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Every night off Gaza beach you can see the lights of fishing boats rising and falling in the swell.

But they are defying an Israeli ban on all Palestinian fishing, and Rami al-Habeel knows how dangerous that can be.

Last week, he saw his friend, Hani al-Najaar, shot dead on the deck of their trawler.

For more than three months the Israelis have ordered all fishing craft to stay in port.

They say this is to prevent militants who have captured an Israeli soldier in Gaza, smuggling him out by sea.

The fishermen though have no doubt that this is an example of what a UN human rights observer recently described as "collective punishment" in the territory.

They say the blockade is an Israeli attempt to force the civilian population to put pressure on the militants.

'Sprayed with bullets'

Tens of thousands of Gazans depend on fishing, and - as their desperation has mounted - some have been putting out to sea regardless of the ban.

I saw him killed. I couldn't bear it. God bless him Rami al-Habeel Palestinian fisherman

The navy now seems to let this pass, provided the vessels stay within about four kilometres of the shore.

But there is always the danger that the gunboats will move in.

And Mr Habeel says that is what happened last week when he and his crewmates were fishing off the town of Dier Ballah.

We did not identify in any situation any of our warning shots hitting a boat - at all. So we are not aware of any fisherman being hit Israeli military spokeswoman

He says a gunboat steamed up from the south.

According to Mr Habeel, it did not issue any verbal warning, but opened fire first at the cables holding the nets - cutting them adrift.

Then he says the Israelis circled the unarmed fishermen spraying their craft with machine gun fire from no more than 20m away.

Mr Habeel says that one of the bullets hit Hani al-Najaar - ripping open the side of his head.

"I saw him killed," Mr Habeel says. "I couldn't bear it. God bless him."

Mr Najaar leaves two children.


The Israelis say that on the day in question boats had been pushing too far out to sea. On a number of occasions warning shots were fired.

"We did not identify in any situation any of our warning shots hitting a boat - at all," said a military spokeswoman. "So we are not aware of any fisherman being hit."

But later, as the trawler lays beached for repairs in Gaza City harbour, well over 100 bullet holes are clearly visible.

Both sides of the hull had been raked with fire, and the controls in the wheelhouse had been shot out. You could see where hydraulic steering cables had had to be replaced.

Not far away, in Shaateh refugee camp, Hani al-Najaar's family and friends were mourning his passing.

Among them was his cousin, Mohammad al-Najaar who was also aboard the trawler.

"It happened in front of me," he said. "I could have been killed. I'll stay at home until they re-open sea."

Asked how he would support his family, he said simply: "God will not forget us."

It might be a long time before Mohammad goes down to the sea again.

There are always Israeli navy restrictions on fishing off Gaza's coast, but they are likely to remain particularly severe as long as the Israeli soldier, Corp Gilad Shalit remains a captive somewhere in the territory.

Hamas, the militant group that runs the Palestinian Authority, says that in return for the freeing of its soldier, Israel must release some of the several thousand Palestinians held in its jails.

For now, there is no sign of any deal on the captured Israeli.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/10/13 13:41:23 GMT

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