Moroc­cans eye Span­ish en­clave across bor­der

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s one of the short­est land bor­ders in the world: A few dozen me­ters of plas­tic cord across a sand­bank sep­a­rate Morocco from the tiny Span­ish en­clave of Penon de Velez de la Gomera. Wooden boats lie amid nets worn by sea­wa­ter at the foot of the im­pos­ing minipenin­sula, home to a Span­ish mil­i­tary base. “Don’t ap­proach the string!” a Moroc­can sol­dier shouted from a pill­box, his hel­met askew. “They might shoot you with plas­tic bul­lets,” he said in a lower tone of voice, be­fore re­treat­ing to the shade of his wooden shel­ter on a slope fac­ing the Mediter­ranean.

Penon de Velez de la Gomera is one of seven Span­ish en­claves on the north­ern coast of Morocco, which claims sovereignty over all of them. The best known are Ceuta, which over­looks the strate­gi­cally vi­tal Strait of Gi­bral­tar, and Melilla, fur­ther to the east. But a string of islets re­main un­der Span­ish con­trol, in­clud­ing sev­eral oc­cu­pied by Span­ish forces. Th­ese tiny leftovers of Spain’s once vast em­pire have been a source of ten­sion be­tween Morocco and its for­mer colo­nial oc­cu­pier.

One of them, Pere­jil - known to Moroc­cans as Leila was at the heart of an an­gry spat be­tween the two coun­tries 15 years ago this week. A hand­ful of Moroc­can sol­diers briefly took over the out­crop just 200 m off the coast in 2002. The in­ci­dent ended with a blood­less in­ter­ven­tion by Span­ish com­man­dos.

But to­day, the topic of Madrid’s en­claves re­ceives lit­tle at­ten­tion. Lo­cal press re­ports say “things have changed”, and the two are now close part­ners. “Here we don’t have any real prob­lem with the Spa­niards, even though it’s as if our vil­lage is oc­cu­pied,” said Hamed Aharouch, 27.

Aharouch sat on a plas­tic chair out­side his fish­er­man’s hut in the ham­let of Bades, a stone’s throw from the Span­ish base. Perched at the end of a dusty track criss­cross­ing the moun­tains of Al-Ho­ceima na­tional park, Bades seems to lie at the end of the world. The Span­ish penin­sula, 87 m at its high­est point, dom­i­nates the bay, an en­chant­ing cove of blue wa­ters hemmed in by rocky slopes.

Spain’s gold and red flag flies above the fortress which its forces have held since the 16th cen­tury. Mil­i­tary he­li­copters fly in to a land­ing pad part way down the slope, and be­low it, a guard peered from an ob­ser­va­tion post. Once sep­a­rated from the main­land by a nar­row strip of wa­ter, Penon is now linked by an isth­mus of grey sand. “It seems the Spa­niards want to put up a fence in place of the string,” said Aharouch. “We don’t agree to that - it would be op­pres­sion. Al­ready we can’t ap­proach. In any case there’s noth­ing we can say,” he added, smok­ing his pipe.

In Aug 2012, a group of Moroc­can ac­tivists climbed onto the rock, and were chased away by Span­ish sol­diers. The in­ci­dent went no fur­ther. But since the Pere­jil cri­sis, res­i­dents say they have had al­most no con­tact with Span­ish forces. It is a long time since the oc­cu­piers of the Penon played foot­ball with the vil­lage chil­dren or bought fish from the fish­er­men. “The Spa­niards threaten us with their weapons,” grum­bled Ali El-Gue­douch, 55. “There shouldn’t be that damned bor­der in the mid­dle of our vil­lage. I used to fish on the rock - to­day that’s im­pos­si­ble,” he said, al­though he con­ceded that “if the com­man­der of the gar­ri­son is nice, you can still ap­proach with your boat”.

It is hard to imag­ine to­day, but Bades was his­tor­i­cally an ac­tive port, a point of pas­sage be­tween Europe and the Moroc­can im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Fes. The main trade to­day is traf­fick­ing cannabis to­wards Spain, as ev­i­denced by the re­mains of a speed­boat in­ter­cepted by the coast­guard and aban­doned on the beach. Ac­cord­ing to the fish­er­men, their main prob­lem is iso­la­tion. “We have be­come des­ti­tute. We sur­vive just on fish­ing,” said Gue­douch. “There’s noth­ing left here. Just a few tourists in the sum­mer, who kill us a lit­tle more with their rub­bish ev­ery­where. It’s as if we’re nei­ther in Morocco nor in Spain.” — AFP

A pic­ture taken on June 25, 2016 shows Penon de Velez de la Gomera, a penin­sula within Span­ish ter­ri­tory off the coast of Morocco’s Al-Ho­ceima na­tional park. — AFP

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