Israeli bullets keep the Lebanese fishing fleet bottled up in port

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The Independent Online
OUT IN the bay, the Israeli gunboat looks harmless enough, stooging in the green waters above Alexander the Great's ancient causeway, a sleek grey vessel with a box of missiles and a heavy machine-gun on its deck, a curl of white foam twisting behind the hull. Only the bucking fishing smack that is running for the harbour wall, its two-man crew low on their benches, their nets abandoned, disturbs the tranquillity; that and the little popping sound that the fishermen on shore are so used to hearing when the Israelis approach their boats.

It has been the same all week. Every time one of Tyre's 500 fishermen takes a little boat out to the fishing grounds off the harbour, the Israelis arrive to drive him back to Tyre, with a loudhailer instruction and a shower of bullets into the water to speed him on his way. When Rabih Boawab took the Jihad out to the roadstead last week, the Israelis cut 500ft of his net - more than £650 of equipment, he angrily proclaims on the quayside. When Hassan Taha took the Abu Elias out a day later, he says, the Israelis hauled 1,000ft of his nets out of the sea with a hook and sailed off with them.

"Look at how close they are shooting at us," Taha shouts and produces a plastic net marker slashed by bullets. "Why are the Israelis doing this? When they use their loudhailer, they just tell us to get back to the harbour. They say: `We control Lebanon - this is our territory.' "

All the fishermen around Taha have had the same treatment. One of them holds up a 20-litre fuel can cut open by machine-gun rounds. "No work," he keeps repeating. "No work."

For the people of Tyre, a friendly, rubbish-strewn town with a hippodrome and forum of fine Roman ruins, the effect of the fishermen's war has been dramatic. In the fish market, red snapper, sea bass and the local Sultan Ibrahim are selling at more than £15 a pound. Tyre's MP, Ali al- Khalil, has asked the Beirut government to pay compensation to the fishermen's families. There are demands that the Lebanese authorities complain to the UN, whose peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon keeps a small logistics base near the harbour, over the infringement of Lebanese territorial waters.

But the fishermen's ignorance of Israel's purpose may be a little forced. For, as anyone in Tyre will remind you, Abbas Moussawi, the Hizbollah guerrilla commander, was assassinated by the Israelis, along with his wife and child, just to the east of the town exactly two years ago. And for weeks now, the Israelis have been expecting an anniversary spectacular by the Hizbollah, a suicide bombing or a revenge boat attack, down the coast to the frontier of Israel just 12 miles to the south. It was a boatload of Palestinian gunmen from Tyre who in 1978 landed in Israel, attacked a beach full of tourists, hijacked a bus - killing 37 civilians - and provoked the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Since that date, the Israelis have watched the coast around Tyre like hawks, scanning the waters from a radar installation in the strip of southern Lebanon which they still occupy, and prowling the seas as far north as Beirut in their missile boats.

In 1978 and at the beginning of the 1982 invasion, those vessels fired shells into the civilian heart of Tyre - which is why the fishermen regard them with such hatred and fear as well as contempt.

For almost two decades, the Israelis have forbidden all fishing between their frontier and the Palestinian camp of Rashidiyeh, just south of Tyre. Nor can the fishermen go out at night, even with running lights on their boats. Now, they have been told, they can only fish half-a-mile from the shoreline in daylight, and even this restriction is being reinterpreted by the Israeli navy on a weekly basis.

Last Monday, for example, an Israeli gunboat approached a fisherman off the beach at Qasimiye - far north of Tyre - fired machine-gun bullets around his nets and ordered him to follow them south to Ras al-Bayada, in sight of the Israeli border. Hassan - he withheld his family name for fear the Israelis would seize him next time he goes to sea - says he was ordered to drift for six hours while an Israeli naval officer taunted him over a loudhailer. "He kept shouting, `Lebanon belongs to Israel - we can do what we want'. He told me to tell my friends not to take their boats out."

Even commercial shipping into Tyre has to run the Israeli gauntlet. Before the Mundial Ro-Ro could enter harbour last week with a cargo of cars from Antwerp, it was kept waiting 17 hours off the coast by an Israeli gunboat whose radio operator - a woman - demanded to know the contents of the ship, the spelling of each crewman's name and his passport number.

George Antkovak, the bemused Polish captain, went on deck at dawn when the Israeli vessel approached the Mondial. "I brought out my field glasses to look at it," he said. "Within seconds, they were on the radio, asking, `Why are you looking at our naval vessel through binoculars?' What on earth do they expect me to do when a warship approaches my ship?"

There are suspicions in Beirut that Israel's war against the fishermen of Tyre is prompted by more than fear of Hizbollah retaliation, that it is also intended to place yet further pressure on Lebanon to sign a separate peace deal with Israel at a time when many Lebanese - and their Syrian mentors in Damascus - believe that the whole Middle East "peace process" is collapsing.

In the meantime, the fishermen of Tyre can do little more than trawl the dank waters of their tiny harbour, aware that the Israeli gunboat now lurks off their jetty 24 hours a day.