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Navy crew abuses and detains Palestinian fishermen, Rafah, March 2007

Muhammad al-Habil, Fisherman

Mahmoud al-Habil

I live in Rafah with my wife and our seven children. I have worked as a fisherman since 1980, and fishing is my sole source of livelihood. I do not have the money to buy a boat, so I work for others. For a full month's work, I earn about 1,000 shekels. There are times, though, that I only work one week a month, and then I make only 300 shekels. Out of fear of Israeli warships, we go to sea much less frequently now. The ships chase us and threaten our lives.

When we see an Israeli ship, we don't go to sea. Sometimes, we go, spread the nets quickly and return to shore so the navy doesn't see us. Every time we come back healthy and in one piece, we thank Allah that the navy crews didn't harm us.

Since 2005, I have been working on a motorboat owned by Muhammad Ibrahim al-Bardawil. He pays me a wage of about 40 shekels a day. If we don't go to sea, or go but don't catch anything, I don't get paid.

Two days ago [Monday, 19 March], around 2:30 A.M., I went to sea with Muhammad and another fisherman, Osama Abu Salima, to catch sardines. We sailed west for less than three nautical miles [5.5 kilometers] from the coast. We were at least two kilometers from the Egyptian border.

We threw out the nets to catch sardines. About half an hour later, we pulled the nets in, removed the fish, and threw the nets back into the water. We worked like that until about six in the morning, when an Israeli warship approached us. In the area were at least thirteen fishing boats. The ship stopped ten meters from our boat. One of the sailors called out on the loudspeaker, "Where is the captain?" Muhammad replied, "I am the captain." The sailor ordered him to take my and Osama's fisherman's certificate, undress, and swim to the Israeli boat. When Muhammad got to the ship and toward the deck, three sailors grabbed him and threw him onto the deck. They bound his hands and blindfolded him and then took him somewhere. We didn't see him again [until the end of the incident].

Then one of the soldiers ordered Osama and me to undress and stand on the boat without moving. We did what he said, and stood there exposed to the wind and the salt water without moving. We were surrounded by sailors standing on the deck with their weapons aimed at us. They made us stand like that from six o'clock to four in the afternoon. Every once in a while, they let us sit and rest.

Then, at around four in the afternoon, the sailors ordered us to drive the boat westward, following the Israeli ship. We sailed about fifteen miles [27 kilometers]. Then one of the crew ordered us to stop. We stopped. The sailor ordered us to get into the water and swim to a rubber naval raft that was next to the warship, about five meters from our boat. I went first. After I got into the raft, the sailor ordered me to jump back into the water and swim to the warship that was about ten meters from the raft. I swan there, and when I got onto the ship, two sailors grabbed me. They bound my hands behind me, blindfolded me, and threw me onto the deck. Then one of them took me to another place on the deck and tied my hands to a pipe. He ordered me to sit with my back against the pipe.

From about 4:30-10:00 P.M., I sat on the deck of the ship. There were other fishermen on the deck and I heard their voices. We sat there in our underwear. It was very cold, we were exposed to the wind and water that sprayed from the sea, and we were not given anything to eat or drink. The only thing I received to cover me was a thin blanket that one of the sailors put on my back. I was shaking from the cold. It felt as if the cold had penetrated my bones and was tearing them apart. My back really hurt from leaning against the pipe to which I was tied.

Around 11:00 at night, a sailor came and untied my hands. He removed the blindfold and told me to get up. Then he told me to jump into the water and swim to the raft. When I got to the raft, the sailor told me to get back into the water and swim to my boat, which was about fifteen meters from the warship. Then Osama and Muhammad got off the ship and swam to our boat.

We returned to shore. It was a very long day, twenty-three hours with no money to show for it, only a loss of 200 shekels for gas. We were exhausted and shattered. All we want is to live in dignity and not have to beg for handouts.

Muhammad Hassan Isma'il al-Habil, 44, married with seven children, is a fisherman and a resident of Rafah. His testimony was given to Muhammad Sabah, on the Rafah coast, on 21 March 2007.