By Yvonne Ridley
the Fishermen of Gaza
sun rose over the Tarifa ferry terminal in Southern Spain this morning
the view was quite spectacular as row after row of vehicles from
the Viva Palestina convoy lined up for the next leg of our mercy
mission to Gaza.
But what really caught my eye this time was a boat which was being
towed behind one of the vehicles.
People often forget that Gaza is a coastal strip which sits on the
edge of the Mediterranean rim, and at one time the sea provided
a decent living for the local fishermen.
The Israeli Navy has, with almost casual regularity, tried to ram,
sink or scuttle the boats belonging to20the fishermen of Gaza.
We know this for a fact because evidence has been provided by international
peace activists who have gone out fishing with the men of Gaza to
show their solidarity with them.
The situation for the Palestinian fishermen is worse now than it
was when I was on board the first boat in more than 40 years which
sailed in to The Strip to break the Israeli blockade last August.
I am now told
the coast has become a 'no go' zone.
February 14th - Valentine's Day, as our convoy pulled out of central
London, 23 year-old Rafiq abu Reala was shot by Israeli naval forces
whilst fishing in Gazan territorial waters, approximately two nautical
miles out from the port of Gaza city. He was in a simple fishing
vessel, not much larger than a rowing boat, with a small outboard
engine, known locally as a 'hassaka'.
According to the report I received this morning, Rafiq, his brother
Rajab and another friend were following the course of a shoal of
A group of five more hassakas were out at the time, about a kilometre
to the west of Rafiq's boat, further out to sea. An Israeli naval
gunboat approached the area and began shooting at the other hassakas,
which quickly changed course and headed east, back towards shore.
Suddenly Rafiq realised the gunboat was bearing down on their hassaka.
As he recounted
the events of that day, Rafiq likened the predatory nature of the
naval vessel to that of a wolf. It circled their fishing boat and
began shooting heavy ammunition in their direction. The three terrified
fishermen threw themselves down flat in the bottom of their boat.
The Israeli captain ordered them via megaphone to raise their nets
and leave the area. At this point the gunboat was less then 20 metres
from Rafiq's hassaka.
The second time the gunboat came around no attempt was made to communicate
with the fishermen. Rafiq was desperately pulling in the nets with
his back facing the gunboat. An M-16 assault rifle was fired hitting
him twice with explosive 'dum-dum' bullets, which peppered his back
with shrapnel from the bullets themselves.
The force of the shots threw him in the water, plunging him down
about six or seven metres below the surface.
Rajab asked their friend to contr ol the boat while he rescued Rafiq.
Being a strong swimmer, he dived in after Rafiq and pulled him out
of the water into the hassaka. However, Rafiq was unconscious by
The fishermen in this vessel had a mobile phone and made an emergency
call. The stricken hassaka reached port at the same time as the
ambulance arrived and Rafiq was taken to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza
city in a serious condition.
Doctors say metal shards are embedded in Rafiq's back and the shrapnel
also penetrated his lungs.
It could take Rafiq months to fully recover yet he has a family
to support. He married just six months ago and his wife is now expecting
their first baby. After five years of working as a fisherman, he
has experienced Israeli naval forces firing warning shots on many
occasions but this was the first time he has been directly targeted.
However, Rajab survived being shot in the chest by the Israeli navy
two and a half years ago.
The total of Gazan fishermen killed by the Israeli navy since 2000
is now 14. Rafi q described the level shooting on Saturday like
an open war.
Palestinian fishermen have come under daily assaults from Israeli
gunboats since Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire which supposedly
came into force on 18th January.
Reports of heavy gunfire and even missile fire are now becoming
the 'norm'. Rafiq is the third Gazan fisherman to be shot by the
Israeli navy during this non-existant ceasefire. On 26th January,
Alaa al-Habil was shot in the lower leg whilst trawling less than
one nautical mile off the coast of Gaza. On 6th February, Mahmoud
al-Nadar was shot in both legs whilst 1.5 nautical miles off the
coast of Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip.
Nowadays it is unthinkable for fishermen to venture beyond three
nautical miles from the Gazan coast, with many vessels staying just
metres from the beach. However, Gazan territorial waters reach 12
nautical miles offshore – indeed, the Oslo Accords grant a
fishing zone extending as far as 20 nautical miles.
Israel is attempting to create arbitrary 'no-go' zones in the sea
– enforced solely by the gun. They might succeed if it weren't
for the resilience of the fishermen. All this is akin to what is
happening on land. The Israeli Occupation Force has declared an
area of Palestinian land a kilometre in from the Green Line a 'closed
military zone', affecting an audaci ous land grab which threatens
to swallow a vast swathe of rich agricultural land all the way along
the eastern length of the Gaza strip.
Members of ISM Gaza Strip accompanying Palestinian fishermen on
a regular basis and witnessed countless acts of Israeli military
aggression against them whilst in Gazan territorial waters, despite
a six-month ceasefire agreement holding at the time.
While Viva Palestina has only one boat to give to the fishermen
of Gaza on this occasion, I wold urge anyone reading this column
to think about these mediterranean fishermen and send more boats
out to them so they can continue their honest trade.
And as for Gordon brown who is sending out his own convoy, may be
the Royal Nav y might like to give some protection to the Gaza fishermen
against the Israeli Navy I recently called the Pirates of the Mediterranean
because of their lawless, criminal behaviour.
And, as I leave you with that thought, Viva Palestina is now about
to board the ferry at Tarifa for Morocco where our North African
journey begins its mission: A Lifeline to Gaza.
* Yvonne Ridley is on board Viva Palestina with award-winning film-maker
Hassan al Banna Ghani where the two are making a documentary of
the historic journey to Gaza.