Israel tests waters for truce talks with return of Gaza fishing boats

Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip have recovered the boats that Israel had confiscated years earlier — but is this development political rather than judicial?

al-monitor Fishing boats are seen on a beach in the southern Gaza Strip, Oct. 7, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Dec 9, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In cooperation with Gaza’s maritime police, the Ministry of Agriculture in the Gaza Strip handed over 25 Palestinian fishing boats to their owners Dec. 2. On Nov. 29, Israel had released these boats that had been in its possession for four or five years.

Israel continues to hold 33 Palestinian boats seized in the past five years, under the pretext of breaching the permissible fishing zone, ranging between 3 and 9 nautical miles from the shore. It caused other boats to sink, claiming that they pose a security threat and are being used in the smuggling of banned goods.

This development can only be interpreted in regard to the Egyptian- and Qatari-mediated truce talks between Israel and Gaza’s factions, and particularly in light of Israel's expectations that the parties make headway in the talks.

Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Dec. 7 that Ambassador Mohamed al-Emadi, head of Qatar's National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, arrived in the Gaza Strip Dec. 6 with the second installment of the Qatari grant, noting that sources within Hamas' Ministry of Finance confirmed that the funds had been deposited, upon Israel’s consent, and that the salaries of the Hamas-appointed government employees would be paid Dec. 7 — which in fact have started being paid. In addition, a higher quantity of power supply from Israel to Gaza is anticipated.

Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine threatened Nov. 30 with escalating protests along the Gaza-Israel border, in case Israel continues to defer the application of the truce understandings, which include the transfer of the Qatari grant and additional power supply to the Gaza Strip, the expansion of the fishing zone from 9 to 12 nautical miles and fully opening the Rafah border crossing. Under these understandings, Hamas pledged to shrink the protests in exchange for Israel easing the Gaza siege.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Palestinian Authority (PA) Civil Affairs Ministry spokesman Walid Wahdan indicated that it has been years since multiple Palestinian bodies, such as human rights organizations, have resorted to the Supreme Court of Israel to have fishermen recover their seized fishing boats. In the first week of November, the court allowed the release of seized boats in exchange for a commitment on the part of fishermen that they do not go beyond the permissible fishing zone.

Wahdan said that on Nov. 15 Israel limited fishing in the Gaza sea to an area ranging between 6 and 9 nautical miles, noting that the General Authority of Civil Affairs will carry on with its endeavors to have fishermen recover the remaining 33 fishing boats that Israel continues to hold in the Port of Ashdod.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Dec. 1 the Israeli army as saying that the decision to hand over the boats was taken a few months ago and is unrelated to the lawsuits.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accord, Palestinian fishermen are granted access to 20 nautical miles from the shore. Following the 2006 Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip, Israel restricted this zone to 6 miles and then to 3 miles. Following the 2014 cease-fire agreement, Israel expanded the fishing zone to 9 miles only, which is regularly reduced to 3 miles.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Nizar Ayyash, the chairman of the Gaza Fishermen's Syndicate, said that Israel released 19 canoes, four motor boats without their engines and two large boats. He noted that Israeli naval ships moved the boats from the Port of Ashdod toward the regional waters of the Gaza Strip.

Ayyash emphasized that some of these boats were seized prior to 2014 and indicated that despite their multiple attempts in the past years, the syndicate, human rights organizations and the General Authority of Civil Affairs failed to have the boats returned to the fishermen. He added that Israel, however, released them all at once.

Fishing as a profession involves many risks. Every now and then, the roughly 4,000 fishermen in Gaza experience Israeli attacks, such as shootings, arrests, fishing zone restrictions and confiscation of fishing boats and tools. The Gaza-based Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights reported Oct. 23 that 270 violations against Palestinian fishermen have been recorded since early 2018.

Mefleh Abu Ryalah, a fisherman who recovered his boat three years after it was seized, told Al-Monitor, “As a low pressure area developed over Gaza on Nov. 1, 2015, a small fishing boat that one of my brothers owns was taken away by the sea toward the Israeli border in the northern Gaza Strip. Israeli boats encircled us as we were trying to pull it back, using a larger boat my parents own.”

He added, “The recovered boat has suffered extensive damage as the Israeli naval ships opened fire at us while confiscating the boat. The boat’s engine broke down after not being used for years.”

Fisherman Ghaleb Baker told Al-Monitor, “We were shocked when two Israeli naval ships opened fire at us on May 15, 2016, as we were fishing. After encircling us, the Israeli soldiers forced us to swim toward their boat, apprehended all 10 of us and pulled the boat toward Ashdod. After nine of us were freed a few hours later, we returned to the Gaza Strip via the Erez crossing."

He explained that although they were fishing within the permissible fishing zone that was determined at 6 nautical miles back then, the Israeli soldiers confiscated the boat, claiming that they breached this limit in the northern part of ​​the Gaza Strip. Baker noted that the fisherman who is still detained was charged with belonging to Islamic Jihad and sentenced to five years in prison.

The legal assistance director at Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, Mervat al-Nahal, told Al-Monitor that dozens of fishermen whose boats were seized gave the center power of attorney to plead on their behalf in the Israeli courts to get their boats back.

She explained that in cooperation with Adalah and Gisha, which operate in Israel, they petitioned the Supreme Court of Israel on Oct. 10 to have a number of Palestinian boats released. A few weeks later, the court decided that the boats in question as well as others would be released.

Nahal explained that the Israeli court imposed many conditions regarding the release of boats in the past, including having fishermen relinquish the right for compensation following years of seizure and having them pay the transportation fees for the boats from the Port of Ashdod to the Gaza Strip, via the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Yet the fishermen and human rights organizations have rejected these conditions, she noted.

The multiple agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians have not stopped Israel from confiscating and holding Palestinian boats, or from attacking Palestinian fishermen, forcing thousands of fishermen into other jobs.

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