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From the field

Israeli navy vessel fires at Gaza fishermen, killing one as his boat fled

Muhammad Baker. photo courtesy of the familyAt about 8:30 A.M. on Monday, 15 May 2017, soldiers from an Israeli navy vessel shot and killed Muhammad Baker, 25, a married father of two froma-Shati Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. The soldiers opened fire while their vessel was pursuing Baker’s fishing boat. B'Tselem’s investigation found that at the time of the shooting, Baker and his relatives were fishing three nautical miles off the coast, within the zone in which the military permits Gazans to fish. They began to flee after the navy vessel opened fire at them.

That morning, at about 6:00 A.M., two flatboard fishing boats sailed out of Gaza port, each carrying four fishermen. The boats sailed northwest toward the area opposite Beit Lahiya and stopped about three nautical miles off the coast, approximately one kilometer from the northern border of the zone in which Israel permits fishing. The fishermen cast their rods. At about 8:20 A.M., they saw two Israeli navy boats approaching them from the north. One vessel stopped at the border of the zone and the other continued at high-speed toward the fishermen. The soldiers on board opened fire at the fishing boat, shooting rubber-coated and live bullets. The fishing boats fled south and the navy vessel pursued them. When the fishing boats reached the coast of Jabalya, the navy vessel came up to 10-20 meters from one of them. The soldiers shouted at the fishermen to stop and fired at them. 

Fadi Baker, 32, a married father of three from a-Shati R.C., recounted what happened next in a testimony he gave to B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 22 May 2017: 

Suddenly I heard my brother Muhammad, who was next to the motor, saying he’d been hit. I thought he’d been hit by a rubber bullet, but he said that his chest really hurt. Our boat stopped because a bullet hit the motor.

I held my brother and saw that he’d been shot in the chest, close to the heart. The soldiers shouted out to us to stand at the front of the boat. We told them that Muhammad had been hit and lifted him up for them to see. When the soldiers saw him, they sailed over and we lifted Muhammad up and handed him over to them. Then the navy boat headed off toward Ashdod port. It was obvious that Muhammad was badly injured.

We stayed put because the motor wasn’t working. We signaled with a shirt to ‘Omar, who was nearby. He sailed over,  tied our boat to his and towed us to Gaza port. We came home without my brother Muhammad, who had set out with us in the morning to work and make a living for himself and his family.

Edited footage of the incident published by the Al-Quds News Agency

At the time of the shooting, ‘Omar Baker, 48, a fisherman and married father of six from a-Shati R.C., was on the second fishing boat, about a kilometer away from the first. 

In a testimony he gave to B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 23 May 2017, he recalled:

I saw the navy vessel and the soldiers shooting at the other fishing boat, which was alongside them. A few minutes later, the fishing boat stopped and then the navy vessel sailed away. I saw one of the fishermen waving a shirt. I immediately sailed up to them. I was less than a kilometer away.

When I got close, I saw ‘Umran Baker shouting and hitting his face. He told me that the soldiers had shot his brother and had taken him with them. I saw that the boat’s motor had been damaged. I immediately towed the boat toward the port.

After they disembarked, Muhammad’s two brothers and cousin, who had been on the boat with him, were interrogated for several hours by the Hamas Marine Police. After their release, they learned that Muhammad had been taken to Barzilai Hospital in Israel. The father received a permit to enter Israel to see his injured son, but by the time he reached the hospital, Muhammad had passed away.

In his testimony, ‘Omar Baker described the feelings of fishermen in Gaza:

As fishermen, we pay for working at sea with our lives. When we set out we feel as if we’re entering a firing zone, because the Israeli navy chases us and shoots at us. They try to stop us from fishing by firing live bullets at us, arresting us and damaging our boats. Fishing has become a very difficult job, because the Israeli navy chases us even within the zone in which we are allowed to fish.

B'Tselem’s investigation indicates that the soldiers who fired at the fishing boat and killed Muhammad Baker acted without justification. The boat was within the zone where the military permits fishing and, in any case, did not pose a threat to the force. Shooting at Palestinians sailing at sea to make a living is unjustified and unlawful, yet the Israeli military does so as a matter of routine off the coast of Gaza. This is compounded by the numerous restrictions that Israel imposes on the fishing sector in Gaza – limiting the permitted fishing zone, prohibiting the import of vital materials, arrests, and restricting the export and marketing of fish. The result is that fishing has been virtually eliminated as a sector in the Gazan economy. According to statistics forwarded to B'Tselem by the Fishing Department in the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza, in 2016 the Israeli navy military arrested 113 fishermen, shot and injured 10 fishermen, and confiscated 38 motorized flatboard boats and eight boats without motors. That year, direct damage caused by confiscating or shooting at fishing boats and equipment amounted to approximately half a million dollars.

As long as Israel maintains this policy, innocent fishermen will sadly continue to risk their lives in an attempt to make a living for their families. Some will return safely. Others will be arrested, injured or killed. No one in Israel will be held accountable for the attacks, and the usual whitewashing formalities will be applied to these ongoing acts of violence.

* On 30 June 2017, media reports stated that the case was under review by a military prosecutor.