Israel has turned Gaza’s sea into a battlefield.
Israel’s military routinely fires on boats, injuring, killing and arresting Palestinian crew members.
“In the past, the sea used to be open. We would fish whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted,” Rashad al-Hissi, a 74-year-old Gaza fisher, told The Electronic Intifada.
According to the 1993 Oslo accords, Gaza’s fishing zone was supposed to extend 20 nautical miles out from shore. But Israel never allowed local fishers that range.
The furthest Gaza’s fishers have been able to work since then has been 12 miles out, and that was more than a decade ago. Since Hamas won elections and took control of Gaza’s internal affairs in 2007, the limits were reduced to six miles, then three before being raised again to six, the limit fishers face today.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza fishers are as arbitrary as these restrictions, sometimes firing at vessels even when they abide by Israel’s permitted nautical zone.
Israel’s regular attacks rendered fishing in Gaza a dangerous and unreliable occupation. Since the year 2000, Israel has killed eight fishers and injured 134, according to human rights group Al Mezan.
Despite the hardships, Gaza’s fishers have their hearts in the sea, with more than 35,000 Palestinians dependant on this industry for their livelihoods.
Here are some of their stories.
On 4 January 2017, Rashad al-Hissi loaned his boat to his cousin Muhammad al-Hissi to fish off Sudaniya Beach in northern Gaza.
Around 9:30 that night, Rashad heard noises coming from outside the house and asked his wife to go to the roof to see what was wrong.
“After she was gone for 15 minutes, she came back with her head down,” Rashad told The Electronic Intifada.
An Israeli navy gunboat crashed into Rashad’s boat, causing it to capsize and Muhammad to go missing.
Another cousin, Jamal al-Hissi, witnessed the incident from a few hundred meters away. The Israeli navy, he said, had shot at the boat with live ammunition, causing both Muhammad and the boat to disappear.
Muhammad’s body was never found, and his family believes him dead.
Without his boat, Rashad now struggles to afford the most basic household necessities, “I can barely feed my children,” he said.
“I sold all of my savings and all of my wife’s gold so we can live comfortably. We make $6 a day.”
His own experience was tarnished with run-ins with the Israeli navy.
“I was out on a fishing trip with seven other boats,” Zakaria said, recalling an incident in January 1994. “During the trip, Israeli warships started approaching us and our boats. We tried to get away but they surrounded us from every direction.”
Israeli soldiers attacked the boats, beating and arresting the fishermen. Despite the cold weather, Zakaria said, Israeli soldiers stripped the men and left them shackled naked for five hours until they reached port.
“That day we were arrested and our boats confiscated for a whole year,” Zakaria said.
Marwan al-Saidi, 53, has fished the seas off Gaza for more than four decades.
In March 2017, Marwan’s son Khader al-Saidi embarked on a fishing trip with fellow fisher Rajab Abu Riyala after dawn. They were three to five nautical miles off the shore when the Israeli navy shot at the boat.
“He was trying to earn a living for the household when he was arrested and the boat confiscated,” Marwan said. “They attacked him in the middle of the sea.”
Both Khader and Abu Riyala were arrested. Abu Riyala was released within 10 days but returned with a gunshot wound, and Khader was arrested and accused of crossing the permitted nautical zone boundary.
Marwan did not hear anything about his son or the boat for a year. “I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead,” he said at the time of the interview.
Then Khader was released on 24 April, after spending almost one year in Israeli detention.
“I’m trying to stand up on my feet again,” he said.
“Does being a fisher make one guilty?”
Suhail Fadel, 52, was fishing three miles from the shore with his son in 2011 when Israeli forces suddenly fired at them.
“We jumped out of the boat and swam back to the port. I still remember the sound of shots that day,” Suhail said.
Israeli forces confiscated his boat and haven’t returned it.
“They destroyed my life,” Suhail said. “I am a father of eight children and I can hardly afford to provide them with the most basic necessities. I don’t know what to do, how to fix my life, how to raise my kids or how to register them in schools.”
Muhammad Azzam Baker began fishing when he was just in third grade.
“I remember in 2005 I used to make a lot of money fishing, and that’s why I left school.”
Things were a bit brighter back then.
“My mom would wake me at 6 am every morning. I would go to the port, prepare the motor and equipment and begin the day’s fishing journey.”
Before the Israeli siege on Gaza started in 2005, Muhammad and his father used to catch 70 to 90 kilos of fish every day, earning between $28 to $84, according to the 25-year-old.
Muhammad now catches from nine to 15 kilos of fish every day, he said, “But it depends. Everyday is different from the other.”
“Now, from the $8 I make, I need to pay for the boat’s fuel, my cigarette pack and food for my siblings.”
Muhammad said that if he knew things were going to get this bad, he would have finished his education.
“But I love the sea and my soul is attached to it,” he said.
All images by Mohammed Asad, a photojournalist based in the Gaza Strip.
Reportage by Hind Khoudary, a freelance reporter based in the Gaza Strip.