Fishing under fire in Gaza

The fish market in Gaza has been buzzing these past few days—for the first time in six years, fishermen have been allowed to fish up to six nautical miles from Gaza’s coastline.

As part of the cease-fire deal reached between Israel and Hamas on 21 November, Israel agreed to facilitate people’s movement in the areas of Gaza commonly known as the “buffer zone”, which includes the sea and farmland along Gaza’s perimeter.

Photo gallery: Fishing under fire in Gaza

Allowing fishermen to sail six miles out these past days is a relief for many, but, with no formal agreement to increase the limit, those who rely on the income they earn from a daily catch are worried about how long the new limit will last.

Mohammed Al Bakri from the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UWAC) tells Oxfam that even at six nautical miles Gaza’s fishermen are unlikely to make ends meet. “For the past five years fishermen have been surviving on as little as $13-15 per day and an increase of this size will not bring a significant increase to their income. They need to be able to access beyond 8 nautical miles to see real improvements, as less than that is not the fish breeding area.”

Since January 2009, the government of Israel has restricted Palestinian fishing boats to three nautical miles from Gaza’s coast, blocking access to around 85 percent of Palestinian fishing water. In practice, access is sometimes restricted to just one nautical mile, not nearly enough to reach the schools of large fish that swim further from the coast. For the enterprising fisherman, venturing further out in search of bigger fish is a risky business: the fishing limit is enforced by live fire and since January 1, 2012, Oxfam reported 65 incidents of Israeli naval vessels opening fire on Palestinian fishermen, with reports of 1 fisherman killed and 1 fisherman injured.

The sea blockade imposed by the government of Israel has reduced the main fishing catch – sardines – by 90 percent, representing an estimated loss of US $26.5 million to the Gaza economy. The financial loss means that 90 percent of Gaza’s fishermen are now living in poverty and what was once a staple source of protein in Gaza is under-stocked. As a result, fish smuggling through the tunnels beneath the border between Gaza and Egypt has become a more common way for a fish to find its way to a plate in Gaza.

Map showing fishing limits imposed in January 2009. Map by UN OCHA, June 2009.

"The increase to six nautical miles won't help us for long because within a short period of time all of those fish will be caught and the benefit will be gone. To make a good catch we need to use fishing trawlers, which means we need to fish between seven to 12 miles,” said Zakaria Bakr, a fisherman from Gaza City.

The recent escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel between November 14-22 took a heavy toll on an industry already struggling to stay afloat. With warships bombarding Gaza from the sea, Palestinian fishermen were completely out of work and some fishing boats were directly hit. Many are now struggling to recover costs of equipment lost, which in coastal towns like Deir Al Balah and Khan Younis are estimated at US $1 million.

“We can't continue being shot at, arrested and having our boats confiscated – that's not a cease-fire. As long as Israeli forces are out there threatening us we can’t do our work,” Zakaria added.

Related links

Photo gallery: Fishing under fire in Gaza

5 Fallacies in Gaza: The facts of life 5 years in to the blockade (June 2012, pdf 423kb)

Act now: Join the petition to end the Gaza blockade

Read more on the Crisis in Gaza

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