Gaza's Second City

After mourning for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Gaza fishermen returned to the sea - the strip of it where they are allowed to fish - and to the unavoidable encounters with Israel's maritime power.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

Gaza fishermen received news of the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on their radio transmitters and quickly began to return to shore. Those who had no radio noted the nervous activity of their friends, understood that something worrisome was happening, and also began to move eastward. By noon, the sea was empty of fishermen. For the next three days, as a sign of mourning for the Hamas leader's death, there wasn't a single boat on the water. There hasn't been such a sight since the maritime closure declared by the Israel Defense Forces in January 2003, after an attempt to attack an Israeli naval vessel. The sea of Gaza was totally deserted.

Last Thursday, at the conclusion of the days of mourning, the fishermen returned to the sea: 100 boats, "targets" in navy lingo, were in the water. After 72 hours there were already 150 boats, and the number kept increasing. Next week, about 800 vessels are expected to sail off the Gaza marina.

The phenomenon, breathtakingly beautiful, is called "the second city." Hundreds of densely packed points of light shine in the dark, forming a long chain whose glowing beads are the gas lanterns lit on the fishermen's wooden skiffs to attract the wealth of fish the sea has to offer.

That's one approach to the situation - seeing the tranquillity and the beauty. But that same Thursday, when the fishermen returned to the sea and lit their lamps, the IDF reported the "prevention of an attack from the sea, on the Gush Katif shore." In an incident next to Tel Katifa, fighters from the Givati and Armored brigades killed two Hamas members who came from the sea and opened fire on a car that was traveling along the coastal road, and on the nearby Alon outpost. In a later investigation, the infantry fighters were highly praised for their fast reaction. The navy, the second partner to the drama, was criticized. The main question was how the Hamas men had succeeded in landing on the shore without being identified in time by navy observers and radar.

Colonel Menahem Levy, commander of the Ashdod base, is responsible for the coastal area. At the entrance to his office hangs a framed page of a newspaper from June 2002, during the term of his predecessor, which reports on a team of naval observers who prevented a mass terror attack on the Zikim beach, south of Ashkelon. They noticed two armed swimmers coming from the sea. Later on, these turned out to be members of Islamic Jihad.

The incident at Tel Katifa is similar to the one at Zikim. Both incidents ended without Israeli casualties. In both cases, the Palestinians were shot dead. The main difference is that in the Tel Katifa incident, the identification came late, and thus it happened that the Palestinians opened fire first. Fortunately, they missed. At Zikim, the Palestinians were caught in the act, before they managed to land on the beach.

"Although the bottom line is that the terrorists were killed this time as well, in principle I failed, because they managed to reach the shore," admits Levy.

The present attempt to enter Israel by sea is the first since August 2002, when an armed Hamas member was shot dead while still in the water, near the settlement of Dugit in the north of the Gaza Strip. Although the Palestinians repeatedly fail in their attempts to penetrate from the sea, Levy believes they won't give up.

He is also prepared for an attempt to attack a boat. Clearly, for the Palestinian organizations, this is a tempting target. Hitting a Dabur (Hornet) patrol boat - not to mention sinking it - would be equal to hitting a Merkava tank. If they succeed, it will be a significant boost to morale.

In November 2002, a fishing boat was discovered on the maritime border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in the area declared by the navy as off limits. At first glance, it was hard to identify any malicious intent on the part of the two Palestinians who were seen fishing. A Dabur that rushed toward them kept them away from the restricted area by spraying jets of water, and demanded that they hand over their ID cards for examination.

The vessels approached each other. The crew of the Dabur took out a basket with which to collect the ID cards, when suddenly a loud explosion was heard. Three soldiers were lightly wounded, the Dabur was slightly damaged - and nothing remained of the fishermen.

Two months later, in the morning hours, a Dabur on routine patrol in the northern Gaza Strip identified a life raft, and rushed toward it in order to assist with the rescue. It came closer, circled without getting too close, and examined it carefully with binoculars. An hour passed, and no one was identified - not even the Palestinian who was lying camouflaged on the bottom of the vessel, waiting for the right moment. At this point, the commander decided to open fire on the raft, which in his opinion had become suspicious. A few minutes passed, and a powerful bomb exploded 200 meters from the Dabur. There were no casualties and no damage.

"The only question that hasn't been solved," says Colonel Levy, "is who detonated the bomb. Was it the terrorist himself, or did the bullets precede him." He presents the video clip that documented the incident. "That was also the last time we declared a maritime closure. When it was over, I took up the position. Although there have been dozens of closures since then inside the Gaza Strip, we have always left the sea open. We don't forget that for the Gazans, fishing is not only a livelihood, it's a source of survival. On the other hand, the raft episode proves that some among them don't hesitate to take cynical advantage of our good will."

"The instinctive reaction to the sign of a raft at sea is the desire to help," explains Lieutenant Colonel D., commander of the southern Dabur fleet (his job is equivalent to that of an infantry battalion commander). "In effect, it is like an ambulance on land. In such cases, the sailors' code obligates us to run and help and not to stand aside - that's the most elementary thing to do. It's a matter of life and death. This means the terrorist organization that used a raft for its purposes carried out a cynical move that breaks all the international understandings."

The sea was as smooth as a mirror - a real treat for the crew of the Dabur, which is used to violent storms. The commander, Major Yuval Hetz, took his soldiers out for a routine patrol off the coast of Gaza. From north to south and back, 2.5 nautical miles from shore (about 4.5 km).

