Two fisherman from the Gaza Strip, both accused of membership in a terrorist organization and illegal activity for participating in protests on boats that sought to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza, were ordered released from custody on Monday by Be’er Sheva District Court Judge Eliahu Bitan.
The judge called the decision to indict Khaled Hassi, 24, and his nephew, Mohammed Hassi, 18, “inappropriate legally and morally.”
The indictments that the judge quashed alleged that in exchange for $100, Khaled Hassi agreed to participate as a crew member on a boat that would sail from Gaza beyond the limits of the zone that Israel has imposed along the coast of the Gaza Strip as part of its blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory.
The case actually involves two such protests. The nephew, Mohammed Hassi, participated in the second one, recruited by his uncle, but not the first. The aim of the protests was to have the boats stopped by the Israel Navy and in the process attract international attention to the blockade of Gaza.
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The Israel Navy stopped the boats. In the first protest, most of those on board, including Khaled Hassi, were released by the navy and returned to Gaza.
The prosecution alleged that by joining the protest, Khaled Hassi took part in the activities of a terrorist organization, Hamas, and had also received payment for it. The indictment alleged that in one protest, before the boat left the shore, Khaled Hassi gave an interview to the Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera.
In the second protest, the two defendants were arrested and Khaled Hassi was accused of rendering services to a terrorist organization. A magistrate’s court judge ruled that the two were a security threat and should remain in custody until the end of the proceedings against them, a decision that was then appealed to District Court Judge Bitan.
Bitan noted that even though the prosecution alleged that Hamas had organized the two protests on the boats and had paid the defendants, neither of those allegations appears in the indictments. In addition, the judge said, when the participants in the protests were questioned, they claimed they were organized by the Committee for Breaking the Siege of Gaza and not Hamas.
The prosecutor said the interview Khaled Hassi gave to Al-Jazeera could spark public opposition to the blockade and lead Israel to lift it, resulting in weapons flowing into Gaza, meaning that the interview should be viewed as endangering state security, an assertion that Bitan also rejected.
“The blockade that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip is justified in that it is designed to prevent the smuggling of material, equipment and means that could harm Israel’s security … but putting a Gaza resident on trial in Israel for protesting the distress that he and the other residents of the Strip are in appears to me to be clearly inappropriate, legally and morally,” the judge stated.
He ordered the case returned to the magistrate’s court to set the terms for the defendants’ release. The prosecutor’s office said it may appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision to release the two.