Thursday, 01 December 2011 00:00
“The bullets made the water splash up in my face. The soldiers shouted at us to take off our shirts and trousers. We had to jump into the water and swim towards them one by one” says 17-year old Mohammed Bakr, as he recounts how Israeli naval forces detained him from his family’s fishing boat, together with his cousin and uncle.
Mohammed Wisam Lutfi Bakr is the oldest of 9 children. He is from a fisherman’s family living in Gaza City’s Remal neighbourhood. He has been helping out on his father’s fishing boat since he was 7 years old. As he explains what happened to him, his cousin, and their uncle on the early morning of 10 November he relives the fear he felt during the initial attack, arrest and subsequent detention.
Like every morning when the weather allows, Mohammed, his cousin Abdul Kader Wael Bakr (17), and their uncle Arafat Lutfi Bakr (28) went out fishing off the shore of Gaza City, leaving at approximately 03.00. At around 03.30, when they were approximately 2 nautical miles off Gaza City’s shore, they were suddenly approached by a large Israeli gunboat. Without warning soldiers started firing shots in the water around them, very close to the boat. “The bullets made the water splash up in my face. The soldiers shouted at us to take off our shirts and trousers. We had to jump into the water and swim towards them one by one” Mohammed recalls. His uncle Arafat went first. Mohammed watched how his uncle was pulled on board of the gunboat by the soldiers. Then his cousin Abdul Kader followed. “I went last” says Mohammed, “they handcuffed us with plastic straps and blindfolded Arafat. There were at least 5 soldiers. They kicked and beat me on my arms and legs. They did the same to my cousin. I’m almost sure they gave our uncle even worse treatment, but I could not see him because they took him out of our sight”. All three of them were taken to a detention facility in Ashdod and held there blindfolded. “It was very dirty. At some point I said I needed to go to the toilet. Then they put me in an open area where everyone could see me. There was not even a toilet.”
Around 12.00h Mohammed and Abdul Kader were transferred to Erez checkpoint, between Israel and the Gaza Strip. There the two cousins were held and questioned until 22.30h. Then the soldiers at the Erez called Mohammed’s father and grandfather to tell them that they released the two cousins. The two men had been waiting for news about the boys since noon, when a fisherman told them they had been taken by soldiers. The father and grandfather had heard shots being fired while they were in the mosque for morning prayers. Later they realized they had heard the attack on Mohammed, Abdul Kader and Arafat.
Mohammed cannot stop thinking about his uncle, who is still being held in Israeli detention; “Arafat and I would go everywhere together and do all the fishing together. I am very worried about him. The soldiers even said; ‘you always go fishing with Arafat’. I am very afraid for how they are treating him.” Arafat is a member of the Palestinian Naval Police.
On the day of the arrest, the family’s fishing boat, including the motor and net, were confiscated. The boat was passed from Mohammed’s grandfather to his father and has been the livelihood of the extended family for as long as Mohammed can remember: “we have no money for a new boat, motor, and net. Altogether it would cost us around 46,000 NIS.” With the confiscation Mohammed and many of his relatives lost their only source of income.
Mohammed is in his last year of high school and is preparing for the final tawjihi exams; “all my classmates take extra classes for the tawjihi but it costs a lot of money, which my family doesn’t have.” Mohammed would like to take the extra classes too but with the loss of the family income, that has become an impossible challenge.
The Israeli army violence against the fishermen has a major impact on Mohammed and his family: “last year my twenty year old cousin, Mohammed Mansour Bakr, was attacked by the Israeli army while fishing. The soldiers shot him and he died. The army is merciless. We stopped fishing for a little while but eventually we had no choice but to get back to our work. We are attacked a lot by the soldiers. They harass us. During this year’s Ramadan they chased and harassed us seven times. It feels like they want to disturb us more during our holy month. At sea the thoughts of risks are constantly in my head. Everyone can feel the same fear at sea. It feels like watching a frightening movie”. However, there is no other option for Mohammed and his family but to continue fishing; “There is no other work for us. Where can we possibly get other work from in Gaza? Even though our work is very dangerous, there is no other choice but to go back to the see because we need the money. If and when we get another boat, I will go again.”
For the past two decades the fishing waters of the Gaza Strip have gradually shrunk by access restrictions imposed as a result of the Oslo agreement and more recently by illegal unilateral restrictions imposed by Israel. Even within the currently enforced 3 nautical mile limit, the Israeli navy regularly attacks, arrests, and sometimes even kills fishermen. This year at least 32 fishermen were arrested, 17 in the month of November. Another 5 fishermen were injured and at least 20 boats were confiscated. In conjunction with the restriction on fishing waters, the income of Gaza’s fishing community (8,200 fishermen and workers in the fishing sector) has steadily decreased. By 2010 the fishing catch had decreased by 37% compared to 2008 and this amounted to only half of the 1999 fishing catch. The sardine catch, which makes up 70% of Gaza’s total fishing catch, now only reaches 20% of the sardine catch that existed before the restrictions, representing a loss of $10 million. Finally, according to the Fisherman’s Syndicate, around 60% of the small fishing boats and 22% of trawler boats in the Gaza Strip are not used because of the high risks involved and the limited catch.