October 15th, 2008
Personal account of accompanying Gazan fishermen by ISM activist
On Sunday 12th October, I joined a group of international human rights observers dispersed amongst a small fleet of seven Palestinian trawlers from the port of Gaza City. We left port at 8.00am and headed out to sea in a westerly direction. Soon after leaving port we observed two Israeli gunboats some distance away, their outlines like sharks. Predators patrolling Gazan waters seeking prey. On seeing our fleet, they drew closer. At about 9.30am, whilst off the southern coast of Gaza, the distant image of a larger naval vessel appeared on the horizon. We realised it was the ship carrying the water cannon which has previously assaulted Palestinian fishing boats.
The fishermen were incredibly good humoured despite the anticipation of a water cannon attack. They began singing and this led onto dancing traditional Palestinian dabke, reflecting their irrepressible spirit of resistance. Fishermen on two boats traveling alongside ours saw this and joined in too! They then began boarding up their windows and changing into vests and shorts in preparation for their ‘dush’ (shower).
At approximately 10.00am the naval ship reached two Palestinian fishing vessels some distance from the rest of the fleet and began a prolonged bombardment with the water cannon. An ISM volunteer from Scotland was on-board one of the fishing boats, which sustained severe damage to its wheelhouse. At nearly 11.00am it was finally our turn. Initially, a neighbouring vessel close by came under assault from the water cannon. An Italian human rights observer and I were on the roof of our boat observing the attack. He was filming and I attempted to signal to the soldiers to stop firing the high-pressure water. After a while it seemed as though they were about to turn their attention to us. We quickly clambered down and found the Israeli ship bearing down on our starboard bow.
I was standing on the foredeck watching its approach, when the water cannon was suddenly turned on us, directly at the bow. I was hit by the full force of the high-pressure hose and was thrown off my feet, slamming the deck and smashing my hip against the hull. At first, amidst the confusion, I couldn’t see anything due to the intensity of the spray, then realised I was hanging over the side of the port bow. I scrambled to pull myself back in and narrowly escaped falling overboard as the barrage continued. Fortunately, by now, most of the crew had managed to take shelter behind the wheelhouse, but one young fisherman was still out on the bow trying to shield me from the blast.
Three boats in the fleet were squeezed between the naval ship and the gunboat and had limited space to maneuver, especially as they were still trawling. As they attempted to raise their nets, the cables became horribly entangled. However, the navy continued to attack them whilst they were experiencing difficulties. Machinery on one of the boats was damaged and the net on ours was ripped apart. It seemed like it was all just a game to the IOF.
All this is a mere glimpse of the daily harassment Gazan fishermen have endured for years and my bruised hip pales into insignificance compared to everything they have suffered. Many of the fishermen I’ve been to sea with have shown me deep scars from gunshot wounds inflicted by the IOF. At least they lived to tell their tales. Earlier in the morning I noticed a framed photo on the wall of the cabin of a smartly dressed young man. He gazed down at me with gentle eyes and a serene smile. It was a picture of Hany Alnajar, a Palestinian fisherman shot in the head by the Israeli navy in 2006 whilst out fishing in Palestinian waters. He was merely attempting to earn a living to support his family. He left behind three small children. Sailors the world over face danger every time they put to sea. However, their risk stems from the elements, not from state-sponsored terrorism.
There was a lull in the afternoon and we saw a trio of dolphins playing a short distance from the boat, their backs arching through the sun-speckled water. They somehow signified freedom at a point when the gunboats were a reassuringly long distance away. It struck me how tranquil the scene was, as it should be. As we headed towards shore, the sun began to set, casting a rosy glow over the Gaza shoreline. A rather meager catch was brought in by our boat. Every day is a struggle for these fishermen – not only to sustain a livelihood under the ongoing siege, but simply to survive another day.