Joy has filled the hearts of hundreds of Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip this week as they expressed their happiness over the most plentiful fishing season in 40 years. The news is all the more sweet considering the Israeli navy’s restrictions on fishing off of Gaza’s coast.
There are some 433 boats registered at Gaza’s port, but only a few of them are seaworthy; fewer still risk the Israeli-imposed ban on Gaza’s fishermen. Collectively, Palestinian fishermen have seen their monthly catch drop from 823 tones in June 2000 to as low as 50 in late 2006.
The number of registered fishermen has also dropped significantly, from as many as 5,000 in the 1980s to less than 3,000 today, according to the UN. At least 35,000 Gazans directly rely on the fishing industry for subsistence, amid poverty levels that the UN pegs at more than 80 percent in Gaza.
In 2000, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics valued the industry at 10 million dollars; today it is a mere shadow of that productivity.
The World Bank cited Israel’s closure, restrictions and ban regime as “above all” responsible for the economic crisis.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza has been monitoring the closure regime and its weekly reports invariably include attacks on fisherman and their equipment by Israeli forces. According to their most recent report, “Fishermen have been subjected to intensive monitoring by the Israeli occupation forces, which use helicopters, gunships and gunboats” against the small fishing crafts.
Palestinian fishermen are routinely arrested and shot at by the Israeli navy. In the past year, four fishermen have been killed after being attacked by Israeli forces. Dozens have been arrested.
Palestinians are often compelled to fish within a few hundred meters of the beach, or even cast their homemade nets from the shoreline.
Under current restrictions, Palestinians are allowed to fish only up to six nautical miles off the Gaza coast, whereas a deal in 2002 between the UN and Israel allowed for fishing up to 12 miles off the coast and the Oslo Accords of 1993 gave fishing rights for up to 20 miles.
This spring was a surprise for fishermen and drew smiles on their faces as their nets yielded sardines, which Gazans always crave for.
Gazans usually buy frozen fish, because the fishing industry is destroyed and because Gaza does not have a sea port. Also, as fish is very expensive, many families cannot afford to buy it due to the lack of salaries and lack of money.
Rami Abu Hasirah, a fisherman, said, “Thanks to God, today fishermen netted tonnes of sardines, which will compensate all the losses over the past months.”
Munir Al-Hessi, a fisherman, said, “I’m very excited. This season is a surprise for all of us. Other fishermen and I are subject on a daily basis to the Israeli gunboats and vessels and we risk our lives to feed our families, but today, I earned $500! Finally, I will be able to support my family.”
Hani Gandil, 48, said while buying sardines: “I usually buy frozen fish but when it comes to sardines, I buy them fresh. This season, the sardines seem bigger and more numerous. May God protect the fishermen, who risk their lives to carry out their job in order to feed their children and bring us these sardines.”
Hamdi Baker, 42, fisherman, said: “Today the sardines broke the blockade!”
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in Ash-Shati’ (Beach) camp, to the west of Gaza City, just next to the sea, shared the fishermen’s joy.
Yousef Alhelou is a freelance Palestinian journalist based in Gaza, and a contributor to several media outlets. He also presents Gaza’s only live English program across radio stations in the Gaza Strip. He can be contacted at ydamadan at hotmail.com.