Israel Returns 25 Fishing Boats It Confiscated to Gazan Owners

IDF decides to return boats after human rights organizations threaten to petition the High Court ■ Boats retrieved through the sea after Israel initially stipulated their return on owners taking them through land at higher costs

Fishing boats on a beach in the southern Gaza Strip, October 7, 2018.
REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israel returned 25 fishing boats to Gaza on Thursday after they had been held in a navy base for months, following human rights organizations' threat to petition the High Court.

The non-governmental organizations sent a letter to the State Prosecutor's Office threatening to petition on behalf of several boat owners whose vessels had been seized, after the military prosecution required that the owners coordinate the delivery of the boats from the Ashdod Navy Base to the Gaza Strip.

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Gisha – the Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights sent the letter in October. They demanded that the military return the boats without incurring costs to the boat owners or placing conditions on them.

"It's a cumbersome process that entails high costs, which our clients are unable to afford. There are other, more reasonable, alternatives," Adalah lawyer Hassan Jabareen and Gisha lawyer Muna Haddad wrote in the letter.

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Israel ended up transferring the boats, some of which it had held for over two years, to Gaza by sea. The Israel Defense Forces said the decision to return the boats by sea was taken several months ago and had nothing to do with the threats to petition.

According to the letter, all the boats were seized while within the allowed fishing zone. Hisham Baker, a senior member of Gaza's fishermen union, told Haaretz that there are still 40 boats being held in Israel, which serve dozens of families for fishing. The return of the boats on Thursday shows that it is possible to transfer the boats without high costs, unlike the original demand to have them transferred through the land border, Baker said.

Gisha said that in addition to its refusal, Israel restricts and prevents the entry of material needed to repair the boats that were harmed by military fire or by accidents at sea. Therefore, fishermen cannot use those boats or must purchase materials that come through the tunnels from Egypt, which are expensive and of low quality.

According to Gisha, the number of people working in Gaza's fishing sector has declined from 10,000 in the year 2000 to 3,000 people today. Women working in fishing and agriculture are particularly harmed, according to Gisha. The number of women working in those fields sank from 36 percent to less than 4 percent nowadays.

According to al-Mezan, a human rights organization based in Gaza, in 2017 there were 213 cases of fire toward fishermen, with two killed as a result and 14 injured. In addition, the military arrested 39 fishermen at sea in 2017 and destroyed or confiscated 20 fishing boats.

The military spokesperson's office stated that "on November 29, IDF forces returned Palestinian fishing boats that were taken after violating the security arrangements at sea in Gaza. The decision to release these boats and return them through the sea was taken several months ago and with no relationship to any petitions. The decision on returning additional boats will take place after all relevant considerations will be taken into account."