An Israeli warship off the coast of Gaza. (Photo: Civil Peace Service Gaza)
June 25, 2012
"Stand at the front of the boat…we are going to take you."
This is it. It’s not enough to break my camera and drown me in salty, chemical water; now they have to arrest me too.
Two weeks ago, I set sail on a human rights observation boat with a crewmate, journalist and a captain. I’ve done this tens of times before. I film, photograph and jot down attacks that the Israeli navy carries out on Palestinian fishermen. In the past it was easier for the fishermen to fish if they stayed within the three nautical miles that Israel restricts them to. They were originally guaranteed 20nm under the Oslo accords. It’s sardine season, but the sardines are six miles out, beyond the reach of the blockaded fishermen.
Back in the calmer days I would sometimes go for a swim out at sea- one time I was chased by a large fish, another I had to do an embarrassing emergency pee at sea. And I often throw up. Basically, it is highly glamorous work.
But fishermen are increasingly being attacked- even while fishing in the three-mile limit. In April alone, 12 fishermen were arrested at sea. They are forced to jump into the water to swim to their own abduction.
That morning, we were around 300m closer to shore than the 3-mile marker that the Israeli navy positioned at sea. Without warning, a navy warship steamed towards us in an enormous cloud of smoke. I saw a huge stream of water shooting out of the side and, in one move, shoved my camera into a plastic bag and into the boat’s 'camera hiding place’.
The Israeli gunboat was on our line, as if it were about to Titanic our asses. And our tiny boat’s engine choked along as fast as possible. Before I knew it, I was also choking on seawater sprayed directly into my nostrils and throat. The water was icy but it burned my nose. After the attack, I smelled like chemicals and have a cough that still lingers today.
I kept spitting out water, barely able so see and I pushed the captain of our boat to go faster.
"Wagifoo" the leading Israeli naval officer shouted ("stop," in Arabic)
We had done nothing wrong. Of course we were not stopping. Even if we had done wrong, we received no instructions, warning or indication that we would be attacked.
We told the boat to leave us- that we weren’t a threat, that we were within their three mile limit and on our way home anyway. They didn’t give a floating poo. They told us to shut up, while firing high-power water cannons in our faces.
So we tried to go back to Gaza. We turned against the wind so the water wouldn’t reach us but the navy kept cutting us off. We were left with only one route back to Gaza’s shore. They still managed to water cannon us another four times. They alternated between filling our faces with water to aiming their water cannon at our camera hiding place.
The boat started filling with water, getting heavier and slower. I was soon knee deep. Our on-board radio was not working- possibly because of all the water but I miraculously managed to send a few text messages to some friends as I took the full blow of the water cannon in the back. I couldn’t see my phone’s screen. I really felt like I was fighting for my survival. I was going to be pirated away to some cell and nobody would realize for hours.
The water was pouring down my face, I could feel every single drop coordinating to engulf my whole body. On the plus side, my shoes needed a good wash, so thanks for that. If you were the water cannon operator, please get in touch so I know where to send the fruit basket.
After around 15 minutes of this high-sea chase, our engine died.
This is it. I’m going to told to jump into the water, handcuffed and blindfolded as they try to arrest me. No engine; no getaway.
The Israeli warboat spokesperson said something in Hebrew-Arabic.
"Do you speak English?" I responded
"Shut up!" He responded, again in Arabic.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!"
Well, if arresting innocent fishermen doesn’t work out for you, I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas could do with an extra backing vocalist.
He told the captain to turn off the engine and stand at the front of the boat. When the engine shut off, I could hear the waves lapping at the side of our boat. It sounded like holidays.
"Do you speak English?" the Israeli officer said.
Um. Clearly need your ears need testing.
"Yes" I replied
"See that yellow marker?" he said pointing towards their marker that outlines the northern limit for Gaza’s fishermen, "You’re now 500m outside of where you’re supposed to be; you’re in a forbidden area."
Forget the fact that Gazans aren’t allowed within Gaza’s territorial waters and Israel has attacked fishermen while they are less than one mile out to sea. This last statement was just so ridiculous that I actually laughed. And then I slow-clapped.
"Of course we are! You chased us here! We don’t even want to be here but you forced us this way!"
My crewmate was shaking. I sat next to her and told her we were probably going to be arrested but the worst that will happen is that we’ll go to Ashdod and get deported. She told me she was shaking because she was so cold from the water. I got closer and tried to warm her arms.
"Stand at the front of the boat, all of you!" said the Officer Shut-Up
"And if we don’t?" I asked
"Are you going to arrest us?" I asked
"Yes, we are going to take you."
"All of us or just the foreigners?"
"Yes, all of you- stand at the front of the boat."
Of course we didn’t. You want me, come and get me, baby.
With no engine, I really saw no way out. If they want us, they’ve got us.
I hid the possessions that I needed to make it out of prison. I almost threw my expensive mobile phone overboard as I didn’t want them going through my contacts and looking at photographs of my family. I had my hand outstretched over the edge of the boat when I changed my mind; I’d have a split second in which to do so later if they boarded the boat.
Our captain is Palestinian. If he gets arrested, he might end up spending years in prison. So I said, "You can arrest us, but don’t take the captain."
"No; all of you."
Well okay then. Scooch over honeykins, so I can climb aboard.
Officer Shut-Up was radioing backwards and forwards with what seemed like a superior officer.
"Stand at the front of the boat," he commanded.
We ignored and I began bucketing out the lake of water in our boat with the captain. Something to keep me busy at least.
My crew member was worried about going to jail and wanted to spend more time in Gaza.
It seemed like a stalemate but we definitely had more to lose.
"Okay fine, I’ll come to the front of the boat if you take me and only me."
Don’t misunderstand this as heroics. I am just a die-hard bargainer. If you want $20 for a vase, you’re only getting 7.
Luckily for me (and my impulsiveness) they weren’t interested.
They were insisting we stand at the front of the boat; we were refusing to.
I eventually came out with one sentence that I really think saved us from arrest. Problem is I can’t tell you without sacrificing my anonymity which is necessary so that I can keep doing what I do.
Officer Shut-Up spoke down the radio for a minute and before I knew what was happening our boat –as well as my nostrils-was being refilled with water.
"You see?!" Shouted Officer Shut-Up?
Not really, salty, chemically water in my eyes, but alrighty then.
"I never want to see you here again!"
Dammit, I thought you might be into me. You spend half your time chasing me. There I was going to see if you’re free tonight. Walk on the buffer zone beach, maybe?
Armed forces, guns, and water cannon aimed at us, Officer Shut-Up shouts,
"This is your last warning; next time you won’t be so lucky, if you know what I mean. Do you understand?!"
I reply with "Does that mean-" but I’m cut off
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!" There was no way they were letting us sail out of here freely after spending so long harassing us. I really didn’t understand but wasn’t allowed to say anything but yes."
"Er, yes. No. What does-"
"You can leave."
We left and, in spite of Officer Shut-Up’s attempts to win my heart, I turned him down (it was totally me who broke it off, not him).
Although we were fortunate and didn’t experience the live shooting and injuries that the fishermen do, it still was a horrible morning. I was even too sad to make a joke about (water)cannon-on-Canon violence.
I really miss taking photographs and my new Canon SLR, which I spent a long time saving for. I really did begin to wish – not wholeheartedly- that we’d been arrested, so at least my loss would generate some awareness about the devastating effect of the siege on fishermen and the impunity of Israeli navy.
The unceremonious battering of Cameron, my camera, symbolizes the unaccountability of the Israeli Defense Forces in general.
Whether they batter a camera, a fisherman, or an entire livelihood, nobody asks for proof that the behavior of the Israeli navy is just. No other group even monitors first-hand what is happening on Gaza’s seas, and now, it will even be a challenge for us to continue.
You can contact WelshInGaza at: welshingaza (at) gmail.com