Dressed in an old white undershirt, fisherman Khader al-Saaidy sits on his bed in his meager home in Al-Shati refugee camp, on the sea in the northern Gaza Strip. Leaning against an unplastered wall, he casts an empty gaze about the room.
Saaidy, 31, is blind. Gunfire from Israel Navy troops shattered his eyes and left him sightless. After the soldiers shot at him, claiming he’d violated the limits of the fishing zone set by Israel – which Saaidy denies – they arrested him and took him to Israel. One eye was removed in Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. The second eye could have been saved; the hospital even set a date for him to return for treatment. But the occupation apparatus – which clamped a maritime closure on the Strip on Wednesday “until further notice,” in response to a spate of incendiary devices sent into southern Israel – wouldn’t let Saaidy leave the Strip again. So the fisherman is totally blind, probably for life.
Clearly Saaidy hasn’t yet adjusted to his new condition. He is a pitiable sight. Occasionally his dead eyes, both the blind one and the glass eye in the other socket, stare into the space around him as though searching for something to fixate on. He rarely leaves the house – he doesn’t want his neighbors to see him in his eyeless state – but somehow manages to grope his way in the darkness inside his small refugee-camp home with its one bedroom. He shares the hovel with his wife, Hadil, 25, and their three children: two sons, Mohammed, 7, and Hashem, 4, and their daughter Innes, 2. They too haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that their father is blind.
Saaidy has worked as a fisherman since he was a boy of 13. There aren’t many other livelihoods in Gaza. His family had owned two simple fishing boats, known in the local parlance as hasakes. Both were impounded by the soldiers of the Israeli navy, so daring and courageous when dealing with these crude vessels.
Nowhere are soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces as heroic against the defenseless than in the waters outside Gaza. Nowhere are they more cruelly abusive to helpless people, whose only aim is to make a living, than in those waters – and no place is farther from media attention than the Gaza sea. This year alone, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has reported four impounded fishing boats, eight wounded fishermen and 21 other fishermen who were taken into custody and abducted to Israel.
There is no easier collective punishment for Israel to impose than restricting the zone within which Gazans are permitted to fish. In the past three months alone, Israel has changed the limits – expanding and contracting them – at least 10 times; for a while the sea was even declared completely off-limits. Soldiers often mistreat the fishermen, who have been forced to buy costly GPS devices so they can stay within the prescribed area; meanwhile, the Strip’s vital fishing industry has collapsed.
In 2000 there were 10,000 legally registered fishermen in Gaza; today only one-third of them are still working as such. And 95 percent of those, according to B’Tselem, live below the poverty line: meaning, they have less than $4.60 a day for food, housing, clothing, health care and education. Saaidy is one such fisherman, abjectly poor, who experienced all the ordeals of the maritime occupation until he was blinded.
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Two years ago, navy troops shot him, wounding him in the right leg, while he was at sea. Then they arrested him and impounded his boat. With him in the boat at the time was his fisherman friend, Ragheb Abu Riala. Abu Riala was shot in one eye and lost his sight in it. He too was taken away by the soldiers, but was released after 10 days, apparently because of his injury. Saaidy was tried for violating the fishing-zone limit and served 14 months in Nafha Prison, in Mitzpeh Ramon. He claims he was six miles from the shore, which was not beyond the limit at the time.
After his release Saaidy returned to the sea and to his livelihood, using his family’s second hasake. Until February 20. On that day, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, he set out for the waters off Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, for what would be his last fishing expedition. With him was his cousin, Mohammed Saaidy, who is about the same age and who sits next to him, along with B’Tselem field researcher and photographer Khaled al Azaiza, during our Skype video conversation. Azaiza’s B’Tselem colleague Muhammad Sabah also helped investigate this saga.
They say that Khader was nine miles from shore – three miles inside the limit in force on that day. It was evening. They lowered their nets into the sea. There were a few other Gaza fishing boats in the area. At about 9:30 P.M., four rubber dinghies belonging to the Israeli war fleet suddenly appeared, each carrying 12 soldiers. Saaidy thinks they were naval commandos. The mother ship looked on from afar.
