Israeli military harassing Palestinian fishermen (Photo: Rosa Schiano/Civil Peace Service Gaza)
A young Palestinian fisherman was arrested together with his brother within Palestinian waters on 19 May 2013 by the Israeli navy and released the following day. Their boat and all equipment were confiscated by the Israelis, leaving them with no means to make a living. This is another serious blow to the livelihoods of individual Palestinians whose lives depend on fishing, not to mention the whole population, which has been for years subject to siege as collective punishment, illegal under international law.
The interview was facilitated by and took place in the office of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in Gaza City. Sa’d Zaida, Senior Manager at UAWC, translated from Arabic to English. Editing and titles by the author.
My name is Mahmoud Zayed. I am 25 years old. I am a fishermen and live with my family in Beit Lahiya, in the north of the Gaza Strip. Last Sunday, 19 May 2013, my brother Khaled (24) and I went fishing at about 5:30 pm. We have a row boat, a hasaka, which accommodates two people. We stayed in the Beit Lahiya area near the beach. At around 9:00 pm we were sailing about 1.4 km (0.8 nautical miles) from the beach. A number of other boats were near us. Suddenly, two Israeli ninja boats (zodiac) approached us and started to shoot at us.
There were perhaps five soldiers on each boat. We tried to escape the attack but it increased. We shouted at the soldiers: “We want to go home. We want to go to the Gaza beach.” Yet the army circled our boat, creating huge waves. Water was in our faces and everywhere. One of the waves sent us into the sea. But we got aboard again. Khaled fell on the floor. He was exhausted and feeling sick. But still we tried to defend our boat by sticking out our oars to prevent the navy boat from getting close. One of the Israeli boats tried to catch our boat by throwing a rope over a pole. Twice they succeeded, but we immediately removed the rope. [Mahmoud and all other fishermen sitting in the same room smile.]
New colors of detainee clothes
In the end the army caught our boat. According to Israeli regulations, we were allowed to go fishing up to six km (three nm). The Israeli navy attacked us at 1.4 km (0.8 nm), but by the time they caught us we were at one km (0.5 nm). The attack lasted for more than an hour. When they caught our boat, they did not ask us to take off our clothes and swim towards them, as is the usual procedure. This time we were arrested directly on the boat, so we did not have to swim without clothes. Two soldiers took me and carried me to the small navy boat. My brother Khaled was exhausted and sick. Two other soldiers carried him. On the small boat they told us to take off our clothes. They gave us yellow t-shirt and blue trousers …This must be a new fashion, because the navy used to give the arrested fishermen green uniforms, then black ones, so now it’s yellow and blue. They are following fashion, that’s why they change the uniforms for us. [The fishermen laugh.]
Handcuffed all night in Ashdod
The soldiers covered my eyes, handcuffed me and carried me and my brother to the big navy boat. There they asked our names, ID number and boat number. We said we did not know the numbers by heart. After one hour we arrived at Ashdod sea port. The Israelis brought a doctor who inspected Khaled and gave him an injection. They asked our names and ID. They took photos of us and noted our phone numbers. Then they put us into a room, still blindfolded and handcuffed. I asked that they take away the handcuffs, but we spent the night handcuffed tightly. In the morning, the Israeli internal security interrogated me, showed me a map and asked about places I know on the shore. They asked about Sudania (the point where the fishermen entered the sea directly) and about a water pump in Sudania. They showed me the police station.
Everything confiscated, even 100 NIS from my pocket
After the investigation I asked about my boat and confiscated nets, but they said I must talk to a Palestinian lawyer. (But they know very well that fishermen do not have money to pay a lawyer or court costs.) They took me blindfolded and handcuffed back to the room. The investigation took place at around 8.30 am and lasted for 30 or 45 minutes. It was conducted in Hebrew with translation into Arabic. The translator did not speak with a Palestinian accent. They investigated only me, not Khaled. Fifteen minutes later they tied our legs with iron cuffs. Then they put us into a police car and took us to Erez. This was around 11:00 am on Monday morning, May 20. We were without our boat, nets and all equipment. What’s more, I had 100 NIS in my pocket. I got it for the fish I had caught the other day. They took it, too. We weren’t allowed to talk to our family until we got back home, not during the arrest.
They know every detail about us, but still they arrest us and intimidate us
What is strange about this is that, during the interrogation, they asked me: “Your brother was on another boat, why was he in the hasaka?” It’s true that Khaled usually goes fishing with another boat. But after he finished his work he came to help me. This shows that they have been observing us very closely, they know everything about us. How they follow this, how they trace this, we don’t know. But this is what happened… Why did they arrest us and confiscate everything? I think because my brother joined me on the boat.
Our family depends on fishing. We are six brothers and a sister, altogether 13 members in the family. I have a son. Khaled also has a son. In the family we had one hasaka, which is now confiscated. Our father and another brother also have a boat, but it’s for their use. My hasaka was the only means of making a living for me. I will be unemployed until I can get a new boat. I cannot borrow someone else’s boat. What would happen if soldiers confiscated it again? The hasaka I had cost 3,300 NIS ($900). The nets and equipment cost even more. On Saturday, I bought nets for 2,000 NIS. They were brand new and I lost them just one day after buying them.
Six miles as a drop in the ocean
How do we feel about the extension of the fishing range from three to six nm? It helps a little bit. However, if we look at the economic side of it, there is no change at all. It is okay for sardines, which are seasonal, but it is almost the end of the sardine season now. For other fish it does not change anything. “Natural fishing” starts only after eight nm, where there is what we call a “line of rocks”. Anything less offers only a seasonal benefit. What’s more, it is forbidden to fish at six nm, as this is where the fish eggs are. …At three to six nm there is only “ramel”, ground, soil. There are sardines at six nm. If you are lucky, you will also get some other fish. It gets better after six miles, but the good area starts at eight miles. …The dangerous thing after the November 2012 ceasefire is that by allowing us to fish up to six nm, this might be designed as the maximum we will ever be allowed to go to. It’s a kind of collective punishment. Israel needs neither arguments nor rockets. They punish us without these things.
A message to the world
We want our boat and nets back. We want Israelis to leave us alone, to live peacefully and give us the right to fish anywhere.
The attack by the Israeli navy on Palestinian fishermen happened within the three nm limit (precisely at 0.8 nm), which the Israeli side would justify as a “military necessity”. Under the “military necessity” would also fall the confiscation of a boat and nets. The Oslo Agreement of 1994 designated Palestinian waters as 20 nm. This number has been shrinking ever since: In 2002 it was officially lowered to 12 nm in the Bertini Agreement. Following the disengagement, Israel reduced the fishing area even more, and since the capture of the soldier Gilad Shalit, on June 25, 2006, fishermen have not been allowed further than three nautical miles from shore. Thus Palestinians have been denied access to 85% of their sea, to which they are legally entitled, according to the Oslo Agreement. Following the ceasefire in November 2012 after the Pillar of Defense attack, the limit moved up to six nm again. Despite these agreements, the Israeli navy continued attacking fishermen within this limit. In March 2013 the three nm limit was again imposed, after some rockets were fired from Gaza towards the south of Israel. On Tuesday, May 21, Israel extended the fishing range back to six nm, as a gesture of “goodwill” during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Tel Aviv, many say. Fishing provides a livelihood to many families and is an important source of food for residents of the Gaza Strip. Waters along the Gaza coast have long been overfished and many human rights organizations, such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and B’Tselem, call for restoring the 20 nautical mile limit as stipulated in the interim Oslo Agreements almost 20 years ago.