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ISM Gaza: Israeli navy shoots cables on Palestinian fishing boat

On 15th November, 2008, seven human rights observers accompanied four Palestinian trawling vessels from the port of Gaza City as they fished in Palestinian territorial waters. At approximately 09:00 an Israeli naval gunboat marked ‘833’ approached one of the fishing vessels and proceeded to circle it. A soldier, possibly the commander of the gunboat, began ordering the fishermen via megaphone to go south. The fishing boat was already heading in a south-westerly direction so this demand seemed arbitrary. Gunboat ‘833’ then fired live ammunition a metre from the stern of the fishing vessel. At 09:20 gunboat ‘833’ left the area but was replaced by another Israeli naval gunboat, this time marked ‘840’.

At the same time, another trawler accompanied by two ISM volunteers was still heading out to sea. At about 09:30 it was approached by an Israeli naval gunboat which fired warning shots in its general direction. By approximately 10:00 the fishing boat was about nine nautical miles offshore when it was attacked by an Israeli naval ship firing a water cannon in a 25 minute-long barrage. The VHF radio onboard the vessel was damaged as were the window frames. Before the water cannon assault, the fishermen had signalled to the soldiers their intention to change course but the Israelis attacked them anyway. After the assault, the naval ship blasted a football-style chant on its foghorn in a sarcastic fashion. The fishing boat then headed towards shore until it was approximately three nautical miles from the coast, resulting in a poor catch this day.

Meanwhile, gunboat ‘840’ had been trailing the first fishing vessel as it headed further out to sea. Then, at about 10:30 it closed in on the port quarter of the fishing boat and fired repeatedly at the stern, seeming to aim at the metal cables towing the net. Several of the fishermen and an ISM volunteer were at the stern signalling and shouting to the gunboat that they were unarmed. The bullets were striking so close to the fishing vessel that people on-board were being sprayed by seawater. It was a miracle no-one was injured. This attack lasted until about 11:00.

After a quiet afternoon, the gunboat marked ‘833’ which had opened fire on this fishing vessel earlier in the morning, re-appeared and harassed the fishing boat shortly after 16:00 until some time after 16:30. An ISM volunteer accompanied one of the fishermen to the very stern of the vessel where the navy was targeting its shooting at the metal trawling cables. After several rounds of shooting they actually hit one of the cables in the pair, then the other. There were several frenzied minutes when the fishermen battled desperately to pull in the cables by hand and secure them. The situation was impacted by the rough sea conditions at the time. An ISM volunteer contacted the navy via VHF radio to inform them that they had hit the boat’s equipment and the vessel was now in distress. Despite the navy regularly targeting the cables, they’ve only been hit once before on this particular vessel and that was five years ago.

The gunboat then began ordering the fishing boat to go west, which ironically meant going further out to sea. The fishermen shouted back their intention to go to shore, in fact to port, but the confusing demand persisted. The captain of the fishing vessel refused to be intimidated and began making way on his chosen course, whilst a fishermen and an ISM volunteer signaled clearly their intended direction. The fishing captain suspected that the gunboat commander was attempting to send them towards the naval ship bearing the water cannon, or possibly to a location where they would have been arrested. Fortunately the fishing boat managed to proceed safely to port as dark fell.