Israel returns 15 confiscated Gaza fishing boats
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Israel returns 15 confiscated Gaza fishing boats

The vessels were considered suspicious and seized when they sailed beyond the permitted fishing zone

A Palestinian fishermen pulling boat to the sea close to the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, on the Mediterranean Sea, on March 26, 2014. Two Palestinians were wounded when Israeli navy vessels destroyed two Gaza-bound boats smuggling cigarettes and tobacco from Egypt, Palestinian and Israeli sources said. (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian fishermen pulling boat to the sea close to the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, on the Mediterranean Sea, on March 26, 2014. Two Palestinians were wounded when Israeli navy vessels destroyed two Gaza-bound boats smuggling cigarettes and tobacco from Egypt, Palestinian and Israeli sources said. (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel has returned 15 fishing boats it seized in recent years off the Gaza Strip, the army said this week.

Palestinian fishermen said it was the first time Israel had given vessels back, and demanded the return of dozens more.

“The naval branch (navy) returned to Gaza 15 fishing boats which deviated from the Strip’s permitted fishing zone and were seized over the years,” an Israel Defense Forces statement said late Wednesday.

The tiny vessels were dragged back to shore by a boat from the Gaza fishermen’s union, an AFP photographer said.

Israel, which has imposed an eight-year blockade on Gaza for fear of arms smuggling, bans fishing beyond six nautical miles (11 kilometers) off the coast. Boats exceeding that limit are at risk of being considered suspicious, and may be fired upon as possible arms-smuggling vessels.

The Israeli army has intercepted a number of arms-smuggling vessels in the past.

In March 2014, naval commandos from the elite Shayetet 13 unit boarded and took control of the Klos-C merchant ship, sailing in the Red Sea under the Panama flag. Forty missiles, 181 mortars, and 400,000 bullets were found abaord, a cache the IDF said was supplied by Iran and headed to Gaza.

In March 2011, navy commandos intercepted the civilian vessel Victoria as it headed from Syria to Egypt and discovered 50 tons of Iranian weaponry on board. The Francop, which was boarded by IDF forces in November 2009, was found to be carrying 500 tons of weaponry in 36 unmarked cargo crates. In 2002 the Israeli army captured the Karine-A as it carried 50 tons of weaponry from Iran to Gaza.

In January 2009 the Cypriot merchant vessel Monchegors was found to contain a cache of Iranian weapons during an inspection by Cypriot authorities.

Fishing union chief Nizar Ayyash told AFP the return of 15 boats was welcome but demanded that Israel hand back dozens more vessels still in its possession.

“It is true this is the first time Israel has returned fishing boats… but its forces fire at fishermen before they’ve even exceeded the imposed limit, especially off southern Gaza,” he said.

“There are still 60 boats held by the Israeli navy, and we demand Israel return them,” he added.

Last month, Israeli forces shot dead a fisherman and arrested two others, according to Gaza medics.

The incident took place as tension mounts between rival political factions in the tiny enclave, where Israel and Hamas fought a 50-day war in July-August that killed 2,200 Palestinians and 73 on the Israeli side, according to UN statistics. According to Israeli army estimates, up to half of the Palestinians killed in Gaza were fighters, and Israeli officials blamed the high death toll on the fact that the fighters operated in civilian areas.

Around 4,000 fishermen work in Gaza, more than half of whom live below the poverty line.

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