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A Gazan Fisherman's Prayer

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Ismail Abu Riala, an 18-year-old fisherman from Gaza, was shot and killed by Israeli navy forces on February 25, 2018.
Ismail Abu Riala, an 18-year-old fisherman from Gaza, was shot and killed by Israeli navy forces on February 25, 2018.

I find myself thinking about Ismail Abu Riala. I never met him. No Haaretz reader ever met him. I doubt if anyone in Israel ever heard his name. I am examining his picture: a boyish face, an embarrassed smile, a stylish haircut, a fishing net or sail in the background.

I am prevented from presenting his full life story because Israel has closed the Gaza Strip to Israeli journalists for over 11 years. I don’t know much about his life or death, and still I permit myself to write about him and his character. It is neither hard to imagine the life of an 18-year-old fisherman in Gaza, nor hard to imagine his death.

Navy personnel fired at his boat and killed him on Sunday. They aimed and fired at the target, like they were trained to do. He of course didn’t endanger them for a moment, for how could a forlorn Gazan fisherman in a rickety boat endanger the lives of armed sailors equipped with sophisticated ships?

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The Israeli army explained away the killing by saying the fisherman passed the boundary of the authorized fishing zone off Gaza. Israel permits Gazans to fish up to six miles from the coast. Thus Israel maintains the control it yielded in Gaza years ago, the occupation that is not an occupation. If someone strays too far from the coast, his fate is sealed. Imagine a patrol boat in the sea off Tel Aviv whose sailors would shoot anyone entering the water off a forbidden beach. The Israeli occupation in Gaza is over, but not in the sea. Nor on land. Nor in the air. Bloodstains and a first aid kit were found inside the boat that was returned to the Gazan fishermen.

The sea is Gaza’s last refuge, the sole source of income for many. Fisherman are always poor in song, in literature and in mythology. They are even poorer in Gaza. One hot summer night, in times gone by, I went sailing with Gazan fishermen. We returned at first light, and ate an unforgettable meal made from their catch. Abu Riala also went out in his haska – that’s what they call fishing boats in Gaza – into the not-so-open sea. They shot him after he crossed the permitted boundary. Did they warn him? Did he hear? We will never know. They say they shot first in the air, like they always say. According to B’tselem data for last year, naval forces arrested 35 fishermen, injured 10 and killed one.

I also think about the seamen who killed Ismail Abu Riala. The naval officer who commanded his men to shoot, the sailors who fired their weapons. The future that awaits them. The opportunities they have to go anywhere they want in life. And I think about the future that awaited their victim and his chance to have done something in life besides spreading out a sail and hoping for the best. Did they see their victim before they shot him? Did they really see him? Did they think about the life of the Gazan who was their age? Have they given a thought about him since they shot and killed him – an unarmed fisherman, a teenager for eternity – in cold blood?

Abu Riala was not a rabbi and not a settler, so Israel wasn’t shaken by his killing. It wasn’t interested in him for even a moment. His killers are not terrorists. They are soldiers in the most moral army in the world, and he was a fisherman whose life wasn’t worth more than the fin of the fish he was trying to catch. He didn’t have anything in life, save for the desperate experience of going out to the not-so-open sea.

For the naval force, that was sufficient reason to execute him. Did any of them at least recall him after killing him? Did anyone think about his parents or his brothers, about his fate? Did they remember at all that they killed a fisherman, a young man, a human being?

“Then they quietly rose up with the high tide and sank with the ebb tide,” Meir Banai sings to the words of Natan Yonatan’s poem, “The Fisherman’s Prayer.” In memory of Ismail Abu Riala, who will never rise up from the sea again.

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