Wednesday 22nd October, 2008 – off the coast of the Gaza Strip.
Three international human rights observers (HRO’s) accompanied three Palestinian fishing vessels from the port of Gaza City, as they trawled offshore in Palestinian territorial waters.
At about 08:30 (approximately 8 nautical miles from the coast) a Palestinian fishing boat with an international HRO on-board was intercepted by an Israeli gunboat. Despite the international presence, made clear via VHF radio following a request by the Palestinian captain, the Israeli gunboat started to fire its machine guns very close to the fishing boat. This of course constitutes a breach of the current ceasefire agreement. Some of the bullets were hitting the water, not further than three metres from the bow or the stern. There was at least one occasion where an explosion was heard behind the fishing boat, probably from some kind of charge thrown to damage the nets. After being attacked for several minutes the fishing boat stopped. The Israeli captain shouted orders or threats to the fishermen, while the machine guns were pointing at the boat and finally the fishing boat turned and began to sail towards the coast.
At the same time, about ten nautical miles from the coast, another Palestinian fishing boat carrying a second international HRO was experiencing a similar assault. Shots were being fired extremely close to the fishing boat, just two metres or less from the boat itself. The attack continued until 10:20. The navy fired different types of weapons including a cannon. They shot several times in an attempt to destroy the net and its metal cables. Finally, the fishermen retrieved their net from the water earlier than they would have otherwise done.
Meanwhile, the first boat changed its course again, sailing away from the coast and trying to approach a fellow Palestinian fishing boat which was being attacked by another Israeli gunboat (numbered 912). The initial gunboat repeated its attack, but stopped after a while and just followed. All four boats were heading in a southerly direction, more or less parallel to the coast. Later at about 10:30, gunboat “912” attacked the fishing boat with shots, again fired very close to its stern, forcing the fishermen to retrieve their nets and head towards shore. For the next hour or more, the fishermen attempted to drop their nets again at least twice, but were prevented from doing so by the shooting from the Israeli gunboat. They managed to do so only when they were even closer to shore (about 5.5 nautical miles).
From about 11:00 to 11:30 a Palestinian fishing vessel carrying a third international HRO was harassed in a very similar fashion by an Israeli gunboat marked “832”, approximately five nautical miles off the coast of northern Gaza. At about 11:20, in a different location, the boat accompanied by the second HRO suffered another attack, and yet another at 12:30.
At 13:00 the naval gunboat “832” withdrew from the area where the boat with the third HRO was trawling (about nine nautical miles offshore) and was replaced by yet another gunboat, this time marked “840”. This fishing boat then experienced a two-hour long onslaught which lasted until nearly 15:00. This included a volley of shells fired from the cannon mounted on the foredeck of the gunboat from 14:15 to 14:20 as it advanced on the fishing boat. The flash from the cannon was observed by the HRO onboard. Gunboat “840” proceeded to pursue the fishing vessel as it headed north-west, firing intermittently and at one point deploying an explosive device in the water. When the engine on the fishing boat failed, “840” circled it repeatedly until the fishermen managed to complete their repairs, then opened fire once more as soon as it got underway. This fishing vessel stayed determinedly on its chosen course until it reached a distance of twelve nautical miles offshore.
In the afternoon, the first fishing boat was again in the north, off the shore of Gaza, when the HRO on-board noticed an Israeli gunboat harassing a fleet of six Palestinian fishing boats. When the observer’s boat went south and approached the fleet, it was also attacked with a barrage of shots across its path. However, it continued without changing its course. Later in the afternoon, about seven nautical miles from the coast, the attacks on the second boat continued every hour, until 16:30. Most of these attacks were carried out by gunboat “912”.
Finally in the evening, after sunset at about 17:30, the HRO on the first boat noticed something like a red flare in the sky. A few minutes later a spotlight was seen for some seconds. Then at about 17:40 an Israeli gunboat with no navigation lights (in clear violation of international maritime protocol), suddenly approached the fishing boat and started to shoot over it (also using tracer bullets). Then the Israeli gunboat used its spotlight, obviously noticing the international human rights observer wearing a fluorescent vest, but despite this began to circle the Palestinian fishing boat, creating waves which destabilised it, making it difficult for the fishermen to pull in their nets. Although it was obvious that the fishermen were preparing to leave, the Israeli gunboat continued to shoot extremely close, in front of the bow, over the roof and particularly behind the stern of the fishing boat putting in risk the life of the fishermen that were working in the immediate vicinity. The attack finally ended only after the nets were pulled in and the fishing boat started to sail full speed towards the port of Gaza.
The HRO on the second boat reported seeing a number of fishing boats come under attack during the day, but none more so than the one he was accompanying. It is probably no small coincidence that this was the same boat which was severely damaged by the Israeli navy a few weeks ago when it was purposefully rammed by a gunboat. By the end of the day this HRO had counted nineteen assaults on his vessel alone, three of which came within a metre of the boat – closer than ever before. This included three incidents of cannon fire, also very close to the boat he was on. He noticed that the Israeli commander received orders by phone prior to the closest shooting as if there was a new, more aggressive strategy against the Palestinian fisherman, despite the international presence. It is important to see if this is really a new strategy, or just a reflection of the soldiers’ mood on this particular day. However, shooting so many times and in such close proximity to the boats could easily have resulted in one of them sustaining a direct hit. Fortunately, at the end of the day no-one was injured, no boats were damaged and the fishermen had a decent catch.