was brokered, attacking civilians engaging in peaceful activities, such as farmers and fishermen at work. If it was Hamas violating the ceasefire instead of Israel, it would be used to justify a land invasion or other atrocities against the people of Gaza. The question is now: who is holding Israel accountable?
More information can be found at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). www.pchrgaza.org.
Dooler Campbell, Jenny Linnell, and Johnny Barber are collecting interviews from fishermen in Gaza. For follow-up information, contact:
Dooler – [email protected], +972 (0)592378194
Jenny – [email protected], +972 (0)592181139
Johnny – [email protected], +972 (0)599179701