Monday, February 16, 2009

Gazan coast becoming a 'no-go' zone

Written by ISM

On Saturday 14th February, 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'. Rafiq, his brother Rajab and another friend were following the course of a shoal of fish. 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 control 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 this time. The outboard was being slowed down by the weight of the nets so they headed towards another hassaka 300 metres away where they dumped the nets. 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.

A couple of days later it was possible to visit Rafiq in hospital. He was weak and in a lot of pain, with some difficulty breathing, but was beginning to improve. His x-ray clearly indicated the presence of the bullet shrapnel between his shoulder and his spine. An enquiry regarding the possibility of surgery to remove the fragments was met with a solemn "no" from Rafiq's uncle, present at his bedside, who explained, "The pieces are too many, too small and too widespread. His whole back would have to be opened up." It is not only Rafiq's back which has the metal shards still embedded in it; the shrapnel also penetrated his lungs. They sustained pulmonary contusions, resulting in a haemothorax. The only treatment Rafiq can benefit from at this time is to have blood drained which is collecting in the pleural cavity in the upper left side of his chest. 1.5 litres of blood was initially drained off when he was first admitted but this amount later decreased and stabilised. Medication is limited to painkillers and antibiotics.

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. It is sobering to note that 14 Gazan fishermen have been killed by the Israeli navy since 2000. Rafiq described the level shooting on Saturday like an open war. Fishermen were attacked from Wadi Gaza, south of Gaza city, all the way to the north of Gaza. A number of hassakas were targeted that day, some vessels sustaining serious damage from the shooting.

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 audacious land grab which threatens to swallow a vast swathe of rich agricultural land all the way along the eastern length of the Gaza strip.

International human rights observers are currently accompanying farmers determined to harvest their crops in one such area. In the months prior to Israel's war on Gaza, members of ISM Gaza Strip were 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.

The international community remains silent about these daily violations of international human rights law. One cannot help wondering what an outcry there would inevitably be if the tables were turned and an Israeli civilian received similar injuries. Such an incident would scupper current negotiations attempting to broker a more genuine long-term ceasefire. Yet whilst it is Palestinian civilians who suffer such atrocities, the world gazes on, indifferent.