Following a legal battle and three years of waiting, Israel gave Gaza fisherman Abdul-Muti al-Habil his fishing boat back. Al-Habil is one of 21 Palestinian fishermen whose boats were recently returned after Israel confiscated them, claiming they had breached the allocated fishing zone.
But the fishermen are not ready to rejoice just yet. They may have gotten their vessels back, and their livelihood, but according to the representative of the Strip's fishermen, the boats were returned without their motors and nets, and some of them are visibly damaged.
"It's like getting a corpse without a heart," said fishermen representative Nazer Ayesh. "These boats without motors and nets can't be put to use by any fisherman." According to Ayesh, a motor costs about $7,000 in Gaza, and nets as well as other equipment can cost up to an additional $3,000 at the very least. "If the body of the boat is damaged that's even more expenses. Go find a fisherman who can afford this sum. These are already poor families who can hardly make a living," Ayesh said.
In the coming weeks, Israel is expected to return some 40 more boats it is holding. The return of the boats is part of understandings that were reached between Israel and Hamas last month, but the struggle to retrieve them began six months ago with petitions that were filed by human rights organizations to Israel's Supreme Court.
The state responded to the petitions on June 13 (even before the understandings were reached) and told the court it would return al-Habil's boat "within two weeks." The state also said that it intends to begin "the process of returning [the rest of the boats] to the Gaza Strip, through the sea, in about a month. This process is expected to end in four months."
Al-Habil told Gaza journalists that his boat was severely damaged when it was fired at by the Israeli navy during confiscation and deteriorated over the years it was being held by Israel without any maintenance. For this reason, it was impossible to return his boat through the sea. Last Monday, Israel moved al-Habil's boat by land through the Kerem Shalom crossing, and from there it took another seven hours to get it to Gaza due to logistical issues.
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"I didn't sleep all night and waited to see the boat," al-Habil told Gaza reporters in tears at the Gaza fishermen's port on Monday afternoon. According to him, the Israel Navy captured the boat in September 2016 some six nautical miles off the coast of the city of Deir al Balah, claiming that it breached the permitted fishing zone.
After he received it and assessed its status he understood that it was in no shape to return to sea. "It's a big boat, about 17 meters, that weighs 60 tons," al-Habil said. "It was built in Gaza in '86 and we could sail out to distances of up to 13 nautical miles. It provided the income for 24 families, including mine."
According to al-Habil, the boat cost $180,000. "They returned it as junk, with repair costs reaching $50,000 between hull repairs, fixing the motor and buying nets. How am I going to come up with that money? And I don't even have replacement parts. I don't know."
According to the fisherman's representative Ayesh, even if Gaza fishermen had the means, the repairs are a nearly impossible endeavor.
Replacement parts and materials are very difficult to find in the Strip, as Israel limits and even refuses entry of materials that are defined as "dual-purpose," meaning they can be used for both civilian and military needs. This includes, among other things, replacement parts for motors and fiberglass, which is used to repair ship hulls.
The appeal to the Supreme Court was filed in January by the human rights organizations Gisha, whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, Adalah – The Legal Center of Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza. The organizations demanded in the name of al-Habil and others that Israel return the boats that were captured by the army together with the equipment that was on deck; this despite the fact that in the past boats were returned to their owners without the gear that had been on board.
Al-Habil, like the other fishermen whose boats had been confiscated and damaged, says that he received no explanation or communications about when the boat would be returned or how these incidents were handled.
"Anyone who thinks that returning the boats is the end of the story is making a big mistake," said Ahmad, a son of a family of fishermen in Gaza. "Confiscating our equipment or restricting access to the sea every time there's a problem only makes our lives harder and harder. Without outside help, we have no way to return our boats to sea."
According to Ahmad, "Israel claims that it wants to ease the situation for the Gazan population – in fact it takes steps that have no substance. Anyone who thinks we're celebrating the return of our boats is wrong in a big way."