Gaza Strip – Abdul-Muti al-Habil, a fisherman from Gaza, received a sudden phone call from the Palestinian Authority (PA) last week, informing him that his boat – confiscated by Israel three years earlier – would be returned to him at a crossing in the southern Gaza Strip.
The PA official told al-Habil that the return of the 17-metre long ship, one of the largest of Gaza’s fishing fleet, marked an unprecedented move by Israel, especially since it would be transported over land.
But al-Habil’s bitterness did not start with the confiscation of his boat, and he fears it will not end after the return of it. He told Al Jazeera that his ship was partly sunk twice in one year by Israeli naval forces before it was confiscated until further notice in 2016.
“On January 26, 2015, my children were sailing within the limited fishing zone dictated by Israel, in the north of the Gaza Strip, when they were suddenly shot at and targeted by the Israeli navy’s patrolling gunboats,” al-Habil told Al Jazeera.
“The ship was heavily damaged and partly sunk, and the Israeli navy kidnapped the four fishermen on board.”
“We were just trying to make a living when Israel attacked us for no reason,” Rami al-Habil, Abdul-Muti’s son, told Al Jazeera. “We were then handcuffed and taken to Ashdod to be interrogated and detained with no charges.”
The arrested fishermen were released shortly after. However, al-Habil’s boat was left partly submerged for days as the Israeli navy abandoned it behind and prevented al-Habil and other fishermen from accessing the area.
“After nine days, Israel finally allowed us to try to retrieve the boat. Then, with the help of some divers from Gaza, we managed to tie it to several smaller vessels and pull it back to the shore,” al-Habil told Al Jazeera. “It then cost us more than $24,000 to fix the damage that the Israeli attack inflicted on the boat.”
Shortly after al-Habil’s boat was back in working order, Israel attacked it again on September 8, 2016, and arrested all fishermen on board, releasing them a day later. This time, however, Israel’s navy confiscated the boat until further notice and in the process of transporting it to Israel’s Ashdod seaport, the boat incurred further severe damage, according to al-Habil, who said an evident hole in the ship’s hull, made it unusable.
Nahid Abu Ryala, who used to work on al-Habil’s boat, told Al Jazeera: “The boat used to employ 34 people, each of whom has a household of seven to 10 people. Our careers were gone in a blink of an eye when Israel decided to attack our boat. It can’t go on like this. This is inhumane.”
Zakaria Bakr, head of Gaza’s Fishermen Union, told Al Jazeera that maritime harassment seems to be “the new normal under Israel’s blockade“.
“Al-Habil’s tragedy is the rule not the exception in Gaza,” Bakr said. “Almost every day some Gazan fishermen suddenly get harassed, shot at or arrested by Israel’s navy for no reason. It’s become very systematic and arbitrary. We feel that we’re being collectively punished for only being Gazans.”
The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) noted that “Israel routinely seizes boats from fishermen in Gaza and holds them for months, even years, without legal authority and in violation of international law. This punitive, violent and illegal measure causes severe harm to the fishing industry and to Gaza’s economy, and must be stopped.”
Al-Habil told Al Jazeera that after his boat was confiscated in 2016, he resorted to different human rights and legal organisations in Israel and Gaza to help him get the boat back. “They petitioned to relevant Israeli authorities, but I was losing hope that they’ll ever return it,” he said.
Following a prolonged legal battle in the Israeli Supreme Court, led by two Israeli NGOs – Gisha and Adalah – along with the Gaza-based Al Mezan Human Rights Center, Israel decided to return the boat to Gaza.
Additionally, Israel announced it would release 65 other boats, also confiscated from Gaza, over the next four months, as part of its latest ceasefire agreement with Hamas, according to local authorities.
Last Monday, two days after the phone call from the PA, al-Habil – whose boat is one of very few large ones equipped to sail long distances in the besieged Gaza Strip – retrieved the vessel from the Karm Abu Salem crossing, but had to pay about $3,000 for transport costs, due to Israel’s unusual insistence on not delivering the boat by sea.
“The boat should have been delivered by sea, but due to the damage Israel inflicted on it, it was only possible to transport it by land,” al-Habil pointed out. “When I went to pick it up, I found it severely ruined on all different levels.”
“We checked the motors, hydraulic engines and the outer structure of the boat, it was all heavily damaged,” al-Habil told Al Jazeera. “Even the ropes, fishing nets and other equipment were all destroyed, either deliberately from the live fire they shot at it, or by intended negligence and lack of maintenance for three years on Israel’s side after they took it.”
According to al-Habil, the initial estimation of maintenance costs exceeds $45,000, an amount he says is “insanely unaffordable” in the blockaded Gaza Strip. Moreover, al-Habil’s dilemma is further exacerbated by the Israeli restrictions and prohibitions on the entry of basic and necessary materials, tools and equipment needed to fix the boat.
“Israel bans almost everything we need to maintain our boats,” Bakr said. “Engines or spare parts, fiberglass, ropes and many other materials we need are on Israel’s list of banned ‘dual use’ items,” he added, referring to materials Israel says could be used to manufacture rockets or other weaponry.
Adding to this dilemma is the uncertainty about what would happen next to the boat if it was fixed and put back to work.
“I fear that even after paying all this money to fix the boat, it will remain prone to another sudden attack by the Israeli navy, and the whole nightmare will be repeated again for a third and fourth time,” al-Habil said.
“I call on all international official and non-official organisations to stand with us and aid us in our hard and dangerous pursuit of providing to our families,” al-Habil said.
“We need protection and respect for our basic right to make a living.”