Suffocated at sea

Palestinian fishermen display their catch in Gaza’s seaport in April 2016.

Ashraf Amra APA images

A group of Gaza fishermen were working an early morning shift when the Israeli navy opened fire.

Rajab Abu Riyala and his brother Khaled were shot during that 31 May incident. A bullet had to be removed from Rajab’s knee as a result.

They were among five fishermen arrested on two vessels by Israel. All were brought to Ashdod, a port in present-day Israel, and were detained for most of the day. Both of the vessels were confiscated. “Every Gaza fisherman who is arrested undergoes a long and cruel process of interrogation and strip searches,” said Bashir Abu Riyala, one of the five.

Bashir, a cousin of Rajab and Khaled, questioned why Israel behaves as if fishermen are a security threat. “The way they harass us cannot be tolerated,” he said. “Each time they arrest fishermen, they fail to get the information they are looking for. We do not know anything. All we want is to fish freely and safely.”

Bashir thinks it is unlikely that the vessel will be returned to them.

Due to the confiscation, he and his cousins are now out of work.

The fishermen were within three nautical miles of the Gaza coast, a zone in which Israel theoretically allows fishing to take place.

Israel has repeatedly attacked fishermen working within those limits.

The limits have also been subject to a number of changes.

Boost to economy?

In April, it was reported that fishing would be permitted within nine nautical miles off certain parts of the Gaza coast. Citing Israeli officials, The New York Times suggested that Israel was allowing fishermen to work in a wider area as part of efforts to boost Gaza’s economy.

Any benefits to Gaza’s population would have been short-lived.

Israeli authorities subsequently stated they were reimposing a limit of six nautical miles for the entire Gaza Strip.

That limit is considerably less than the 20-mile zone established for Gaza’s fishermen under the Oslo accords, which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in the 1990s.

Last year, Maher Baker and his son Khader were fishing near Gaza’s coastline when Israeli forces shot at them repeatedly.

Khader was wounded in the arm and the two men were taken to Ashdod. After being shackled and forced to take off their clothes, the father and son were subjected to an aggressive interrogation.

“Even though we were fishing within three miles of the coast, the Israelis accused us of fishing in a dangerous and prohibited area,” Maher told The Electronic Intifada. “Simply, they do not want us to fish. They want the sea for themselves.”

The Bakers’ vessel has still not been returned to them. Since the incident occurred, they have been trying to scrape together enough money to buy a new one.

“I have just spent my whole day running from the union [for Palestinian fishermen] to charities, to the UN, looking for some kind of financial support,” said Khader.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights recorded 139 incidents in which Gaza’s fishermen were shot at by Israeli naval forces during 2015. Twenty-four fishermen were wounded.

There were also six incidents in which boats were shelled and chased.

More than 70 fishermen were arrested last year and 22 vessels were confiscated.

These incidents are part of the economic warfare Israel wages against Gaza’s fishermen.

Deprived of coast

The nine-year blockade of Gaza means that motors, spare parts and fiberglass — all essential for maintaining and repairing vessels — are scarce. Fuel is often unaffordable.

Muflih Abu Riyala, a member of the Palestinian Fishermen’s Syndicate, said that Gaza has suffered from equipment shortages for so long that fishermen “have gotten used to it.”

“Israeli procedures are suffocating the fishing industry,” he said. “Catches have fallen dramatically. Why are we deprived of fishing off our own coast?”

Before Israel imposed its siege, Gaza fishermen could catch as much as 4,500 tons per year, some of which was exported to the occupied West Bank. Catches since the imposition of the siege have fallen below 1,500 tons per year, according to Abu Riyala.

Forcing fishermen to operate within such strict limits has depleted many fish stocks in the waters next to the coast.

Amer al-Qaran, a fisherman from the Deir al-Balah area of central Gaza, works with his three sons for at least 15 hours a day.

The best time of day to fish is the early morning, he said. Yet because of Israeli restrictions, the most he can expect to catch in a six-hour morning shift is around 7 kilograms of fish. “That is sometimes not enough to cover the amount of fuel my boat uses during a shift,” he said.

“Sometimes I spend long hours at sea without catching any fish,” he said. “I am afraid that I will come under Israeli fire if I advance another mile.”

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.