GAZA CITY – On the sunny and warm afternoon on February 25th a crew of fishermen set out to sea to switch shifts with their younger team who had the task of preparing their boat for a night of fishing.
18-year-old fisherman Ismail Saleh Abu Riyala was preparing the boat along with Mahmoud Adel Abu Riyala (18) and Ahed Hassan Abu Ali (26). They were preparing the tools, lights and fuel for the generator so all would be ready for the incoming crew before sunset.
However as the crew approached the damaged boat, the young men were nowhere to be found. Instead, they found a pool of blood, bullets and a first aid bag with Hebrew letters printed on it.
Ismail was shot dead with a live bullet to the head that day by Israeli forces while Mahmoud and Abu Ali were injured in the leg with rubber-coated bullets. Israeli forces forced the two survivors to take off their clothes, jump into the water and swim towards the Israeli gunboat where they were detained under Israeli custody and interrogated.
Mahmoud recounted to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights that their fishing boat was sailing three nautical miles from Gaza’s shore around 3:30 p.m. when Israeli forces heavily opened fire at it.
Abu Ali told Mondoweiss that even though they remained in the permitted fishing zone, the Israeli gunboat had been following them since the early morning.
“We prepared everything in the boat, got the nets ready, dropped the anchor and took a nap. When we woke up the Israeli navy was circling around us. I heard them shout something but I didn’t understand and then they started shooting at us with live bullets.
“We fired up the engine and tried to move back to shore to avoid the bullets, but the Israeli navy kept following and shooting at us. Ismail got shot when he pushed us out of the way to protect us,” Abu Ali said.
According to an Israeli military spokesperson, the boat had breached the fishing zone in the northern Gaza Strip.
“Naval forces called on the suspects to stop and when they did not comply, warning shots were fired into the air. Upon their continued advancement, shots were fired towards the vessel,” the spokesperson told Reuters.
Israel currently imposes a limit of six nautical miles for Palestinian fishermen. However, according to PCHR all Israeli attacks on Palestinian fishermen have taken place within the allocated fishing zone.
Under the Oslo Accords, Israel is obligated to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles, but this has never been implemented; the widest range Israel has allowed is 12 nautical miles. The limit reduced over the years; at times it was at as little as three nautical miles.
Findings by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem show that Palestinian fishermen are arrested even when they’re within the permitted fishing zone.
According to Zakaria Al Bakr, head of Gaza’s fishermen committee, the boat had been anchored for six days at sea.
“The boat didn’t move; it was at a standstill,” Al Bakr said. “They were fishing there for six days.”
The Gaza Strip’s collective of charitable organisations announced last week that more than 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza have died due to the Israeli 12-year land, air and navy blockade of the coastal enclave.
At Ismail’s funeral on Monday at Gaza City’s Al Shati refugee camp, hundreds gathered in the streets waiting the whole day for Ismail’s corpse, which never arrived. According to Al Shifa Hospital, Israel is still withholding the body, violating international humanitarian law.
Ismail’s father, Saleh Abu Riyala sat outside his front door with his younger daughter Warda, tears streaming down her face.
“When my cousin called me to tell me they found the boat full of blood with no one there, I lost my mind. They shoot at our lights, at our boats, at all the fishermen,” Saleh said, explaining that the attacks are a regular occurrence.
“Especially these last two days, the Israelis have been acting really crazy.”
Ismail’s death was a financial hit for the family as well as he helped provide an income for the family.
“The fishermen are the poorest of the poor,” exclaimed Ismail’s uncle, Subhi Abu Riyala, exasperated. “Even in the sea, there’s no work; there is no fish left.”
95 percent of Palestinian fishermen in Gaza live below the poverty line, living off of loans and humanitarian aid to survive.
According to B’Tselem, Israel’s fishing sector has been decimated by Israel due to severe restrictions on sea access, fishing exports and entry of raw materials into Gaza as well as harassment of fishermen. The shrinking fishing zone has led to overfishing in a small area, depleting fish breeding grounds.
“God alone is sufficient for us and He is the Best Disposer of affairs for us,” Saleh said three times, citing a verse from the Qur’an that’s often quoted by Palestinians whenever one suffers a calamity.
“Ismail had a feeling that he was going to die soon. For the last 20 days he was constantly calling all of his family and friends to come over for a visit.
“Ismail was asking to die as a martyr because our situation is so difficult,” Saleh said.
Ismail is the second fisherman from Gaza to be killed this year. Abdullah Zeidan (32) was killed in January by Egyptian forces while fishing along Gaza’s southern border. Since 2000 Al Mezan Center for Human Rights has documented 1,192 shooting incidents that led to the death of eight fishermen.