The effect of the Israeli occupation on Gaza’s fishermen and its cost in lives, injuries, and great losses for Gaza’s economy.
Suhail Fadel and his three sons were extremely tired and sweating profusely when they finished their morning fishing shift, which lasted for six hours, from 5 am to 11 am. I was shocked when I had a look at their basket; they caught only 8 kilograms of fish after all that effort from the very early morning.
Suhail’s younger son quickly splashed the fish with cold water before taking it to the market to sell. “Oh, if they would just let us advance to more than a half mile to fish more. Getting only eight kilograms of fish after six hours in the sea will not even cover the price of the fuel that my boat consumed this time,” Suhail said to his shipmates on the shore.
Gaza fishermen are not allowed to travel out even to six nautical miles, a fact that is particularly astonishing given that under the ceasefire agreement reached last year following Israel’s offensive military operation in Gaza, “Operation Defensive Edge”, Israel committed to extending the distance Gaza’s fishermen would be allowed to travel from shore from three to six nautical miles (the enforcement of which limit would itself still violate Palestine’s territorial waters, which under international law extends to twelve nautical miles). “Practically, we are talking about 5 nautical miles that we can sail within in our daily attempt of fishing,” Suhail said. “Otherwise we may be shot at by the Israeli navy, like what happened with some of our fellows. Therefore, we fish in an overfished area.”
Palestinian fishermen do this risky job, even though they know they will gain only meager incomes.
Fire on a Daily Basis
Mohammed Zeyad, 32, was injured while out in his fishing boat on January 2, 2015. The Israeli navy fired at him, directly targeting his ship. His boat was terribly riddled by the Israeli bullets, and he sustained a hip fracture injury which hampers him from the practice of fishing.
“They sabotaged my only ship, and no one compensated me for this great loss. I cannot make ends meet for my young children,” Mohammed told me while we were walking to see his badly damaged boat.
Notable in Zeyad’s case is that the destructive Israeli attack on his vessel made him a new burden on the Palestinian national economy. Unable to earn money from his occupation, he looks to financial support from charities.
The continuous tight restrictions on Palestinian fishermen damage the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian families.
Yet, what attracted my attention about Zeyad was that, even after his injury, he comes every day to the Gaza port where he used to fish. “I cannot imagine myself away from sea,” he said. “I walk along the beach every early morning to recall my past fishing memories. I look forward to being completely recovered from my injury and compensated with a new fishing boat to turn back to sea.”
Zeyad is not alone. So far, the Israeli naval forces have killed one fisherman (three months ago) and injured seventeen others.
Blow to the Palestinian Economy
The fishing sector is the second largest productive sector in terms of contribution to the Palestinian national economy, but because of the continuous Israeli violations, its productivity has fallen dramatically.
Nezar Aish, the head of the Gaza Fishermen’s Syndicate, said that the total loss to the fishing sector from last summer’s war is estimated at about $6 million.
“We sustain huge losses incurred by the continuous intolerable Israeli breaches,” Aish said. “We documented so far after the last war about 1,320 Israeli violations. They’ve confiscated 27 fishing boats, putting their owners out of work.”
In the center of Gaza harbor, you can find a partially damaged building that is used as a base where the fishermen meet each other to discuss their concerns. I met Meflh Rialh there. He introduced himself to me as a fisherman and a member in the Fishermen’s Syndicate. He talked with me for more than half an hour about how precarious their work conditions are.
“The devastatingly profound effects of the Israeli occupation and its relentless siege are apparent in every aspect in the fishing sector,” Rialh said. “They suffer from the scarcity of the highly needed fishing equipment and the high price of the fuel for their motors.”
“For more than three years,” Rialh told me, “Israel has denied us access to fiberglass, which is very important to repair the fishing ships from time to time. We are not allowed to import motors or spare parts for fishing boats.”
That explained the huge number of partially or completely damaged ships at the port. You can imagine that the Gazan fisherman, instead of being able to repair his ship for a few hundred dollars, would have to sustain the price of a new one at $30,000 or more. The dire circumstances make the fishing environment “repellent” to young people considering joining this sector.
“There have been some prospects of projects presented by charity organizations to develop the practice of fishing in our port, but Israel rejected any move in this regard without an international surveillance,” Rialah said.
Fish production is about 1,500 tons annually since the siege was implemented following Hamas’s 2006 election victory, while the number was about 4,500 tons before the policy of suffocating the Gazan community.
Khader Baker, 34, was taken along with his boat, his father, his two brothers, and a young boy by the Israeli naval forces to Ashdod city two years ago. “They fired at our boat asking us to surrender,” Baker said. “Then they approached us and headed our boat to Ashdod coast. They interrogated us for an hour while we were tightly tied, completely stripped naked. Next morning, they told us that we can turn home as they dropped us off at Erez crossing. They dispossessed us of our boat.”
For more than a year and a half, Baker remained without a fishing boat. “I kept moving from the government, to the charity organizations, to the UN, looking for any side which can help me to buy a new boat. An organization secured for me part of the money, along with all my savings and debts from friends and relatives. I got a new ship in the end,” he said.
Baker was happy to have it, after all; but, still, he had to wait until he got a motor to operate it. After four more months, the Agriculture Ministry finally secured a motor for his small ship.
Baker’s three-story home was completely demolished in last summer’s war, and his father was killed in the Israeli operation as well. The home used to accommodate more than twenty-two people in his extended family. “All what I want is to fish more to make situations better to my family, which lives now in one small flat,” Baker said.
I left Gaza Harbor after staying there for more than three hours. I used to see this place as the most prominent landmark in Gaza, and a typical rendezvous for people who look for inspiring scenery on the coast to paint or simply to have a refreshing breath of air. I never thought of this place, decorated with its fishing ships, as a store of tragic stories, which increase with every single vessel that sails across the port.
Photos courtesy of the author.