Two separation zones are carefully enforced by the navy. In the north, the buffer zone is a sea corridor 3 km wide that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel, and first and foremost protects targets defined as strategic: the terminus of the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline in the sands of Zikim, and the drilling facility of the Yam Tatis gas company. The width of Zone M is about 4 km. It is actually the maritime continuation of the Philadelphi axis, and constitutes a border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, to prevent the smuggling of merchandise or weapons. The Palestinians call the area between the two buffer zones a "maritime prison."

Lieutenant Colonel D. doesn't accept the definition. "Between these zones the Palestinians have complete freedom to do as they please. On principle, we operate more on the margins and less in the middle. We rarely move around in them, unless there are unusual problems that require our intervention."

In the Oslo Accords, the two sides decided that fishermen are entitled to go 20 nautical miles (about 37 km) from shore. From the beginning of the intifada, the permitted area of operation has been reduced to only about 10 nautical miles. An additional limitation caused by the times is the positing of a maritime dividing line, a continuation of the land-based one, which is designed to prevent the fishermen of Gaza and Dir al-Balah from going south toward Khan Yunis-Rafah, and vice versa. Levy rejects the claim that this is harassment. "The purpose of blocking the sea is to reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks in Gush Katif."

The lines of demarcation in the south, and mainly in the north, are uncompromising. Entry is absolutely prohibited. "There have been incidents in which we didn't hesitate to sink empty boats. Fishermen were brought in for detention. Heavy fines were imposed on offenders," says Colonel Levy. "We are careful not to prevent them from operating in their fishing areas."

Since the outbreak of the intifada, there have been many complaints of injustice, humiliation, mistreatment and violence toward Palestinian fishermen. "When the need arises to keep a fishing boat away from the forbidden zone, we first of all use a water cannon. As for more effective tools, unfortunately we have not achieved impressive capability in the development of non-shooting means. Although we shoot in cases where there is a need to keep boats away, in the three years of the intifada we haven't hit or injured - and certainly haven't killed - a single Palestinian fisherman."

Levy is also aware of the many complaints about forcing Palestinian fishermen to swim toward the Dabur with the required papers, even in midwinter. "I have no doubt that it's an unpleasant experience," he says. "These are older people. But these are part of the unavoidable procedures. Other solutions are much worse."

"We never hurt anyone," says Hetz, angry at the discussion. "That's a distorted portrayal of the situation. All the Dabur commanders are well aware of the situation of the population with which we come into contact. These are not criminals, they are people who want to earn a living for their families. Never mind a living. They go to find food for themselves. It's a real question of survival. None of us is unaware of these facts."

From the sea, the apartment buildings along the Gaza shore are reminiscent of the hotels on the Tel Aviv promenade. "Most of the guys are okay. They come to work and not to cause problems," says D. "Even those who approach the restricted zone don't necessarily have evil intentions. A fisherman, with his own rationale, wants to reach every place where there are fish. In the closed areas, because there is no activity there, there's a huge quantity of fish, and therefore these areas are tempting. That's exactly the source of the conflict between us and them. We want the area to be sterile, they try to get inside. And sometimes they stand right at the edge of the forbidden zone, and are pulled into it, because of a change in currents or winds - and how do you know if there isn't some terrorist hiding there?"

The patrol passes by Sheikh Eglon, Netzarim, Mouasi, Neve Dekalim, Shirat Hayam, Kfar Hayam. The Jewish settlement is brightly lit. The Palestinian communities are in darkness. On the sea, the radar incessantly spots random targets, and the commanders on the bridge follow them with their eyes. A fiberglass fishing craft, bobs gently in the waves, and turns out to be abandoned. Far off, one can see Egyptian fishermen, probably from El Arish. A pleasant breeze is blowing, the air is clean, stars are shining above.

Hetz, the Dabur commander, waxes lyrical about the beauty of nature. Since the sea isn't rough, for an incidental visitor this is a pleasure cruise. "We are sailing, and nothing is happening, but there's a short distance between that and a boat that is lying in wait in our path, ready to crash into the Dabur and explode on it," D. reminds us. Every scenario is possible, and because we don't know where it will come from, it's important that we always be on full alert."

Hetz has been a reserve officer for eight years. In the wake of the crisis in high-tech, which caused his dismissal from Comverse, he responded to the request of Lieutenant Colonel D., and signed up for four months in the regular army. He's from Tel Aviv; a dedicated triathlon competitor, he travels to and from the army by bicycle. The old Dabur he commands is supposed to be replaced soon by an advanced Shaldag or Super Dvora Mk III. So these are the final weeks of the Dabur, which is at least 30 years old.

When the Dabur approaches the "second city," amazing even when it is still only partially visible, the crew are on alert and man their battle stations. The sea of lights is spread out perpendicular to the shore, at a distance of two to seven nautical miles. In order not to get entangled in the nets, in the fleets of rafts and in the innumerable oil cans, or jerricans of juice concentrate, or styrofoam buoys that flood the area - and to which the fishing lines are connected, with baited hooks at their ends - the Dabur makes a deep circuit that circles the bloc first from the east, and afterward stands north of it, avoiding passage through the middle. The searchlights examine randomly chosen boats, with an emphasis on dark targets. A flare turns the night into day for a few seconds. Friction with the fishermen is minimal, and does not involve making waves or harassment or any interference in the ordinary course of their work. But everyone remembers that at any moment this tranquil scene can turn into one of battle.

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