How Israel stole this fisherman’s sight and sense of smell

Khader al-Saidi with his life-long friend and fellow fisher, Muhammad Abu Riyala (left).

Khader al-Saidi lost his eyesight and sense of smell when Israeli navy forces fired rubber-coated steel bullets at his face while he was fishing in the sea off Gaza.

The 32-year-old was silent at first when The Electronic Intifada came to interview him.

His father, Marwan, had already cautioned that Khader may halt the interview at any moment.

Marwan filled the silence. He spoke of the family’s long history of making a living from fishing, of how his grandfathers used to fish the sea before him and how the 60-year-old’s own sons had followed in his footsteps.

Fishing is an integral part of Gaza’s culture, nutrition and economy. Israel’s routine attacks on fishers in Gaza continue to devastate the industry.

Also in the room was Khader’s friend and fishing companion, Muhammad Abu Riyala, 36, who also spoke about the dangers of fishing outside Gaza.

After a while, though, Khader broke his silence.

“We, fishermen, can’t work in any place but the sea,” he said. “I’m like the fish. If I leave the sea, I die.”

The black night
This was Khader’s way to start talking about the attack that left him blind, an attack that took place on what he has since been calling “the black night.”

On 20 February 2019, Khader left Gaza’s port on his boat with his cousin Muhammad.

The pair headed to the south toward the coast off Khan Younis, Khader said, in the southern area of the territory. They had been working there for two months after Israel had expanded the fishing zone to 12 nautical miles.

At around 10 pm, as Khader and Muhammad were pulling their fishing nets from the water at an area, he said, of approximately nine nautical miles out from the coast, five Israeli navy boats began approaching them.

Without warning, the Israeli soldiers opened fire. They tried to escape but Israeli navy boats surrounded them quickly. Then the soldiers began firing rubber-coated steel bullets towards the two fishermen – 15 according to one count – injuring Muhammad in his chest and stomach, and Khader in his back, leg, chest and face.

When Khader woke up, he found himself shackled by his hands and legs to a hospital bed.

Khader and his cousin had both been detained and taken to Barzilai Medical Center in southern Israel.

“I tried to open my eyes, but to no avail. Everything was black. I started screaming until a doctor came,” Khader said.

“With broken Arabic, he told me that they removed my right eye, and that in the coming hours I would have surgery in my left eye.”

This was Khader’s fifth arrest since he started fishing at 12 years old.