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Choking the life out of Gaza

This is turning out to be a very bad week in Gaza. First there was total closure of all border crossings into the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military, which stopped fuel and humanitarian aid entering the Strip. The lack of fuel caused massive power cuts across Gaza, ensuring widespread misery, and forcing already overstretched emergency medical services back to the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the United Nations is struggling to distribute its quota of food aid rations to the poorest refugee families across the Strip, because the UN warehouses are now almost empty. Then, on 18 November, the Israeli military arrested 15 Palestinian fisherpeople who were out at sea accompanied by three international human rights observers from the Free Gaza Movement (FGM).

The fisherpeople and the international observers accompanying them were on board three vessels, fishing about seven miles out to sea when they were pursued by Israeli gunboats. The gunboats surrounded the fishing vessels, ordered the Palestinians to strip down to their underwear, and then arrested all those aboard. All 18 were taken into custody in Israel, and the three vessels confiscated. The 15 Palestinians were released from Israeli detention on 19 November, but the three internationals - Andrew Muncie from Scotland, Darlene Wallach from the US, and Vittorio Arrigoni from Italy - are now apparently in the process of being deported against their will.

Fishing is one of Gaza’s most traditional industries, and there are some 3,500 fisherpeople living across the Strip. Between them they support an entire industry of thousands of other workers - boat builders, fishing net weavers, fishmongers, drivers, and engineers, and their extended families.

The Israeli military has been harassing the fisherpeople since the beginning of the Second Intifada back in 2000, and this harassment has steadily increased over the last few years. Under international law the Palestinians are allowed to fish at least 12 miles from the Gaza coastline - but Israel has unilaterally imposed a six-mile limit, and uses high-speed gunboats, plus live ammunition and water canons, to force the fishing boats back to shore. A decade ago, the Gaza fisherpeople were hauling around 3,000 tons of fish a year. Now they haul less than 500 tons annually. The industry is being ruined.

I went out with a group of Gazan fisherpeople a couple of weeks ago, and witnessed for myself what they have to go through in order to try and earn a living. Our captain, Tariq, stayed within the six-mile Israeli limit, but even then we were pursued by an Israeli gunboat that circled us at high speed, and fired live ammunition towards us. We were part of a fleet of 10 vessels – and I watched in horrified fascination as other crews who tried to fish further out to sea were relentlessly water-cannoned by a huge Israeli gunboat. Fisherpeople and international observers have both been injured by these high-speed water cannons, which shatter cabin windows and make the decks lethally slippery. The fisherpeople say they are worried the water cannons may also contain chemicals which could contaminate the fish.

Several of the men on board told me they had previously been arrested by the Israeli military – who they said sometimes forced them to put their ID documents in their mouths like dogs, jump into the sea and swim to the gunboats. They were angry and frustrated – and felt almost powerless. ‘We need internationals to come to sea with us,’ they told me. ‘We need you people to see what is happening to us every day – and we need the Israelis to see that you are with us.’

But now - with the almost certain deportation of Andrew, Vittorio and Darlene - the stakes have just got higher for the handful of international observers who remain inside Gaza. The other, sickening, twist to this story is that the 15 fisherpeople who were released from Israeli detention say they were immediately re-detained by Hamas police when they reached the Gaza border. They say the police interrogated them for more than nine hours, before letting them finally go home. Israel is responsible for a hell of a lot of the misery and human rights violations in the Gaza Strip: but Hamas is also harassing, interrogating and mistreating civilians. Between them, Israel and Hamas are choking the life out of the people trapped inside Gaza.

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