Last Tuesday the sea was a placid, liquid blanket, unruffled and as smooth as oil when Darlene, Andrew and I, human rights activists with the ISM (http://www.palsolidarity.org/) sailed from the port of Gaza on three Palestinian fishing boats. The warm sun, clear blue sky and complete absence of wind had led us to expect a plentiful day’s catch for our fishermen friends. Around 11 AM we were intercepted and circled by eight Israeli military boats opening fire against the fishing boats, obstructing our way, after which they proceeded to kidnap us three internationals and fifteen Palestinian fishermen. They abducted us and stole the boats, leading us and the boats from the Palestinian water zone right to the border with Israel’s. We were about six miles from the coast of Gaza, which according to international laws is unequivocally in Palestinian waters (the Oslo Treaty gives the Palestinians sovereignty up to 20 miles from the coast of the Strip), meaning ours wasn’t an arrest but a full-blown abduction, with the fishing boats being stolen rather than confiscated. A veritable terrorist blitz. Israeli Navy special forces, commandos, balaklava-wearing, unfathomably armed, all to stop just three small wooden boats that could barely stay afloat.
I tried to speak to the Israeli Officer who seemed the highest in ranking, asking him whether they were planning to kill me. I could see more than ten pistols, guns and cannon barrels pointing at me, following my every move. Before the Israeli soldiers jumped on board the fishing boat, I asking him and them what kind of obsessive fear Israel nurtured, what degree of extreme danger for its domestic security could be represented by a bunch of simple Palestinian fishermen going offshore, within their own sea zone, to catch just enough fish to feed their families with.
The Israeli Officer, so iron-willed and authoritarian when barking orders in Hebrew at his soldiers and in English (with a distinctly Australian accent) at me, had nothing to say in reply to my simple query. These soldiers, all muscles and stony coldness, are trained to kill a man in less than a second (or less when he’s Palestinian), without even batting an eyelid. But it’s obvious they’re unable to willingly grasp the meaning of simple terms such as “right to exist” and “right of sustenance”.
Since we were far from Israeli borders, I told the Israeli Officer I didn’t recognize his authority, nor their right to kidnap myself and my friends, the fishermen. I therefore decided I would resist passively, non-violently. I climbed onto the cabin roof, and from there onto the iron structure used as a jib to lift the fishing nets, at the boat’s stern. Three soldiers followed me, pointing guns in my face. Their eyes behind the black balaklavas seemed to me like the best representation of hatred that I had ever seen, a hatred taught in years of lessons learnt off by heart, on how to best defeat an enemy, even when that enemy doesn’t exist. Not in the least bit intimidated, I asked them whether they intended to kill me, and if so to go ahead and finish off their job then and there. Go ahead and kill a civilian, a disarmed Italian on a Palestinian fishing boat, gone fishing with his Palestinian friends on Palestinian waters. A fourth soldier came forward, and I recognized the weapon he was holding, a taser gun. I told him the truth, that I have a heart condition. His weapon could have given me a cardiac arrest. The soldier got closer, the Officer gave him the order and I turned my back on both of them, so as not too feel too much compassion for them. The soldier shot me in the back, an electric shock that knocked me right out, then all four soldiers tried to push me down the three-meter leap, down onto the stern’s steel floor that could have provoked serious fractures in me. I lunged forward and leapt into the sea, swimming slowly with what strength I had left. I swam towards the shore on the horizon, towards Gaza, towards my home. Indifferent to the intimidating bullets hitting the water a few centimeters from my head, I swam for a good half hour, followed at a short distance by the eight war ships. But when my teeth started to chatter uncontrollably and the palms of my hands turned blue, I had to give in and let the soldiers pull me out of the water, beating me up as they did so. I narrowly missed hypothermia.
When we got to the port of Ashkelon, myself, Darlene and Andrew were marched out of the Israeli war ship and were met by a scenario reminiscent of the Holocaust. It was something that reminded me of Schindler’s List, or the horror-imbued prose of Primo Levi. All the fishermen were made to kneel, stark naked, chained at the ankles and handcuffed with their arms behind their backs, blindfolded. These were the conditions they had been made to travel in, on an open deck for 50 nautical kilometers.
Why so? For what reason on earth does Israel, through its army and government, soil its reputation with such crimes against the civilians of Gaza on a daily basis? Why does it impose these collective punishments? Preventing harmless fishermen from catching fish a few miles from the coast, in their own water zone, and more generally starving Gaza’s population held captive in its siege, certainly doesn’t favor the peace process, nor will it give Israel more security. The exact opposite is true.
Us three internationals were lead into a prison at Ben Gurion, followed by another one in Ramle, where we immediately went on a hunger strike to ask for the immediate release of the Palestinian fishermen, which eventually took place.
I was held for six days in that Israeli jail in terrible conditions, in filthy and claustrophobic cells, crawling with insects and parasites that feasted on my skin. But coming from Gaza, I was used to being held under chain. Through Israel’s will, Gaza is the biggest open-air prison in the world. All the industries have had to close down, over 80% of the population survives under the poverty line and the highest rates of unemployment in the world are recorded in Gaza. There’s no electricity or fuel. Hospitals need medicine, the vast majority of the population need food and the bare essentials. The Israelis only conducted me from one open-air prison to another of their own smaller ones, where at least, unlike in Gaza, they regularly serve rations and both electricity and drinking water are available almost daily.
But I was denied the most basic of human rights, such as the faculty to contact my attorney or consulate at my own discretion rather than my jailers’. Furthermore, I am keen to speak out against the prison of Ramle, twenty kilometers from Tel Aviv, where hundreds of African refugees, mostly Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese, are virtually buried alive. They have perfectly valid UN visa passes; in any self-styled civilized country they would have been assigned accommodation and the bare essentials to survive. They’re fleeing from war – they’re no terrorists. But once again, when it comes to human rights, and more generally to international law, Israel have demonstrated that it’s just a bunch of hollow words to them outside their borders, as well as within them. I’ll do everything in my power to let the inhuman conditions of my inmates be known – I promised them I would.
In the end, Andrew, Darlene and I were deported. We didn’t appeal to an Israeli court so as not to legitimize our arrest, which is considered a kidnapping under international law.
Our lawyers will battle it out to have the fishing boats returned. Besides the financial loss suffered by the boats’ owners, what’s really aggravating us is the thought of fifty unemployed fishermen, and about thirty Palestinian families without a means of sustenance for the last week.
Those boats robbed by Israel are a symbol of the siege under which Gaza is forcibly held, the illegality bordering on terrorism with which the Israeli Army operates outside its territory. Personally, I, Vittorio Arrigoni, declare that I’m a lion. The more I get flogged, the more they jail me, the steelier my will to fight for human rights becomes. It was no laughing matter for Gandhi and his companions to shake off the British occupation, nor for Mandela to defeat the Apartheid that reigned supreme in South Africa. Neither the wounds inflicted upon me in these months in Gaza, nor has my last confinement sufficed to make me take a single step back on the path towards the non-violent civic struggle I undertook. It’s a moral matter that spells freedom for the Palestinians, and simultaneously peace and security for the Israelis.
ISM and Free Gaza activist.
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