Brutalized at sea, fishers quit due to Israeli attacks

Palestinian fishermen collect fish from nets.

Palestinian fishers collect caught fish from their nets on the beach in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip.

Ashraf Amra

On the morning of 16 June, Majid Fakhri Baker went fishing off the coast of Beach refugee camp along with his nephew and another relative.

As a member of a well-known fishing family, Majid, 38, had been in the industry for 18 years. Yet, after that June morning, he decided to quit the fishing business entirely.

While they collected fish from their nets, an Israeli naval vessel approached Majid’s small boat. The fishers said, loudly, “We are fishers who just want to fish.” Majid said he couldn’t make out their faces; he just saw individuals in tactical gear and sunglasses.

The Israeli naval vessel rammed Majid’s boat and opened fire on the men with rubber bullets. Majid was knocked off his feet and collided with an iron pole in the middle of the boat. His nephew Nasser, 18, was hit by a rubber bullet in the left shoulder. Yet it was the other man on the boat, Muhammad, 27, who sustained the most serious injuries from rubber bullets.

Muhammad was taken to al-Shifa hospital due to severe bleeding in the pelvic area. He is still receiving treatment for his injuries in the form of painkillers and periodic injections of antibiotics.

Peak season for Israeli violations

It is just past peak season for Israeli violations against Palestinian fishers, according to Nizar Ayyash, the chairman of the fishers’ syndicate in Gaza.

He said that the fishing season, which runs from April to June, constitutes about 40 to 50 percent of the annual output of the fishing sector in Gaza, so it’s no surprise that Israeli violations are concentrated around these months.

He has observed that such violations against Palestinian fishers are systematic, timed to occur during the months when fishers could be bringing in their biggest hauls.

A recent report from Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights shows that from January 2022 to early July, the Israeli navy carried out more than 225 attacks against Palestinian fishers – up from 195 during that same period in 2021.

Israel arbitrarily arrested 41 Palestinian fishers (including seven children) and injured more than 16 (including three children) during the first half of 2022.

For Majid Baker, this was not his first injury while fishing. On at least five other occasions he has endured injuries at the hands of the Israeli navy. Like in 2004, when Israeli naval vessels shot water from a high-powered hose at his boat and Baker fell and hit his head.

Even on a day when fishers do not directly encounter the Israeli navy, there is always the anticipation of violence and danger, and precautions must be taken.

“While fishing, we often lower the lights in the evenings to protect ourselves from the Israeli cruisers firing,” Baker said. “This makes it difficult to see in the dark and to pull in the nets.”

One time, Baker had to abandon his haul of the day when an Israeli vessel pulled up and, through a megaphone, demanded he leave at once. Most often, the voices through the megaphones command, in Arabic, a simple “Go!”

Baker has repeatedly appealed to human rights organizations to help stop the Israeli violations against fishers, but these efforts have been in vain. The violations continue unabated.

A deadly profession

Because of such unchecked attacks, which continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, some of Gaza’s fishers have decided the risks of the profession are too great.

Adham Sobhi, 35, is one of them. He quit fishing to work in residential construction.

Sobhi’s 20-member family primarily relies on fishing for income, yet the family’s economic situation has deteriorated in recent years. Three of his brothers have been laid off, and since getting married seven years ago, Sobhi has faced a reproductive issue and doesn’t have the funds for treatment.

The family lives in a simple four-room house in the Gaza City neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan. Sobhi, who has worked as a fisher since he was 15, said the Israeli naval blockade presents a major hindrance to Gaza’s fishers, most of whom have no other career path besides fishing.

Yet Sobhi chose to work in construction rather than die at sea.

“Many times, I would not tell my wife about the Israeli violations we [the fishers] are subjected to so she wouldn’t worry about me,” he said.

Fayez al-Laham, 38, from Khan Younis, also quit fishing and sold his boat.

His last fishing trip was on 25 June. He was pulling his nets from the sea when a bullet hit the water. Al-Laham was unsure whether it was live ammunition or rubber bullets, but the Israeli navy was opening fire at his boat and others’ off the coast of Khan Younis.

Al-Laham was lucky to get out of the situation uninjured, but the horrifying sensation of near-death follows him. He is currently looking for a new line of work.

“I have experienced the same incident before, when a bullet was shot near me,” he said. “The same thing happened to me again in April. It was a signal that I had to quit this profession so I can stay alive for my children.”

“I don’t know what the days ahead will bring,” he said, “but I won’t work in fishing as long as the Israeli occupation continues preventing us.”

Israel’s never-ending naval blockade

Ayyash, the chairman of the fishers’ syndicate, said that Gaza is witnessing one of the longest naval blockades in history.

Since 2015, he said, Israel has confiscated about 45 small fishing boats, or hasakes. In the past two months, Israel has confiscated 15 larger boats.

Such confiscations may last for years, he said, but if the boats are returned, they are returned without engines and fishing equipment, essentially rendering them defunct.

“There are fishers who work as daily paid laborers to only get paid 20 shekels [almost $6] per day,” he said. “Due to Israeli violations, they sometimes return home without fishing and don’t receive their daily wages, as the fishing profession depends on how much fish is caught. Many of those who quit fishing are currently looking for work.”

This could mean economic ruin for the families who support themselves through fishing, such as the Bakers.

As one of the most renowned fishing families in the Gaza Strip, the Bakers have lived and worked by the sea for decades, operating out of the Beach refugee camp west of Gaza City, where they live in an area known as “Baker land.”

“The sea is full of secrets and abundant endless sustenance,” Majid said.

Fishing is not only a source of income for the family but also a passion they have passed down through the generations, so all the children will have a source of livelihood.

Now, as each day at sea brings more injuries and destruction due to the occupation, Gaza’s fishing families have to wonder, what will they bequeath to their children?

Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.