Pat Fitzgerald is a Sinn Fein Councillor at Waterford County Council and John Hearne is a Sinn Fein Councillor at Waterford City Council. Both men were crew members on the Irish Ship to Gaza MV Saoirse,with Pat as the Ship’s Engineer. They both spent a week in Givon prison, in Israel, after their boat was captured in route to Gaza and boarded by the IOF Navy in 2011. Both men are professional Trawler fishermen in Ireland and members of the recent Irish Friends of Palestine Delegation to Gaza November 2012. As part of our Irish Delegation they held meetings and tours with Gaza fishermen and with Mahfouz Kabariti of the Gaza Fishermen Association. The Delegation made a presentation of engraved Derry Crystal to Mr. Kabariti and the Fisherman’s Association on behalf of Irish Friends of Palestine members who were part of the Irish Ship to Gaza Freedom Flotilla II Campaign. A personal report from Pat Fitzgerald is submitted below. For a full list of upcoming reports about our recent delegation go HERE
A chairde, I consider myself honoured to have been part of the delegation that visited Gaza in early November 2012 just days after a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government. The ceasefire agreement ended the latest 8 day round of aggression by Israel on the helpless, imprisoned, and oppressed population of Gaza during which they suffered aerial bombardment, shelling and the threat of invasion from thousands of Israeli troops amassed along the border of the enclave.
The trip was organized by the Irish Friends of Palestine. During the visit, which lasted six days, our delegation met with victims and relatives of victims killed and injured in the conflict, we also met with voluntary groups, governing officials, the United Nations envoy to Gaza, hospital staff, school teachers, pupils and the Fishermen’s Association of Gaza.
As I come from an area in Co. Waterford which is steeped in a fishing / nautical tradition and having previously worked in the marine sector for almost twenty years, I was particularly interested in the plight of the fishermen of Gaza. Mr. Mahfouz Kabariti of the Gaza fisherman’s association had kindly offered the delegation an invitation to meet with them and on the fourth day of our visit we arrived at the Fisherman’s co-op of the Port of Gaza.
The Co-op building had suffered severe damage the previous week during an Israeli F-16 bombing raid when the building next door which had housed the fishermen and harbour workers canteen was totally demolished. However despite their obvious problems, the leaders of the fishermen welcomed us with open arms and invited us into the building and lead us up a badly damaged concrete stair case to the co-op conference room. In this room overlooking the port of Gaza which had cracked walls and twisted window frames and broken glass swept into one corner, we listened to the concerns of the fishermen.
Just to give you some back round information. In 2005 Israel illegally reduced the twenty nautical mile limit which was established under the Oslo Accord to ten nautical miles. In June 2006, Israel imposed a total ban on fishing. The ban lasted for months. When the fishery reopened fishermen were permitted to fish within a six nautical mile limit only. The limit was further reduced to three miles in 2007. However, since 2009 Israeli forces have continued to attack Palestinian fishermen even within the three miles. After the ceasefire negotiated in late November 2012, the Israelis have relaxed the limit to six miles but as the fishermen need to target migratory fish species in deep water, this is only a slight improvement on the three mile limit.
Palestinians are pushing for a complete rollback to the twenty mile limit of the Oslo Accord. On an almost daily basis, fishermen are subject to being shot at, which results in deaths and injuries among crew. Their vessels are often attacked with powerful water cannon, arrested, unnecessarily inspected, humiliated, and their boats and fishing equipment are often confiscated.
The Port of Gaza itself is a large well built port. It’s sheltered by two long breakwaters about a kilometre apart extending from the shore and almost enclosing a deep water basin. It has a narrow entrance on the northern side. The fishing fleet consists of approximately 500 vessels, 400 of which are small one man vessels. A further fifty are the slightly larger sardine type vessels, crewed by one sometimes two men. There is about twenty 14-16 metre vessels, these are sturdy wooden hulled boats with transom sterns and a large flared prow.
These boats are used for trawling and seine netting. There is a further ten larger vessels which use the longing lining method, although these have not been to sea for years as they are designed for the deeper offshore waters of the Mediterranean. The vessels looked to be in a seaworthy condition despite an almost six year trade blockade of the Gaza strip enforced by the Israeli military. The blockade which is now entering its sixth year has created huge problems for fishermen, who along with all the other problems they face, also have to endure a shortage of fuel and spare parts, even paint, antifouling and rope is in short supply. The vessels are privately owned and crewed from a pool of 3’700 registered unionised fishermen. The crews are paid using a percentage or what we term as ‘share of the catch’ similar to the way Irish fishermen operate.
Palestine is a land which also has a long maritime tradition. Fifty years ago the Palestinian fishing fleet worked all over the eastern Mediterranean. Fish made up an important part of the diet of the Palestinian people. With their fishing fleet now hemmed into a sea area six miles wide and forty miles long the fishermen themselves are now reduced to just fishing to put what little fish they catch on their own family tables.
After the meeting as we were leaving the harbour area, I was approached by an old fisherman. He told me his son Ammar Mohamed Baker had been arrested while at sea fishing the previous week. The Israeli military had boarded his vessel and ordered the skipper to bring the boat and crew to Israeli port of Ashdod. Ammar was the family’s sole breadwinner and they had not heard from the Israeli authorities as to when he would be released or indeed why he had been arrested. Since my return home I have been in contact with the Israeli Embassy in Dublin on a number of occasions and I have not yet received any information from them as to why this man was arrested and detained. This type of oppression is a common enough occurrence for Palestinian fishermen and to the best of my knowledge this man is still in prison.
My good friend and colleague Waterford City Councillor John Hearne is a man who has accompanied me on the recent Irish Friends of Palestine Delegation to Gaza and also two previous failed attempts to enter Gaza by sea as part last years Flotilla. John also has many years experience of fishing here in Ireland and in Australia. It was John who advised me to look at the Palestinian fisherman’s experience with their Israeli masters and compare it to our own.