[News] Israeli gunboats kidnap Gaza fisherman, peaceworkers

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Nov 21 15:13:55 EST 2008


Israeli gunboats kidnap Gaza fisherman, peaceworkers

Eva Bartlett, The Electronic Intifada, 21 November 2008

An Israeli naval ship sprays a Palestinian fishing boat with a water 
cannon off the coast of the Gaza Strip. (David Schermerhorn)

On the evening of Tuesday 18 November Khalid al-Habeel sat surrounded 
by his wife, family, and other concerned fishermen. Until the early 
hours of the following day, they had no idea what charges were being 
laid against 15 fishermen, including two of al-Habeel's sons, Adham 
(21) and Mohammed (20), after they were nabbed from Gaza's 
territorial waters earlier that morning and taken to an Israeli 
interrogation center at Ashdod port. Nor did they know when or if 
their boats -- their livelihoods -- would be returned.

Khaled Al-Habeel, or Abu Adham (father of Adham) explained the events 
leading up to the fishermen's arrest. "Shortly after 10am, I got a 
panicked call from Adham, who was captain today, saying their boat 
was surrounded by Israeli naval boats."

"There are many ships around us; there's no way to leave," said Adham 
to his father. Their boat was approximately seven miles out from Deir 
al-Balah, in the center of the Gaza Strip.

Although Palestinian fishermen have the right to fish up to 20 
nautical miles from Gaza's coast, as laid-out in the 1994 Interim 
Agreement signed by Israel, since 1996 Israel has downsized this 
distance in stages, documented by the Palestinian Centre for Human 
Rights (PCHR). Imposing a sea blockade on Gaza in 1996, Israel 
illegally reduced the allowable fishing zone to 12 nautical miles. 
 From 2002 to 2003 this was further reduced to six miles from Gaza's shore.

While Adham and the more than 3,500 professional fishermen that scour 
Gaza's waters for needed sustenance and sources of income are 
accustomed to Israeli navy harassment, Tuesday's encounter was 
different, heightened.

"We're used to facing Israeli attacks in the sea, but we've never 
seen anything like what happened today. Usually, the Israeli soldiers 
surround us with a large ship and a smaller gunboat. They shoot at 
and around our boat with automatic rifles, and they water cannon the 
boat. When they arrest us, they make us strip down to our underwear, 
jump into the water, and swim to their ship where we are then hauled 
up, handcuffed, and taken away to an Israeli interrogation center and 
even arrest. Today was very different. It's the first time they've 
actually boarded our boats," al-Habeel explained.

Khaled's brother, Abed al-Habeel, and the father of another of the 
arrested fishermen, Rami (30), corroborated the testimony, adding 
that their greatest worry was the boats right now: "In the past, I've 
had my boat confiscated. It was three years ago, and the Israeli 
soldiers arrested Rami, who was fishing four miles off the coast. 
They held him for four months, and kept our boat for 70 days. This 
was a huge loss to us, and when it was finally returned to us it had 
been seriously damaged by the soldiers' shooting. The nets, the 
motor, everything was destroyed or stolen," he said, adding that the 
total losses and damages amounted to US $40,000.

"We've done nothing wrong. We are innocent, just trying to earn our 
living. Our boats are our only source of income," said Abu Adham. 
"But what can we do?" he asked.

A crisis created

The two al-Habeel fishing trawlers and equipment together amount to 
approximately US $280,000. With the entire family being either 
fishermen or dependent on the livelihood and food source fishing 
provides, the confiscation of their boats is a severe blow to the 
family. In an area which has already been devastated a siege on the 
economy, exports, health sector, education, and basic existence of 
Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians, the fishing sector is one of the few 
reliable sources of income and food.

According to Abu Adham, it is not only his immediate family which is 
punished by the boats' confiscation. "Our boats are like a company," 
he said. Around 300 people in total are affected by the loss of their 
two trawlers: other workers employed on the boats, at the docks, in 
the fish market, transporting fish goods, as well as the buyers 
themselves who have come to rely heavily on the sea's offerings as a 
source of protein and nutrition at a time when red meat is scarce and 
very expensive.

Since September 2008, after the arrival of the Free Gaza boats, human 
rights observers with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) 
have been traveling with Gaza's fishermen, into waters further out 
than the arbitrarily-imposed six-mile limit. The observers have 
documented numerous instances of attack at the hands of the Israeli 
army, from as little as three miles from shore, including being shot 
at with live ammunition and shelling, being water cannoned -- during 
which soldiers specifically target the boats structural components, 
particularly breakables like glass, glass panels and machinery -- and 
more recently being doused with a foul, sewage-smelling water shot 
from the water cannon. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem 
has documented testimonies of fishermen who suffered harassment and 
arrest, had their nets cut, and boats and equipment confiscated, 
often returned with broken and missing equipment, and costly damages 
to key boat structures.

Behind the kidnapping

In the early hours of Wednesday, 19 November, all 15 arrested 
fishermen were released to the Erez crossing into Gaza. Their boats, 
along with the three internationals, are still being held by Israeli 
authorities. Nidal, a 23 year old father of one child, was among the 
arrested fishermen.

