"Take off your clothes," ordered the soldier over his megaphone. The old man and his son removed their clothing. "Get into the water," the soldier continued shouting into the megaphone. The son, 18, entered the water from the fishing skiff and swam over to the Israeli navy gunboat.
Just 45 minutes earlier, when the fishermen were stopped at a distance of 50 meters from the gunboat, the first order had been, "Turn off your engine." They turned it off. "You and the boy come forward," the youthful voice ordered them. The man and his son advanced to the boat's prow. Mohammed Baker, 62, a fisherman since he was 17, said with concern in his voice: "Captain, we are not a danger [to you]."
The young soldier with the megaphone answered: "Shut up."
But the old man, easily the age of the soldier's grandfather, continued: "We fish here every day. We have not passed the line." He was referring to the line from the Gaza shoreline set by the Israeli military for Palestinian fishermen, beyond which they are forbidden to fish.
The soldier repeated into his megaphone: "Shut up. Stop talking."
The old man and his son stood at the prow for a half-hour. Only when another gunboat approached and stopped were they ordered to strip. The son swam over and climbed onto the gunboat. They soldiers threw a buoy attached to a rope to the father. He climbed down from his boat, his only source of income, as he told me on Sunday by telephone in a voice on the verge of tears.
Holding on to the buoy, he was pulled onto the gunboat. It was 9 o'clock in the morning, May 5. And the day had actually started out well; in an hour-and-a-half of fishing, they had caught two-and-a-half kilos of fish.
This strip-and-swim procedure is carried out several times a month: summer and winter, day and night, hot and cold, old and young, it makes no difference. More often, the gunboats shoot at the fishing skiffs. Al-Mezan, the Gazan human rights organization, has recorded 12 instances in May of the Israeli navy firing live ammunition at fishing boats that set out from the Gazan ports. The navy detained nine fishermen (all of whom were released within 12 hours ) and confiscated four fishing boats and their equipment (which are returned, usually in damaged condition, after about a year ).
Busy month for Navy
On May 30, four fishermen were detained; on May 27, a little before midnight, our forces fired on a fishing boat in the vicinity of Rafah. Our soldiers told the two fishermen, aged 59 and 65, to undress, jump into the water and climb onto the gunboat. The older one was allowed to return to the boat. The second was detained and released the next afternoon. On May 22, our forces fired on a fishing boat near Dir al-Balah. There were no injuries to our soldiers. The enemy hurried to the shore without food or money for his family.
The Oslo Accords permit Gazan fishermen to sail up to 20 nautical miles from shore. In practice, the furthest they were allowed to fish was 12 miles. This was shortened to six miles after 2000, and since the Operation Cast Lead military onslaught conducted by Israel against Gaza during winter 2008/2009, the permissible limit is only three nautical miles.
Yellow buoys mark the line. Some people take the risk and cross it because pickings are slim within the limit, and sewage often reaches this area, raising the chances of pollution. According to the testimony of many fishermen who have acquired GPS navigation systems for the sake of accuracy, the Israeli navy often fires on their boats even when they have not crossed the line.
Compared to earlier months, the attacks grew in May, Al-Mezan reports. The organization surmises that there are two reasons for the escalation of such attacks: to reduce the three-mile limit further, and to supply the Shin Bet security services with people who can be interrogated and pressured for some kind of information.
High blood pressure
And so, after the strip-and-swim procedure, the handcuffed and blindfolded detainees are brought to the pier in Ashdod, according to the testimonies collected by Al-Mezan. They are dressed in disposable pants and shirts, and photographed, but not until their blood pressure and temperature are taken. "High, high," an examiner reprimanded Baker and referred to his blood pressure. "It's because of you," the 62-year-old man said. He and his son were held, handcuffed and blindfolded, for six hours. Afterwards they were taken to what was apparently a Shin Bet facility at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. There, for the sake of security, our Israeli boys checked them with metal detectors and placed them in a room with a computer and a man in civilian clothing.
One of those interrogated reconstructed the investigation for Al- Mezan: "I told the interrogator that we did not go beyond 2.5 miles, which showed on the GPS, and the officer who detained us had fired without any warning." The man in civilian clothes answered, "I'm not familiar with the entire sea, and I'm here so that you can help me." The man in the disposable clothes said: "I can't help you. I am a fisherman who understands only the language of fishing, and I need someone to help me get back my fishing boat and personal belongings."
The interrogator asked about the Gaza policemen at the port, and the interrogated answered, "I don't know about anything except for my boat." The Israeli said, "You trespassed. Let your government help you." The Palestinian explained to him that the Oslo Accords say the permitted fishing range is 20 nautical miles. The Israeli had had enough. "Your government should help you. Yalla, get out of here."
In response, the army spokesman says that security regulations limit sailing because terror organizations make use of the sea, and in order to enforce the regulations, "the navy takes various steps to remove boats that sail beyond permissible limits, including orders to return to shore, and even detainment as needed. According to the rules of engagement, live ammunition is used only as a last resort, and in a considered and cautious manner."