Catches and incomes tumble as the Israeli navy, citing security concerns, restricts fishing to three nautical miles off the coast of Gaza.
Palestinian fishermen hemmed in
GAZA CITY // At the helm of his fishing vessel, Naheth Abu Ameera, 49, apologised for not being able to show his guests a haul. By way of explanation he reached down and picked out a tiny sardine from the net strewn on the side of the deck. "This is what we got this afternoon. We'll have to wait until tonight to get any kind of catch." Even then, however, the skipper did not expect a good haul. Ever since Israel's war on Gaza ended on Jan 22 and Gaza's 3,500 fishermen could take to the sea again, the Israeli navy has restricted fishing to within three nautical miles (approximately 5.5km) of shore. The sea's depth here is half of what fishermen could fish in before the war and the distance far less than the 20 nautical miles the Oslo accords and international maritime law stipulates. To Mr Abu Ameera it is the difference between tens of shekels and thousands of shekels in profit. The Israeli army cites a heightened security threat of infiltration from the sea, somewhat belying its claim that the war on Gaza dealt a significant blow to militants there. But fishermen and officials in Gaza say the extra restriction is part of Israel's siege on Gaza and is really designed to further undermine Gaza's devastated economy. "There is no security issue," said Nezar Ayyash of the General Syndicate of Marine Fishers. "The aim is economic. Israel wants to destroy Gaza's economy." The syndicate has 3,500 registered fishermen on its books, Mr Ayyash said. About 45,000 Gazans work in the industry, whether in repairs, onshore support or as merchants. With Gazans having an average family size of seven, the fishing industry helps support about 300,000 people, a significant proportion of Gaza's 1.4 million population. Compounding matters, March through May constitutes the sardine season, one of the most profitable for Gazan fishermen. Some, such as Mr Abu Ameera, depend on the season for the whole year. With 12 children, the skipper said he was going to struggle to make it through the year. One son's wedding has already had to be postponed because the family could not gather sufficient funds. "I used to have a good life. We never lacked for anything," said Mr Abu Ameera, as he surveyed the horizon for Israeli navy vessels. "Now, it's hardly a life anymore." Mr Ayyash, a fisherman like his father before him, said 2009 threatened to be the worst year for fishing in living memory. "Last year we thought we hit rock-bottom," he said. The syndicate estimates the total catch for 2008 at 2,700 tonnes. This year's catch is forecast to be no bigger than 1,000 tonnes. "I guess in Gaza, just when you think it can't get worse, it does just that," Mr Ayyash said. This year's projected total is not helped by the lack of fishing during the three weeks of Israel's war on Gaza. Mr Ayyash said the Israeli bombardment of the coast had done some US$400,000 (Dh1.5m) in direct damage to boats and other infrastructure. About 50 boats were destroyed or damaged during the bombardment. In total, the war cost the industry more than $2m. But it is the three nautical mile restriction that is really killing the industry. Mr Abu Ameera said he was lucky these days if he made 50 shekels (Dh40) in profit after a day's fishing. Last year, during the sardine fishing and when the limit was double that, he said, he could take in thousands of shekels in a single day's work. Mr Ayyash said the difference was exponential. The further out fishermen could reach, the greater the multiplier effect. During last year's sardine season, he said, Gaza's fishermen hauled in half a tonne of fish every day. When an international solidarity boat during that time accompanied 12 large vessels nearly 12 nautical miles from shore to protect them from the Israeli navy, those boats alone brought in 17 tonnes. "The deeper the sea, the better the fishing," Mr Ayyash said. The Israeli navy keeps a close watch on Gaza's fishing fleet, day and night. On Friday afternoon, and in spite of a near-total absence of Gazan vessels during the day, an Israeli patrol boat could still be seen with the naked eye from some two nautical miles out on Mr Abu Ameera's boat. The skipper said it was not unusual for navy boats to fire warning shots at stray vessels, something that he said had happened to him on several occasion, even though with a GPS system on board he said he had never strayed beyond the three nautical mile limit. According to figures from the marine fishers' syndicate, six Gazan fishermen have been killed by the navy since 2000 and 300 have been arrested. Since the war, 50 fishermen have been arrested, but all were released back into Gaza the same day, even if their boats were confiscated, Mr Ayyash said. This provided him with another reason to reject the Israeli army's security justification for the fishing limit. "If these people were security risks, how come they were all released the same day?" he said. Careful and squeezed into an ever-smaller zone, Gaza's fishing vessels are now clearly visible from shore at night as a long line of green lights, which they use to lure the fish at sea. It looks as if there's a festively decorated promenade only a short sail away from Gaza's shore. Like the apparent freedom of the sea, it is an illusion. "I still get a sense of freedom when I go out," Mr Abu Ameera said. "But not often anymore. It's more like a memory of freedom." As for Mr Ayyash, he said he was insisting on his children attending university. "I would prefer they became educated, maybe academics. They can always join me at sea if they can't find other work." email@example.com