Fishing without sea in Gaza

Catherine Weibel

Blog post by Catherine Weibel

Oxfam Novib (Netherlands), Media and Communications Officer in Jerusalem
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Palestinian fishermen in Gaza need access to the sea, not imports of fish from Israel, reports Oxfam’s Catherine Weibel.

A huge boat rusting under the sun in the port of Rafah in southern Gaza looks like a beached whale. These days, it can only provide shade to its owner, Jamal Bassala, as he recalls how he used to go to sea with a dozen employees and make a good living. Because of the Israeli-enforced the blockade, which severely curtails Gazan fishermen’s access to fishing grounds, citing security reasons, the boat has not entered the water in three years.

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Since January 2009, access was further restricted to 3 nautical miles from the shore [1], not far enough out to reach the schools of large fish and the sardine shoals which lie further out. Between 2008 and 2009, the total catch in Gaza decreased by 47% and sardine catches were down 72% [2]. Gaza, a coastal enclave with skilled fishermen equipped with fishing boats, now has to rely on imports of fish from Israel [3], or from Egypt via the tunnels beneath the border. Some Palestinian fishermen even report crossing illegally into Egyptian waters to buy fish from Egyptian peers at sea.

“The blockade has created an absurd situation: skilled people who want to work have to rely on aid to feed their families”, says Fran Caller, Oxfam’s head of office in Gaza. “We have people who used to employ up to 20 workers asking to be part of our cash-for-work programmes. These programmes offer only a temporary, meagre income, yet these people – ex businessmen, independent fishermen, employers themselves – are desperate to join, despite the often manual labour that it entails. The blockade has made these people dependent on aid”, she adds.

Because of the blockade, fisherman Jamal Bassala can no longer make a living on his boat. He has to rely on aid to feed his family.

A few months ago, Jamal helped Oxfam build agricultural roads in Gaza. Now he’s repairing fishing nets as part of a programme administered by a UN agency. He does not know what he will do next month. “I used to buy one kilogram of meat every week for my 12 children, but since the beginning blockade I can only afford 250 grammes a week, provided I find work”, he says. Jamal can no longer afford to buy new clothes and resorts to repairing old ones with fishing thread. “Look, I’m grateful for all the help me and my family receive, but I would rather you take a picture of me working on my boat, like my father, grand father and great grand father used to do,” he adds.

“Skilled people yearning to work have to rely on aid to feed their families”

According to the ICRC, nearly 90% of Gaza's 4000 fishermen are now considered either poor or very poor [4], up from 50% in 2008. Fishing restrictions make it impossible for professional fishermen to make profitable catches and pay for the upkeep of their ships, many of which have fallen into disrepair. Paradoxically, many Palestinians in Gaza have begun to fish from small boats in shallow waters, because they cannot afford another source of protein for their families.

At night, the tiny lights of dozens of small boats are lined up along the dark line of the horizon. Occasionally, the powerful searchlight of an Israeli navy ship shines from behind to search the night and keep fishermen close to shore. One can sometimes hear the distant sound of fire as Israeli patrol boats have reportedly fired towards Palestinian fishing boats at least 69 times in the first seven months of 2010, and Egyptian forces have reportedly fired twice at Palestinian fishing boats this year. One fisherman was reportedly killed and three others injured by Israeli forces this year. In their struggle to make a living, many fishermen are compelled to sail close to the 3 nautical-mile limit; some fishermen report being arrested by Israeli forces who blindfolded them, and interrogated them before releasing them at the Erez crossing, confiscating their boats.

With access to the sea severely restricted, the future of fishermen looks bleak in Gaza.

Read more:

Crisis in Gaza

Notes

  1. The previous fishing zone was 6-9 nm before 'Cast Lead', 12 nm under Bertini Commitments, and 20 nm under the Oslo Accords.
  2. Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
  3. Since August 2009, imports of fresh fish from Israel have dramatically risen. 4 tons of fresh fish were imported in November 2008, 32 in October 2009 and 27 in March 2010.
  4. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) considers that fishermen with a monthly income of between 100 and 190 US dollars are poor, while those earning less than 100 dollars a month are very poor. According to Oxfam’s partner, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), fishermen in Gaza used to economically support almost 40,000 people, including mechanics, fishmongers and thousands of local fishing families.