First Published: 2017-07-17

Penon de Velez de la Gomera, Spanish enclave on Moroccan coast
String of islets on northern coast of Morocco remain under Spanish control, including several occupied by Spanish forces.
Middle East Online

Penon de Velez de la Gomera

TANGIER - It's one of the shortest land borders in the world: a few dozen metres 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 mini-peninsula, 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 metres (yards) 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.

- End of the world -

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 criss-crossing the mountains of Al-Hoceima national park, Bades seems to lie at the end of the world.

The Spanish peninsula, 87 metres (280 feet) 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.

"The (Moroccan) state prevents us from doing anything. Even our own soldiers shout at us if we get too close to the string."

- Almost no contact -

In August 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 El-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."

 

Regional tensions rise in Kurds’ independence vote

Erdogan threatens Iraqi Kurds with border closure, oil block

US-led strikes killed 84 civilians near Syria's Raqa

Iran shuts border with Iraqi Kurdistan

Dubai set to become first city with flying taxis

Iraq Kurds start voting in historic independence referendum

UAE announces plans for region’s first nuclear reactor

Putin to visit Erdogan this week for Syria, Iraq talks

Sudan vows to step up efforts to improve US ties

Turkey to launch intervention into Syria — and maybe into Iraq

Egyptian ‘world’s heaviest woman’ dies in Abu Dhabi

Palestinian unity government remains unlikely

Emirati man fights his employer to serve in country’s army

Palestinian PM to visit Gaza next week

Saudi advisory body to tackle female driving ban

Turkey denies closing Iraqi border in response to Kurdish vote

US air strikes kill 17 Islamic State militants in Libya

Yemen's Hadi says military solution 'most likely'

The high cost of Syria’s destruction

Palestinian negotiator awaits lung transplant in US

Kurds ready for contentious vote in Iraq

A Kurdish state: Reality or utopia?

Saudi intercepts missile fired from Yemen

Saudi Arabia marks national day with fireworks, concerts

Iran defies US, tests missile

Turkey warns of 'security' steps in response to Iraqi Kurd vote

Barzani delays Kurdish independence vote announcement

Syria's war off the radar at UN assembly

For many Iraqis, tradition trumps police

Darfur clashes kill 3 as Bashir urges reconciliation

Saudi cleric banned for saying women have ‘quarter’ brain

Veteran Syrian activist, daughter assassinated in Istanbul

Tunisia drops forced anal exams for homosexuality

Bomb used in Saudi-led strike on Yemen children US-made

Syria Kurds vote to cement federal push

Police charge teenager over London Underground attack

Nigerian official to meet Turkish counterpart over illegal guns

Thousands feared trapped in Raqa as IS mounts last stand

Iraqi forces achieve first step in new offensive on IS

Migrant boat sinks off Turkish Black Sea coast leaving four dead, 20 missing

Trump praises 'friend' Erdogan

Yemen leader promises UN to open entire country to aid

Rouhani vows Iran will boost missiles despite US criticism

Russia clashes with EU over Syria

UN Security Council warns against holding Iraqi Kurd vote