Israel Says It Will Return Dozens of Seized Fishing Boats to Gazans

Israel agreed to return the boats after human rights organizations filed a petition to the High Court, but failed to announce a timetable for the move

Palestinian fishermen unload their catch from boats after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

Israel has stated that it plans to return dozens of boats it seized from Gazan fishermen since 2014.

The state announced its intention to do so in a response by the State Prosecutor's Office to a petition three human rights organizations filed to the High Court of Justice.

The Prosecutor's Office asked the court to dismiss the petition, which had been filed on behalf of  Gazan fisherman Abed Almoati Habil, whose boat was seized by the Israeli navy in September 2016.

The petition was filed by Gisha, Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. The organizations argued that the navy didn't have the legal power to seized the boat and that the seizure broke the law.

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The petition was submitted after the navy agreed to return the boat, but over land and at the expense of the fisherman. Habil also claimed that Israel refused to return or explain the absence of $150,000 worth of equipment that had been on board.

The petitioners called on the court to order the navy to unconditionally hand back all Gazan fishing boats that were seized, numbering about 65, as well as all of the equipment they stored.

The Prosecutor's Office told the court that Habil's and the other boats would be returned in a matter of months, subject to security and political considerations, and according to an assessment of the security situation.

The human rights organizations then filed another response to the court, insisting that all the boats, complete with their gear, be returned to their owners immediately. They also asked the court to order the state to provide a clear timetable for the boats' return, as it didn't make any mention of times in its responses.

Muna Hadad, a lawyer representing the human rights organizations, said that "Israel's seizure of the boats and [the fact that it is] keeping them for months or years is done without authority and in violation of international law. The state's claim that it takes the boats when they sail beyond the arbitrarily set boundaries for Gazan fishing cannot justify the damage to the fishermen and their families' livelihood and property. The state's answer suggests that it will do anything it can to dodge, and that the entire purpose is to terrify the fishermen in Gaza."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning the Defense Ministry said the Gaza fishing zone would be expanded from 12 nautical miles to 15.

The fishing zone had been closed off entirely following the latest escalation in Israel-Gaza tensions, and was only reopened two weeks ago.

The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories says Israel reopened the fishing zone in order to stop the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and to distinguish between people involved in terrorism and the non-involved population.

In November, Israel returned 25 fishing boats via the sea. In some cases the boats had been held for more than two years at the Ashdod naval base. The military decision to release the vessels came after a decision by human rights organizations to petition to the High Court on behalf of the fishermen whose boats were seized.