Gaza Letter: fishermen at sea with Israeli regulations

Gazans who thought their fishing zone would be extended have been sorely disappointed

According to  fishermen in Gaza, the extension was all media hype.

According to fishermen in Gaza, the extension was all media hype.

 

At dawn on a September morning, the sea off the coast of Gaza City is the most pleasant place in the stricken enclave. The air is cool, the Mediterranean a deep, rich blue. From this distance, the skyline looks almost normal; you have to strain to make out the collapsed buildings and gaping shell holes.

The fishermen are collecting the night’s catch, repeating the centuries-old gestures of their fathers and grandfathers before them.

Five men stand on a flat green and yellow boat, shaking a net so the silvery sardines will fall to the centre.

When Israel and Hamas finally agreed to a ceasefire on August 26th, after 50 days of war that claimed 2,200 Palestinian and 72 Israeli lives, it was widely reported that Israel would extend Gaza’s fishing zone from three to 12 nautical miles.

But according to the fishermen, the extension was all media hype. The limit was and remains six miles. It’s just one more setback in Gaza’s unending saga of disappointment.

“During the war, we could only fish in the port, so the fish tasted of petrol,” says Houssam Absi (30). “For a couple of days, people were happy, because there was so much fish in the market. They assumed we were going farther out, but it was only because no one had fished for two months. Now it’s just like before: there’s not enough fish. The Israelis shot at us two days ago, because we went 10 metres beyond six miles. They escorted us back to the four-mile line.”

The 1993 Oslo Accords foresaw a 20 nautical miles (37km) fishing zone. That never happened. Fishermen complain about the sheer arbitrariness of Israeli regulations, which seem to change at whim.

Five miles

At the third boat I approach, Tewfik Abu Riala (30), holds up a large bonito. “We caught 12 kilos!” he exclaims. The fisherman is grinning, almost celebratory.

He tosses a live octopus, a thrashing crab and squirming shrimp onto the deck of our small motor boat. “We went out five miles,” Abu Riala says. “If we go any farther, they shoot at us. We want them to give us 12 miles.”

The Israelis bombed Gaza’s small fishing port during the war, including the brand new complex of offices and storage rooms that was donated by Qatar and inaugurated in 2012.

Khaled Zidine (54) owns his own boat, but he’s working for a friend because his 22,000 shekel (€ 4,800) engine was destroyed in the bombing.

Experience has taught Massoud Abu Odeh (53), a fisherman since age 15, to be cautious. “I haven’t tried to go out more than two or three miles, because it’s dangerous,” he says. Abu Odeh pulls up a trouser leg to show me his bullet-scarred shin. “On October 18th, 2004, the Israelis shot me in the leg. I was fishing at 2am. I stayed there bleeding for three hours. Since then, I’ve been very angry. I had a big boat, but I had to sell it so I could pay the fishermen who work with me . . .

“There’s no future here; only wars, wars, wars.”

The young crew of a large boat equipped with spotlights to attract fish in the dark are more intrepid. “We brought in half a tonne of sardines, bonito and calamari,” boasts Nafez Bardawil (25). “We go out as far as the Israelis will let us. This boat can drop a net very deep.”

‘Beyond the line’

Bardawil and his fellow fishermen glitter with fish scales from shaking the nets. “The Israelis harass us all the time,” he adds.

“They put a buoy 600 metres before the six-mile limit. After that, they start shooting at us. My cousin Ibrahim died a few years ago. They went beyond the line and the Israelis shot him dead.”

Three of the fishermen on the big boat studied sociology, political science, history and law at university. “We’re fishing because there are no jobs for us. We don’t even have enough money to get married,” says Wa’el Abu Riala (30).

Back in port, we visit the charred ruins of the fishermen’s complex. An old man sits on the ground, mending nets torn by shrapnel. “There are 3,500 fishermen in Gaza,” says Mahmoud Assi (67), the manager of the Fishermen’s Union. “The Israelis did more than $6 million in damage. We lost boats, tackle rooms, everything.

“If I or my sons wanted to do other work, we wouldn’t know how,” Assi says. “We send our children to university, but they come back to the sea.”

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