I sat at the front of the fishing boat, one of six that went out this morning. They are old wooden boats, outfitted with bits and pieces of mechanical parts, rope twisted together and fishing nets. Israel has refused to let Palestinians fish in their own waters for the past 15 months. Even before that, they restricted Palestinian fishermen to around 6 miles. Now, they shoot holes in the boats and in the fishermen if they are caught farther out than about a kilometer.
So today, 19 of us were going along to break a different kind of siege… the denial of Palestinian rights to fish, something every other country bordering the Mediterranean has. Only Palestinians are told they can’t fish for their livelihood, provide for their families and contribute to their own economy. We decided that, since we sailed into Gaza (one fisherman told us we were the first boats to come into the port in 35 years; they have been forced to buy everything from Israel, who charges them exhorbitant fees to buy their own fish back).
Twenty of us arrived at the port about 4:30, sleepy and stumbling about amid the dozens of security men standing there guarding us. We were told we’d have to wait, because the fishermen were afraid to go out to sea with us, uncertain whether they would be shot at or worse. Finally, four hours later, six boats showed up, and we boarded, two or three to a boat. The port is small but perfectly adequate for these boats plus our own two that were on the dock front to back. The media climbed into one of them, escorting us out.
All the Palestinians said they wanted to go our past the six mile limit. They were as eager as we were to test the noose hanging around their necks. At 8 miles, three Israeli patrol boats showed up, buzzing up and down in front of us, a man on a machine gun at the back of each one. The boat I was accompanying was owned by six cousins, the youngest 15, and they were, at first, nervous when the patrol boats showed up. I’m sure the Israelis were having a coronary wondering what to do with us, but they left us alone. I’m sure their media will now say they ‘escorted us’ out to sea, but that would be a lie.
Six hours later, the men had caught more fish in their nets than they had in four years. They were ecstatic, and I got to watch them haul the tons of fish up and over the back of the boat, sort them, water them down, they pick out the best 8 inch shrimp to cook for my friend, Moussa, and me. By the time we pulled back into port twelve hours later, my skin was bright pink from the sun, they were overjoyed with their catch, and the boats that went out would provide an income for over 16 families for a month.
“Will you come tomorrow? Will you come and fish again?” And, of course, we can’t. They had challenged Israel’s horrible siege on them, and, today, they won. But without us, will the Israeli come back tomorrow and get even?
We can hope that these men will be able to go out once more and do what generations of men have done… go fishing.