At the sight of the dinghies hurtling at them at high speed, the Saaidy cousins decided to abandon their nets and head quickly east, toward the shore. Then the troops opened fire. Khader says that about 15 rubber-coated metal bullets slammed into his upper body, from close range, after the dinghies caught up with their boat. The soldiers, wearing masks, were standing up, he says. He was sitting and they fired down at him; because he was at the wheel, all the bullets were aimed at him.
Darkness instantly descended on his world. He immediately realized that he had been blinded. Troops from the Israeli war fleet boarded and wrested control over the hasake without resistance, taking the two fishermen into custody and towing their boat north, toward Ashdod. Khader al-Saaidy groaned with pain. The bullet had torn into his eye sockets. From the port at Ashdod he was taken to Barzilai hospital, down the coast in Ashkelon. He underwent surgery and his right eye was removed. Four days later, he was released at the Erez border crossing. The doctors at Barzilai had told him that there was a chance his left eye could be saved. They even set up an appointment for him in the hospital, on March 13, but Saaidy’s request to the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs, which deals with entry permits to Israel, was rejected. The blind fisherman poses a risk to Israel's security. He asked the hospital for a new appointment, which was set for May 15. But his second request to enter Israel was rejected as well.
Meanwhile, Saaidy’s family mobilized to help him. On April 30, he traveled to Egypt via the Rafah crossing with his mother and one of his brothers in the hope of getting treatment that would save his remaining eye. The Palestinian Authority undertook to pay for the operation in Egypt.
Saaidy was examined at Fatimiya Hospital in Cairo, but was told they could do nothing for him. They inserted a glass eye into the socket of the right eye, which had been removed in Israel. He consulted several local ophthalmologists, who reviewed the results of the CT scan done at Barzilai on his left eye. One said that his optic nerve had been damaged and that treatment might be available in Israel or Turkey or Jordan. Not Egypt. The neural damage also affected his sense of smell and his hearing.
He returned to the Strip on May 10, disappointed, helpless, despondent.
When Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesman’s Office why naval forces had opened fire on Saaidy, the response was: “The matter is under investigation.”
The Unit for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories stated in response: “Khader al-Saaidy’s request [to enter Israel] did not meet the existing criteria for patients leaving Gaza to receive medical treatment. According to the medical documents he submitted to the District Coordination and Liaison office, through the Palestinian civil committee, his medical condition did not constitute mortal danger, and contrary to what has been alleged, his request was for medical follow-up and not for medical treatment.”
In April 1999, I visited a wounded sardine fisherman, Mahmoud al-Sharif, in room 655 in Shifa Hospital, Gaza City. He was in serious condition and was writhing with pain. Soldiers on an Israel Navy “Dabur” patrol boat had fired at him with live ammunition. The IDF Spokesman’s Unit maintained at the time that his boat had been moving suspiciously. When night fell, I left the wounded man and set sail on the open seas with seven other Gaza fishermen on a different boat; it was called the Hisham and it was 14 meters long. We returned to shore at first light. I will never forget the fish meal those men prepared for me on our return. Already then Israel barred them from passing a 12-mile limit. Twenty years have gone by since then.
Khader al-Saaidy now spends his days idly, in bed. The economic situation at home has become dire: He had been supporting 14 people in his extended family. Now he has no money for additional treatment and nowhere to turn to for help.
Israel never returned his impounded boats, which he used to fish for groupers and red snapper. Each hasake costs $7,000 to $8,000. The day after he was wounded and abducted to Israel, his friends tried to salvage the nets he left behind. They told him that a few other boats had been near him, fishing uninterruptedly. He alone had been shot.
The sea of Gaza is deceptive. Sometimes you come back with 10 kilos of fish, sometimes empty-handed. On the day he was wounded, Saaidy didn’t catch a thing. His friends found five kilos of fish in the nets they pulled out and sold them for 150 shekels (about $40), handing over the proceeds to the family.
He has lost everything, he says now: his eyes, his livelihood, his profession, his boats – and his hope.
What is the last thing you saw, we ask. “The soldiers who shot me.” Then, in a feeble voice, he adds: “Maybe one day I will be allowed to return to Israel so they can save my eye.”