By George Galloway and By Yvonne Ridley
A convoy of more than 110 vehicles has snaked its way out of London for Gaza to deliver more than £1m worth of aid, including ambulances and a fire engine.
Please visit http://www.vivapalestina.org/
For the Fishermen of Gaza
By Yvonne Ridley
As the sun rose over the Tarifa ferry terminal in Southern Spain this morning the view was quite spectacular as row after row of vehicles from the Viva Palestina convoy lined up for the next leg of our mercy mission to Gaza.
But what really caught my eye this time was a boat which was being towed behind one of the vehicles.
People often forget that Gaza is a coastal strip which sits on the edge of the Mediterranean rim, and at one time the sea provided a decent living for the local fishermen.
The Israeli Navy has, with almost casual regularity, tried to ram, sink or scuttle the boats belonging to20the fishermen of Gaza.
We know this for a fact because evidence has been provided by international peace activists who have gone out fishing with the men of Gaza to show their solidarity with them.
The situation for the Palestinian fishermen is worse now than it was when I was on board the first boat in more than 40 years which sailed in to The Strip to break the Israeli blockade last August.
I am now told the coast has become a ‘no go’ zone.
On Saturday February 14th – Valentine’s Day, as our convoy pulled out of central London, 23 year-old Rafiq abu Reala was shot by Israeli naval forces whilst fishing in Gazan territorial waters, approximately two nautical miles out from the port of Gaza city. He was in a simple fishing vessel, not much larger than a rowing boat, with a small outboard engine, known locally as a ‘hassaka’.
According to the report I received this morning, Rafiq, his brother Rajab and another friend were following the course of a shoal of fish.
A group of five more hassakas were out at the time, about a kilometre to the west of Rafiq’s boat, further out to sea. An Israeli naval gunboat approached the area and began shooting at the other hassakas, which quickly changed course and headed east, back towards shore. Suddenly Rafiq realised the gunboat was bearing down on their hassaka.
As he recounted the events of that day, Rafiq likened the predatory nature of the naval vessel to that of a wolf. It circled their fishing boat and began shooting heavy ammunition in their direction. The three terrified fishermen threw themselves down flat in the bottom of their boat.
The Israeli captain ordered them via megaphone to raise their nets and leave the area. At this point the gunboat was less then 20 metres from Rafiq’s hassaka.
The second time the gunboat came around no attempt was made to communicate with the fishermen. Rafiq was desperately pulling in the nets with his back facing the gunboat. An M-16 assault rifle was fired hitting him twice with explosive ‘dum-dum’ bullets, which peppered his back with shrapnel from the bullets themselves.
The force of the shots threw him in the water, plunging him down about six or seven metres below the surface.
Rajab asked their friend to contr ol the boat while he rescued Rafiq. Being a strong swimmer, he dived in after Rafiq and pulled him out of the water into the hassaka. However, Rafiq was unconscious by this time.
The fishermen in this vessel had a mobile phone and made an emergency call. The stricken hassaka reached port at the same time as the ambulance arrived and Rafiq was taken to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza city in a serious condition.
Doctors say metal shards are embedded in Rafiq’s back and the shrapnel also penetrated his lungs.
It could take Rafiq months to fully recover yet he has a family to support. He married just six months ago and his wife is now expecting their first baby. After five years of working as a fisherman, he has experienced Israeli naval forces firing warning shots on many occasions but this was the first time he has been directly targeted.
However, Rajab survived being shot in the chest by the Israeli navy two and a half years ago.
The total of Gazan fishermen killed by the Israeli navy since 2000 is now 14. Rafi q described the level shooting on Saturday like an open war.
Palestinian fishermen have come under daily assaults from Israeli gunboats since Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire which supposedly came into force on 18th January.
Reports of heavy gunfire and even missile fire are now becoming the ‘norm’. Rafiq is the third Gazan fisherman to be shot by the Israeli navy during this non-existant ceasefire. On 26th January, Alaa al-Habil was shot in the lower leg whilst trawling less than one nautical mile off the coast of Gaza. On 6th February, Mahmoud al-Nadar was shot in both legs whilst 1.5 nautical miles off the coast of Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip.
Nowadays it is unthinkable for fishermen to venture beyond three nautical miles from the Gazan coast, with many vessels staying just metres from the beach. However, Gazan territorial waters reach 12 nautical miles offshore – indeed, the Oslo Accords grant a fishing zone extending as far as 20 nautical miles.
Israel is attempting to create arbitrary ‘no-go’ zones in the sea – enforced solely by the gun. They might succeed if it weren’t for the resilience of the fishermen. All this is akin to what is happening on land. The Israeli Occupation Force has declared an area of Palestinian land a kilometre in from the Green Line a ‘closed military zone’, affecting an audaci ous land grab which threatens to swallow a vast swathe of rich agricultural land all the way along the eastern length of the Gaza strip.
Members of ISM Gaza Strip accompanying Palestinian fishermen on a regular basis and witnessed countless acts of Israeli military aggression against them whilst in Gazan territorial waters, despite a six-month ceasefire agreement holding at the time.
While Viva Palestina has only one boat to give to the fishermen of Gaza on this occasion, I wold urge anyone reading this column to think about these mediterranean fishermen and send more boats out to them so they can continue their honest trade.
And as for Gordon brown who is sending out his own convoy, may be the Royal Nav y might like to give some protection to the Gaza fishermen against the Israeli Navy I recently called the Pirates of the Mediterranean because of their lawless, criminal behaviour.
And, as I leave you with that thought, Viva Palestina is now about to board the ferry at Tarifa for Morocco where our North African journey begins its mission: A Lifeline to Gaza.
* Yvonne Ridley is on board Viva Palestina with award-winning film-maker Hassan al Banna Ghani where the two are making a documentary of the historic journey to Gaza.