We recently shared the story of Boat P-00494, a fishing boat captured by the Israeli navy off the coast of the Gaza Strip in February 2022. The boat has since been the focus of a particularly significant legal battle waged by Gisha and Adalah on behalf of the boat owner, regarding the legality of Israel’s enforcement of the “fishing zone” in Gaza’s sea space and the Israeli navy’s authority to seize and confiscate fishing boats deemed to have exceeded its limits.
After the navy seized the boat from Gaza’s sea space, claiming that it had violated the restrictions Israel imposes there, Israel submitted an unusual request, the first of its kind, to the Haifa District Court in its role as the Maritime Court, demanding the court give it authority to permanently confiscate the boat (also referred to as a ‘condemnation request’). Gisha and Adalah filed a motion to have the state’s condemnation request dismissed outright, and an interim order to have the boat returned to its owners in Gaza while legal proceedings were underway. In September 2022, our motion for an interim order was granted, and Boat P-00494 was returned to its owner, Jihad Al Hassi, a Gaza fisherman, subject to stringent conditions and a monetary guarantee deposited with the court.
Al Hassi, who we are defending in the case, said that his boat, which supports more than seven families in Gaza, was returned to him in a state of disrepair, missing the equipment that had been on board when it was seized, including GPS devices. Al Hassi was forced to spend an additional 40,000 ILS to repair the damage the boat had sustained when it was seized by the navy and in the six months it had been held, stagnant in Israel. This expense exacerbated the harm done to Al Hassi, his family, and multiple other families whose livelihoods and food security depend on the boat’s routine activity.
In early October 2022, a month after Israel was forced to return Al Hassi’s boat to Gaza, but before the court reached a decision on our motion to dismiss the state’s request to confiscate it permanently, the state made another submission to the court. The boat, it claimed, had again violated Israeli-imposed restrictions in Gaza’s sea space. This time, Israel not only asked to reseize the boat pending the end of proceedings but also to confiscate the guarantee imposed on Al Hassi as an additional, punitive measure.
We objected to both these demands, emphasizing the bad faith and blatant cruelty evident in the state’s request, particularly considering it had never returned Al Hassi’s GPS devices to him, making it harder for the fishermen to know the boat’s exact location at sea. Given our objection, the court denied the state’s demands. Unfortunately, it also gave the state license to recapture the boat if it is deemed to exceed the boundaries of the Israeli-imposed “fishing zone” in the future.
In November 2022, as this proceeding was ongoing, the navy seized another fishing boat belonging to a member of the same, veteran fishing family in Gaza and the nephew of Jihad Al Hassi, Mohammed. During the violent seizure of the boat by the Israeli navy, one of the fishermen aboard the boat was shot in the neck and face and taken to a hospital in Israel. The others were arrested and taken to Israel, and released back to Gaza the next day.
The state, which is still holding Mohammed Al Hassi’s boat, filed a request to the Maritime Court to confiscate it permanently as well. Again, Gisha and Adalah filed a motion to have the state’s condemnation request dismissed outright, repeating our arguments: The restrictions Israel imposes in Gaza’s sea space are, themselves, a violation of international law. Moreover, the court does not have jurisdiction to preside over the state’s request to confiscate fishing boats from Gaza’s sea space. We also filed a request for an interim order for the release Mohammed’s boat to Gaza until the end of proceedings.
On January 23, the Maritime Court held a joint hearing of the two boat cases. It did not discuss or reach a decision on our arguments regarding its lack of jurisdiction to hear the state’s request, and the state’s lack of authority to confiscate the boats permanently. Instead, it scheduled another hearing to consider the evidence and examine whether the parties can reach an agreement on the factual basis of the case. In the weeks since, Gisha filed affidavits from the fishermen, describing their harassment by the navy. The state informed the court that it was not interested in hearing the fishermen’s testimony in court.
On March 14, the court accepted our motion for an interim order and ordered the state to release Mohammed Al Hassi’s boat and return it to Gaza, subject to stricter conditions than it had set for the return of Jihad Al Hassi’s boat to Gaza in 2022. Israel must return the boat to the Strip within 21 days once the monetary guarantee is deposited with the court.
The state is not disputing the fact that the fishermen on the boats it seized were engaged in fishing in order to support themselves and their families. Nevertheless, Israel’s condemnation requests seek to harm the boat owners and the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the boats, impeding their ability to make a living. International law affords special protections to civilians who are not involved in hostilities and to fishing boats engaged in fishing for sustenance. In denying already impoverished people the means to access livelihoods and nutrition and seeking to gain ownership of these means, Israel is directly harming civilians and effectively obliterating these protections.
Again, we caution: If the Maritime Court accepts the state’s condemnation requests and authorizes Israel to permanently confiscate fishing boats in Gaza, a dangerous precedent will be set, providing Israel with yet another tool of punishment that will vastly exacerbate the harm to Gaza’s fishing sector.