Government measures on the sea, even if they are illegal, are not an act of piracy, according to international law. The actions of the Israeli military are not likely to have been considered in the implementation of this law. The cousins Mustafa, 42, Mahmoud, 30, and Hjazi ElLaham, 27, were on the morning of the 19th February 2011, like every morning, fishing with their boat off the coast of Gaza. They were in the same area in which they are always located, 2.5 nautical miles from the coast, well inside the allowed zone. The Oslo agreement had assured the fishermen of Gaza bilaterally 20 nautical miles of fishing. Israel later unilaterally reduced this distance to 6 miles, and since the blockade was declared the fishermen are only allowed to fish within 3 nautical miles.
It was a stormy day, the cousins were almost alone on the sea. While the other fishermen had stayed at home because of the weather, the three couldn’t afford to lose a day of work. They were just pulling in their net, when an Israeli warship approached. The soldiers on the ship began to shoot at their net. The three fishermen began to work faster, they couldn’t risk to lose their net, and started the engine. Until then, it was an ordinary day. "We are shot at by Israeli warships almost daily," says Mustafa, the eldest, “we are used to that.” Then they were ordered over loudspeakers to stop the engine, or the soldiers would shoot the captain's hand. The three stopped the boat and pulled the motor out of the water. The Israeli warship began to circle around the small boat, so fast that they generated waves that made the fishing boat almost capsize.
Next they were ordered to strip to their underwear and jump into the water. "We can’t swim," they shouted to the soldiers. "You really can’t swim?" Hjazi grins. "Of course we can swim, we are fishermen. But what could we have done?" The answer they got was that they could either jump into the water and swim to the Israeli ship, or they would be shot at. So they jumped, one by one. Arriving at the soldiers, they were handcuffed and blindfolded, and ordered to kneel on the metal floor of the warship. They said they were freezing, that the plastic cords at their hands cut off the blood, but they were only told to be quiet. Their own boat was towed away by the Israeli one. When they reached the port of Ashdod, and were taken from the ship, they finally got new clothes, and the blindfolds were taken away.
A doctor came to have a look at them. Then a soldier came, who asked them if they had planned a suicide mission. A suicide mission? The three looked at each other dumbfounded. They had been arrested in the south of the Gaza Strip, near the border to Egypt, just opposite from the miles away border to Israel. "We were brought here almost naked, and you have our boat," Mahmoud said finally. "Just search it, you will find nothing but fish and a net." They were then separately interrogated by the Shin Bet, the secret service. They weren’t asked about the attempted attack again, which apparently appeared ridiculous even to their interrogators.
Instead, they were shown photos of their houses, their family and friends, recorded in detail by a drone. We know everything about you, this said. Then they had to describe the port, and the place where the naval police normally are. Mustafa, the eldest, was shown money. A lot of money. If he could imagine working with them, he was asked. Mustafa just shook his head. After being locked in a cell for the rest of the day, they were brought to the Erez crossing around nine clock in the evening. They finally arrived at home, shoeless. Their family was beside themselves with worry. Because of the stormy sea, they had feared the three had an accident.
One of the fathers of them had borrowed a boat to search for them, when he came close to the Egyptian border, an Egyptian warship sent him home. The soldiers asked him for his mobile phone number, they said they would call him if they found the boat. The Israeli soldiers were less helpful. Before being sent back, the three cousins had asked them what would happen to their boat, and if they would get it back. "You will find it in Egypt," answered one of the soldiers. "What does this mean?" Asked Mustafa. "It was just a joke," he got as an answer. One of the other soldiers was in a good mood too. "We have the season in which we get the stuff, and you never get it back," was his strange statement.
For Mustafa, Mahmoud and Hjazi this issue is less funny. The restriction to 3 nautical miles renders it impossible for them to earn enough to live from the boat, but the boat and the 3 miles are all that they have. “Every meter further outsides helps us to find more fish”, they say. And with that problem they are by far not alone. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, nearly 90% of Gaza’s 4000 fishermen are now considered either poor (with a monthly income of between 100 and 190 US dollars) or very poor (earning less than 100 dollars a month), up from 50% in 2008. In addition, they live in constant danger, even if they are within the 3 mile limit.
Al Mazen Center for Human Rights states that between 1 May 2009 and 30 November 2010 the IOF carried out 53 attacks against fishermen: two men were killed, seven injured and 42 arrested, while 17 fishing boats were confiscated and one destroyed. Just last month there were three other cases in which fishermen were in exactly the same pattern kidnapped and then released again, without their boat. A total of six families, for whose livelihood Mustafa, Mahmoud and Hjazi are responsible, depend on this boat. Six families now don’t know what to live from. What will they do now? How will they go on? "We still hope that we may get the boat back at some point. We can’t afford to buy a new one. "Hjazi says. Then he laughs softly. "I also still have my breakfast eggs on the boat."
Vera Macht lives and works in Gaza since April 2010. She is a peace activist and reports about people´s daily struggle in Gaza (Vera.Macht@uni-jena.de)