Society / Palestine
Netting the bullets
Karl Schembri - 29/09/2009
Gaza fishermen (photo Karl Schembri)
GAZA CITY, Gaza – Even before the fishermen set off sail, Israeli gunboats on the horizon are waiting ominously for any craft daring to breach the three nautical mile limit imposed after the January war.
Mohammed and Said (photo Karl Schembri)
Three former fishermen take me on their vessel which they have converted into a "tourist boat" after giving up the job they had been doing all their life.
"Even though there are no tourists, we always have hope," Mohammed says as we leave port.
Unlikely as it seems, Mohammed hopes for tourists, but he has given up all hope of being able to make a living out of his lifetime job and passion.
Since Israel reduced the fishing zone to a meager three nautical miles – and they often shoot at anyone who goes beyond two miles – Mohammed and his colleagues decided to call it a day.
(photo Karl Schembri)
They have seen it happening before, their fishing zone shrinking drastically in front of their eyes. Gazan fishing was permitted up to 12 nautical miles from the coast before the Al Aqsa Intifada, but was reduced to six after 2000 even though on paper according to the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 fishing was allowed within 20 nautical miles.
Israel justifies its crippling policy claiming that it wants to prevent weapons and ammunitions smuggling. Fishermen however come under fire while seeing their profits and catches diminish dramatically.
As we sail further out, a fishing boat ahead of us receives the first warning signs forcing it to change direction.
(photo Karl Schembri)
“There is no radio communication between Israelis and Palestinians on the sea; the communication is by shooting,” Mohammed said. “The fishermen are always on their own out here, away from the media and the public, and whenever there is trouble with Israel they are the first ones to bear the brunt.”
World Food Programme figures for last February show that the sea blockade has reduced fish catches by more than 72 per cent compared to the same month in 2008. In 2008 fishing accounted for 1.5 percent of Gaza’s economy according to the Gaza agricultural ministry. Out of around 10,000 fishermen in 2000, today less than 3,500 remain.
And according to the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), fishing nets, rope, twine and gas mantles remain in short supply due to the Israeli siege since June 2007.
Fishing boat reduced to rubble in the war (Photo Karl Schembri)
“My family has always consisted of fishermen who know and love the sea, but it is now impossible,” he said. “There are no fish to be caught in here.”
It is not only the Israeli restrictions on the fishing zone that are crippling Gaza. Around 50 million litres of raw, untreated sewage are dumped into the sea everyday according to the UN, turning the fishing grounds into a veritable cesspool.
Sewage treatment facilities damaged last January remain unable to function, and Israel bans material needed for urgent repairs and maintenance such as pipes.
The Israeli ports of Ahskelon and Ashdod up north are visible from the boat. Even they are getting their share of Gaza's pollution, but the Israeli forces seem solely preoccupied with preventing Gazan fishermen from inching towards them.
Equally prohibited is the Egyptian side to the south, where Israeli gunboats too lie waiting for any approaching vessel making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave the 25-mile-long coastal strip through the sea.
A boat carrying international activists that had sailed from Cyprus intent to break the siege last July was held up by Israeli forces, with all the people on board arrested and eventually deported including US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Irish Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire
Close to our boat, fishermen on board a battered long line fishing trawler wave at us smiling upon seeing us, making the victory sign with their hands.
But the view of the Gaza skyline from out there was desolate with the bombarded buildings overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Karl Schembri in Gaza