Saturday 6th September, it was just 09:30 and we were only 4 miles out to sea, having barely left Gaza’s coastline behind, when the gunboat’s heavy machine gun opened up, spraying the wake around our hull with bullets.
There was no surprise. We’d just spent the previous 10 minutes watching as this Israeli gunboat harried another vessel from our fishing fleet. It would accelerate into an attack run, only to veer off at the last moment before collision, battering the fishing boat with its wake. It would pull alongside screeching threats and commands to stop over the megaphone. Throughout, its machine barked menacingly, peppering the air and water around the boat with bullets.
When our turn came, our skipper just stuck steadfast to his course, neither slowing down nor speeding up. The crew continues preparing the nets, only pausing briefly to consider the crack of the machine gun and the trajectory of the bullets that were coming their way. This morning they were going to fish.
They had to fish. How could they stop and turn back now? Why would they stop when they hadn’t even reached the so-called ‘6 mile limit’ (not some agreed perimeter, not some internationally recognized boundary, indeed not even a border which had ever been officially declared or communicated to them, but just an arbitrary and elastic space delineated with the threat of gunfire). And of course this gunboat was probably just toying with them as others like it had done so often before. These shots were most likely simply warning shots. Not like those which hospitalized 2 fishermen 3 days ago. Not like those that killed 14 of their colleagues in the last few years. Probably.
As expected, the gunboat got bored, perhaps even embarrassed with its failure to force some sort of response. It withdrew and began slowly patrolling slowly back and forth, as if nothing had happened. This respite was welcome but brief. In the early afternoon another gunboat appeared on the horizon, heading in our direction at full speed. It tore in and out of our fleet again and again, weaving between our boats as if flags in a slalom ski course. A few bursts from its machine gun and it left just as promptly as it appeared.
Before long and the light began to fade. All in our fleet were heading back to Gaza City, dragging their nets for the last time that day. We waited eagerly in anticipation of Iftar and the time when we could break our fast. Two of the men had already begun preparing the Ramadan supper, frying fish and prawns from that day’s catch. We gazed out across the sea, calculating how long it would be before the low sun finally met the horizon.
Suddenly another gunboat appeared with a definite menace apparent in its speed and course. Its cannon roared twice, the shells narrowly missing one of the leading boats, exploding in the water. Tracer bullets then pierced the dim light streaking across the sky just as the gunboat swerved again and went for another target. Its cannon roared a third time, and we tried to film, but the light was now so dim and the boat far away. But it mattered not. The fishermen insisted we stop, for the Ramadan supper was ready and their course was already set.