"We were just over seven miles out off the shore from Deir al-Balah 
and we saw two Israeli gunboats approach our fishing vessel. Five 
smaller boats surrounded Abed Almoati al-Habeel's boat," the boat 
that Scottish volunteer Andrew Muncie (34) was on, Nidal explained. 
"We began quickly pulling our nets in," he continued. "When they had 
arrested people on that boat, one of the gunboats came and ordered us 
to turn our motor off. They ordered us to come to the front of our 
boat, threatening to shoot to kill."

Italian volunteer Vittorio Arrigoni ("Vik") (33) on the 2nd boat to 
be surrounded, continued filming as Israeli soldiers boarded the 
boat. Colleague Darlene Wallach (57) was on the third boat and 
related via phone what happened next. "They used a taser on Vik while 
he was still on the boat, then tried to push him backwards onto a 
sharp piece of wood. He jumped into the sea to avoid being hurt more 
than he already was, and was in the water for quite a while," Nidal said.

"Almost 20 soldiers had boarded the boat, pointing their guns in our 
faces and ordering us not to move. They left the captain, Mohammed, 
on the boat and forced us off and onto the smaller boat, which 
transferred us to the larger gunship."

Mohammed confirmed this account, adding, "This was the first time we 
weren't forced to strip and jump into the water." Three soldiers 
remained on Mohammed's boat and, after the operation was repeated on 
the third boat, ordered Mohammed to head towards Ashdod, the first 
Israeli port, along with the other two fishing vessels.

Wallach by phone said this of her arrest: "I was told 'You are in 
Israeli territory.' even though it was obvious that all three boats 
were in Palestinian territory," she said. "They kidnapped me and 
Andrew and Vik, and all of the Palestinian fishermen."

Later, at the Ashdod port, during their interrogation, the fishermen 
were questioned specifically on the international observers. "Why did 
you have internationals on your boat?" they were asked. "Who is 
responsible for sending the internationals? Who pays them? Where do 
they live? Do you get a good catch when the internationals are on 
board?" the questioning continued, with a very specific and evident 
interest, including a non-veiled threat: "You think that you have 
protection because you have internationals on your boat? Let's see 
what these international can do for you now," one fisherman said 
soldiers threatened.

After their half-day detention, the fishermen were released without 
any charges, although their boats remain confiscated.

Abu Rami feels the kidnapping of the 15 fishermen and three 
international observers was a clear message: "It's a message to 
internationals in Gaza to not accompany fishermen. It's also a 
message to fishermen not to go far out in our own waters, although we 
need to because that is where the fish are."

Steadfast against the siege

Prison time has not broken the spirits of the three human rights 
activists, who are all being held in Israel's Maasiyahu prison, near 
Lydd. Rather, they are determined to protest what they say is the 
"stealing" of Palestinian fishing boats, as well as their kidnapping 
from Gaza's waters. Wallach maintains that "at no point, before we 
were transported by the Israeli navy into Israel, did we enter 
internationally-recognized Israeli waters."

Arrigoni commented via phone on Thursday: "A few days ago I was in a 
big prison with no electricity and little running water. Now I'm in a 
smaller prison with electricity and clean, running water."

On 21 November, the three began a hunger strike, calling foremost for 
the return of the fishing boats, and further calling for their own 
return to Gaza.

The incident comes just a week after a delegation of 11 European 
Members of Parliament, all denied entry through Egypt's Rafah 
crossing, visited the Gaza Strip, arriving via the third Free Gaza 
voyage. Amongst the delegation were: former UK Secretary of State for 
International Development Clare Short, Lord Ahmed Nazir, and Baroness 
Jenny Tonge. Tonge condemned the arrests.

"The time has come for the international community, and especially 
the European Union to take action against Israel's consistent 
breaking of international law. The EU-Israel Association Agreement 
should be suspended until Israel complies with this law. It was only 
last week that I personally met with the fishermen whose boats are 
illegally water-cannoned and fired upon by Israeli gunboats as they 
peacefully fish in Gaza waters."

Clare Short's comments addressed not only the recent arrests, but the 
devastating siege which has been imposed on Gaza for 18 months now. 
"I am pleased that the fishermen have been released because they 
should never have been arrested. But their boats must immediately be 
returned to them, otherwise their livelihoods are lost and the wrong 
has not been righted. The siege of Gaza must be lifted and the UK 
must insist that these illegal attacks by the Israeli navy on Gazans, 
fishing peacefully within their own water must cease," Short remarked.

Indeed, while the arrest of the 15 fishermen and three internationals 
highlights the continual and systematic injustice fishermen face, 
over 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners remain incarcerated in 
Israeli prisons and the siege on Gaza's 1.5 million civilians worsens 
ever still.

While Israel is seemingly trying to conceal the alarming 
deterioration of humanitarian conditions in Gaza by preventing 
journalists from entering Gaza for over 13 days now, pressure is 
growing, from European parliamentarians to UN officials, for Israel 
to end its siege.

"By function of this blockade, 1.5 million Palestinian men, women and 
children have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights 
for months," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said 
in a statement. Pillay continued, stating: "Only a full lifting of 
the blockade followed by a strong humanitarian response will be 
adequate to relieve the massive humanitarian suffering evident in Gaza today."

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who 
spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four 
months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in 
Gaza, after the third successful voyage of the Free Gaza movement to 
break the siege on Gaza.

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