Israelis Keep a Fishy Watch

Palestinian doctors trying to save a wounded Palestinian fisherman after he was shot by Israeli boats in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 13 December 2006. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)

GAZA CITY, Feb 14 (IPS) - In the driving rain, Suhail el-Amoudi stands on the wharf of the Gaza City port looking out over the aged and weathered fishing boats as they bob perilously amid the swells of a Mediterranean winter storm.

But for el-Amoudi, a 30-year veteran fisher of Gaza’s waters, it is not the waves or the wind that concerns him. Rather, it is the Israeli naval vessel on the horizon, clearly visible despite the storm.

Throughout the last three decades at sea, El-Amoudi has seen many changes — but there is always one constant of life in Gaza: “The Israelis are the key to the experience,” he said. “Their presence is always felt.”

Particularly since the Palestinian uprising began in September of 2000, Israel has been “tightening the noose” on Gaza’s fishers, said El-Amoudi. The fisherman added that while relations between the Israel Defence Forces and Gaza’s fishermen have never been good, “it has also never been this bad.”

Consequently, the wharfs are sparsely populated and the markets are all but completely empty of fish.

Gaza port is now a museum of derelict fishing skiffs whose cost of repair far outpaces the resources of their owners.

“My boat needs 20,000 dollars in maintenance,” said el-Amoudi, adding that the predicament has condemned him to poverty. Emptying his pockets of two Israeli shekels (50 cents), el-Amoudi told IPS with a wry smile, “this won’t do.”

There are some 433 boats registered at the Gaza port, but only a tiny fraction of them are seaworthy.

Fewer still risk the Israeli-imposed ban on Gaza’s fishermen.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there has been an absolute ban on fishing in Gaza’s waters at least 40 percent of the time since October 2003.

Since late June 2006 — almost eight months — the ban has been total.

Collectively, Palestinian fishermen have seen their monthly catch drop from 823 tonnes 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 people 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 shadow of that productivity.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Department of Fisheries has delivered a grim assessment that the entire industry will have collapsed by the end of 2007 if there is not a drastic change in policy by the Israelis towards Gaza’s fishermen.

The United Nations agencies active in Gaza reaffirmed the PNA’s dire forecast in a comprehensive report in late 2006.

A recent UN Consolidated Appeals Process report stated that if the “trigger factors” for the crisis remain, “food insecurity will continue to rise at a sharp rate with an adverse impact on vulnerable groups.”

Scarcity has led to a precipitous rise in the price of fish, which is now priced beyond almost all of Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

The World Food Programme, which feeds about a quarter of a million of Gaza’s most destitute, has issued an urgent appeal over malnutrition resulting from the removal of fish and other animal proteins from the diet in Gaza.

According to the WFP, fish protein accounted for at least a third of protein Gaza’s mostly refugee population consumed.

In a comprehensive assessment sanctioned by the PNA and the Israeli government in the months leading up to Israel’s “disengagement” of settlers from Gaza in 2005, the World Bank stated that the collapse of the Palestinian economy was “among the worst in modern history.”

The World Bank cited Israel’s closure regime as “above all” responsible for the economic crisis.

This assessment would put Israel in violation of article 52 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), to which Israeli is a signatory. Article 52 states: “No contract, agreement or regulation shall impair the right of any worker, whether voluntary or not.”

The article continues: “All measures aiming at creating unemployment or at restricting the opportunities offered to workers in an occupied territory, in order to induce them to work for the Occupying Power, are prohibited.”

Since late June, when an Israeli soldier was taken captive by Palestinian militants during what one Israeli military source called “a daring commando raid” on an Israeli army post on the Gaza border, there has been a total ban on fishing.

The Israeli army asserts the ban is imposed to prevent Palestinian militants from squirreling the captured soldier to Egypt by sea.

A cursory study of the disabled and bullet-riddled boats beached at the Gaza Port reveals that many fishermen defy the Israeli ban and have paid a significant price.

“What is our choice,” asked el-Amoudi, as he weighed the impact of his family going hungry versus the danger of fishing the tiny Gaza coastline.

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.

Said a recent PCHR 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.

Between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17, at least 14 of Gaza’s fishermen were detained by the Israelis well inside the mandated Palestinian fishing area.

Three of those arrested in mid-January are still in custody and have not been heard from since, according to PCHR.

Palestinians are often compelled to fish within a few hundred metres of the beach, or even cast their homemade nets from the shoreline.

The Oslo Peace Accords stipulate that Palestinian fishermen are entitled to 20 nautical miles off the Gaza coastline, but el-Amoudi is categorical in asserting that that freedom was never realised.

“As soon as you leave the dock you are in Jewish waters,” said El-Amoudi. “They make no distinction.”

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.