Fagforbundets Ambassador Corps visited Palestine at the beginning of June. During our first two days in Gaza, Israeli airstrikes and an artillery attack killed three people and injured eight. Nine houses, a poultry farm, a dairy factory and a carpentry shop were destroyed in the attacks. The Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) claimed it was targeting weapons factories following a border clash in which a Palestinian and an Israeli died in an exchange of gunfire. The owner of the dairy is now calling for an international inquiry and demanding an explanation as to why his livelihood was destroyed in what is often described as Israel’s economic war.
The wounded at Khan Younis, after an Israeli missile-strike June, 2012. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
On the same day we arrived in Palestine, Israeli naval vessels opened fire on Palestinian fishing boats off the northern coast of Gaza. The fishermen fled, heading immediately back to land. There were no casualties or injuries that day but neither was there any fish caught and families again went hungry.
Two days later we met with the fishermen’s syndicate at Rafah to hear more about their situation. It was a humbling experience. We had decided to meet on the beach which provides a base for some of the 500 small boats that make up part of the 700 strong Palestinian fishing fleet.
One of the many small fishing boats
We had an appointment with Jamal Basala, the Vice President of the fishermen’s syndicate in Rafah, and Samir Alnahhal, project worker with the support group Palestinian Environmental Friends. As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by enthusiastic people – young and old – thankful for our visit and keen to tell us their story.
Jamal Basala pulled no punches: “The Israelis want to kill our independence by destroying our livelihood and making us dependent on them. We have the right to work and to feed our families.” He is clearly agitated and asks us to tell people back home that lack of food is not a humanitarian problem in Gaza. “It is a political problem and it needs a political solution. The international ommunity needs to get involved. We are being denied the right to make a living and support our families the way we have done for generations. We do not need charity, we can support ourselves. Just give us back our rights!”
From left to right: Eddie Whyte, Jamal Basala and Samir Alnahhal
Basala’s family have been fishing for generations. He started at the age of 15 and has two brothers and six sons all trying to make a living under very difficult circumstances. His anger is aroused by the injustice of the Israeli military and naval blockade which ensures that Gaza is sealed in on all four sides. Thousands of people in Gaza depend on the fishing industry to survive and yet they are denied access to the sea.
The Oslo Agreement defined the Palestinian fishing zone as twenty nautical miles from shore. The Israelis have unilaterally decided that this is no longer valid and the zone has been reduced several times to its present three miles. Basala is equally worried about the environmental effects of the naval blockade, pointing out that they are forced into over-fishing the breeding grounds. It is clearly not sustainable.
“Israeli gunboats are on patrol 24 hours a day seven days a week. We are under constant threat. The Israelis can open fire, destroy our nets and boats, or force us back to shore,” he says. “They even use helicopters.”
The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has been vocal in their criticism of the naval blockade. It is common practice for Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) to open fire on the fishermen, confiscate their nets and attack their boats. The IOF operate in violation of Israel’s legal obligations as an occupying power under international law and they operate in violation of the fishing community’s right to earn a living and support their families. There are regular reports of the same forces harassing Palestinian boats even within the three mile limit unilaterally imposed by Israel. Recently documentary maker and activist Harry Fear documented just such an incursion on film.
There are 4,400 fishermen providing a source of living for almost 70,000 people. Three quarters of the fishermen are affiliated to the syndicate. During an 18 month period in 2009 and 2010, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights documented 53 Israeli attacks on fishing boats leading to 2 dead, 7 injured and 42 arrested. Most of the arrested were subject to ill treatment. 17 fishing boats were confiscated and destroyed during the same period.
Mending nets on Rafah beach
Increased aggression from the Israeli Occupation Forces has led to 90% poverty rates among fishing families. Palestinian fishermen are risking their lives on a daily basis to support their families. It is all part of the Israeli economic war on Palestine. While it is being waged, the international community stands idly by. A collective punishment is being imposed on Palestinians in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.
Calls for an international boycott of Israel are gaining increasing momentum in Norway. As trade unionists we are committed to doing our part.
You can read more about the issues affecting Palestinian fishermen at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights