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Israeli soldiers attack Palestinian fishermen


In addition to plundering Spanish ships, the Elizabethan sea dogs used to engage in what today would be termed state-sponsored terrorism. In Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns, Janice Thomson says that sea dogs such as Francis Drake extorted large ransoms from Spanish colonial cities by wielding the threat to destroy them if they failed to pay up.

The sea dogs were virtually indistinguishable from other pirates, except they were acting under the auspices of the crown. The queen orchestrated their so-called private campaigns, and it was in large part due to these state-sanctioned ravages that, by the late 16th century, England gained navel superiority over Spain.

One would have thought that after 400 years this anachronistic practice of employing ships to terrorize a population would have disappeared. But even today pirates continue to sail the seas.

In Palestinian waters off the Gaza Strip coast, Israeli soldiers in large military boats harass fishermen far away from CNN cameras and the public’s eye. For years, soldiers have been shooting arbitrarily at Palestinian fishermen, trashing their property and at times injuring them. Like Drake, who was knighted by the queen, they too are acting in the service of the state, while mocking the rule of law.

I first learned about these modern-day pirates during a recent trip to Gaza with family member Rivca Gordon. A member of the Gaza Team for Human Rights, she had invited some members of the Israeli Knesset to meet a group of about 35 fishermen, and I tagged along.

Khalil Mahmud Bardwail was the first to speak. He described how on April 10, 1999, he had left the Han Yunis dock in his fishing boat together with 13 other men. “It was around 6 a.m.,” he said, adding that they had set out to catch sardines.

“When we were about three kilometers from the shore, an Israeli military boat approached us. All of a sudden the soldiers began shooting in our direction. We yelled at them to stop, and offered to show them our fishing license. The soldiers ignored us and continued to shoot. One of our men was wounded. There was blood. It was frightening. … We tried to get the boat back to the beach, but it had been severely damaged -- afterward I counted over 400 bullet holes -- and the military vessel blocked our way. Finally, the soldiers backed off and allowed another boat to come and take the injured fisherman to the shore.”

Bardwail paused for a moment and then said: “Over a year has passed; the man cannot move his right hand and walks with a limp. My fishing net was totally ruined, and I had to spend a fortune repairing the boat. By the time it was fixed, the sardine season was over.”

According to Gordon, each fisherman on Bardwail’s boat is responsible for the livelihood of about 10 people -- when the boat was grounded approximately 240 people suffered from that one attack.

Abed el-Rahman Alwan recounted how, on May 27, 1998, soldiers had captured his boat and beat the crew. His 18-year-old son was traumatized by the event and until this day can neither work nor study.

Gordon said she had filed complaints in January with the head of Israel’s navy, Gen. Yedidia Yeari. She had also sent copies of the complaints to Knesset member Tamar Gozansky, who, in turn, forwarded them to the prime minister’s office. Nonetheless, as of May, five months after the complaints were sent, soldiers were still abusing the fishermen.

The men’s rough appearance, worn garments and bare feet suggested that they were poor, very poor. As we sat listening to their horrific tales, the resemblance between Francis Drake and the Israeli soldiers struck me. In both cases the state uses its pawns to bully and intimidate peaceful inhabitants. In both cases the display of superiority is but a strategy to subjugate and control another people.

Might, and nothing else, makes right in this line of business.

Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000