A largely forgotten casualty of the Great Return March protests in the Gaza Strip quietly returned home last November after serving 18 months in an Israeli prison. Suhail al-Amoudi, 58, was a captain in the Freedom Boats 2, commanding one of three vessels in a flotilla that sought to break the Israeli naval blockade around Gaza.
“I sailed because the flotilla was meant to send a message to the whole world—that Palestinians can no longer stand the Israeli blockade,” explained al-Amoudi. “And if another flotilla were to try it again, I’d do it again, despite the price I paid. We shouldn’t give up protesting until we regain all of our rights.”
Al-Amoudi has fished Gaza’s sea for 35 years, during which he was attacked several times by the Israeli navy despite staying within whatever limits were imposed at the time. The Israeli government constantly changes the zone in which it allows fishermen to ply the waters without being shot or having their boats confiscated. In fact, from the start of 2019 to date, Israel has implemented 15 changes in the “no-go” zone it enforces off Gaza’s coast. These restrictions contradict regulations from the Oslo Accords, signed by the Palestinian and Israeli leadership in 1993. According to the agreement, Gaza’s fishermen should be allowed to sail a distance of 20 nautical miles from the coast—where the best fish are found.
That injustice is why when the committee for breaking the siege asked him to captain the flotilla, al-Amoudi said yes without hesitation—despite opposition from within his family. He has eight children and 32 grandchildren, and while some were supportive of his decision to volunteer—the women in his family were unanimously opposed, sure that they would lose him for good.
“But my mind was made up. I couldn’t say no if my efforts would somehow help my people,” al-Amoudi said. “In addition, what if I had actually made it out? I could start a new life somewhere outside Gaza, and there I could make a better living for my kids.”
So, on May 29, 2018, he sailed toward Cyprus with a four-person crew and 17 passengers, of whom seven were patients seeking treatment abroad, including one cancer patient. One of them was Samah al-Araj, who needed urgent medical care not available in Gaza for her cancer. She died earlier this year, about 16 months after the voyage was aborted. Perhaps an exit at that time would have saved her life?
Al-Amoudi recalls that fateful day: “In a spirit of solidarity, a large number of other Gazan fishers sailed with me for 6 miles. But then we continued on by ourselves, while they shouted farewell.” Israeli navy forces showed up at about 12 miles, with four warships surrounding al-Amoudi and his passengers. It was at that point that their radio communication with the Gaza shore was cut off.
One of the soldiers shouted through a megaphone, threatening to fire if al-Amoudi didn’t stop. Knowing he had medical patients people on board, al-Amoudi obeyed. As soon as he shut off the engine, 10 Israeli soldiers jumped on board, handcuffing everyone on the boat.
“They found nothing except food, drinks and blankets, although they looked for weapons as hard as they could,” al-Amoudi says now. He was kept isolated from the rest of crew and passengers, who were offloaded to one of the warships. The Israelis interrogated everyone for a day, then released them back to Gaza. Al-Amoudi, however, was not.
“I thought they were going to kill me. I panicked,” he admits.
What followed were repeated interrogations, accompanied by blindfolding, shoving, screaming and long periods in a blacked-out cell. In between, al-Amoudi said he was taken to court in handcuffs—25 times to be exact. He thought his cellmates were what are called “prison sparrows,” inmates who are informants for the Israel Prison Service.
“I was forced to bend my head to my knees, so I could fit my body into the trunk of the Israeli military vehicle that drove me to court,” al-Amoudi recalls. He was finally sentenced to 18 months, staying mostly in Nafha Prison, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Beersheba in southern Israel.
Fortunately, the Palestinian Authority was able to arrange for al-Amoudi to be represented by an attorney, Mohammed Jebreen. He negotiated a plea deal: al-Amoudi confessed to affiliation with a terrorist organization, in this case, Hamas, and because he signed a plea, his sentence was set at a relatively short 18 months.
While incarcerated, time itself became torture. He claims Israeli prison officers deliberately never told their prisoners the time.
“My days and nights became confused, so I had to guess the time every time I tried to do one of my daily prayers,” al-Amoud said. “On top of that, I wasn’t allowed to take showers for weeks at a time.”
However, he found solace in his cellmates, who became a support network. They discussed Arabic, particularly Palestinian, poetry. “I learned a lot from my cellmates about the different schools of Arabic poetry, and about the greats like Mahmoud Darwish, and Fadwa Tuqan.”
He and his cellmates also sang Palestinian ballads, tunes that existed before Israel was created and their families were forced off their land. He became so close to his cellmates that although he was ecstatic when he was finally allowed to return home, he grieved over leaving the new family he built in the prison.
“I could barely restrain hold tears when I hugged them goodbye,” al-Amoudi said.
Since the three boats that tried to sail out of Gaza in 2018, there have been no further attempts from Gaza to break the naval blockade. If that were to change, would al-Amoudi volunteer again? He admits that he could be imprisoned again and for longer, and there is a risk that he may not ever come home.
“I know no one would care enough to support my family if I was killed. But we have to take chances to win our freedom. If there were any other freedom voyages, I would sail all over again,” he concludes. “Our protests must continue, no matter what.”