Fishing in Gaza, Occupied Palestine
Yellow and white fishing boats are moored for the day. Next to the intensely blue sea and brilliant sunshine, the initial colourful impression is one of tradition and familiarity. I am not a fisherman, but living in Vancouver on Canada’s Pacific Coast, I appreciate the many ways in which the sea is of importance to coastal communities. The salt air, sight of the gentle waves rocking the boats, and the hungry screeching of the seagulls pleases me.
Walking closer to the boats, I notice the well-worn patina of years of salt-water damage. Rusted machinery, chipping paint and badly damaged nets reflect the limited resources available for regular maintenance.
I am at the port of Gaza, to meet with Mahfouz Kabariti. In addition to being the Coordinator of the Fishermen's Solidarity Campaign in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Kabariti is the President of the Palestine Sailing Federation and the President of the Palestine Society for Marine Sports. We talk about the new international solidarity project - Gaza’s Ark. Unlike previous maritime challenges of the Israeli blockade of Gaza that involved ships sailing to Gaza, Gaza’s Ark will build a boat in Gaza and sail out to the world from Gaza– challenging the illegal blockade from within.
As we walked along the pier, we met a group of fishermen. They invited us aboard to have tea. That afternoon I heard stories unlike anything I could ever have imagined. Tales of Israeli war ships attacking fishers at sea. People forced at gunpoint to strip, jump into the sea and swim towards navy vessels to be brutally interrogated for fishing. One man told of his son who was killed by Israeli gunfire while fishing.
While I had read about the naval blockade of Gaza, perused UN charts, it was not until I talked to these men that the horror of this aspect of the blockade crystalized in my mind.
Fishing Threatened by Israel’s Blockade of Gaza
Fishing the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Gaza in Occupied Palestine is dangerous. Very dangerous. The most significant risks confronting the Gazan fishing community are not the forces of nature. The turbulent waters these fishers face on a daily basis are caused by a belligerent navy acting on behalf of Israel’s illegal occupation and crushing blockade. Naval gunships aggressively enforce an arbitrary three nautical mile fishing limit. It is this mean-spirited, aggressive practice that prevents the fishers from practicing their traditional profession. The few and small fish inhabiting the shallow waters close to shore cannot sustain their livelihood.
Should the fishers attempt to sail out to deeper waters, they risk being shot at by navy gunboats. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented 92 attacks launched by the Israeli Occupation Forces between January and June 2012. Needless to say, it is absolutely prohibited by international law to target civilians. Moreover, even within the ever-shrinking permitted “fishing zone range”, the Israeli Navy continues to deliberately fire on the fishing boats and to harass and arrest its crew.
A Little Context
Gaza is a forty-two-kilometre long and six-kilometre wide strip of land, bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, that is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (The West Bank and East Jerusalem comprise the rest of Occupied Palestine.)
Unlike one’s customary image of a Mediterranean coastal paradise, Gaza is an impoverished, ecologically damaged, economically destitute and dangerous, humanitarian disaster zone. The inhabitants’ fundamental human rights are completely abridged. Basic freedoms such as freedom of movement, self-determination and the right to life are eclipsed in Gaza – as in the rest of Palestine.
1.6 million people reside in the tiny Gaza Strip, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world; over 4,500 people per square kilometre. Unemployment in Gaza remains at 34%. The poverty level is 38%. A shortage of basic foods, medicines, fuel and building supplies further undermine quality of life and social cohesion and contributes to chronic medical illnesses and psychological distress.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to this on-going misery is that these severe living conditions are directly attributable to a purposeful policy of containment and subjugation - enforced by Israel’s military dictatorship.
People live in deplorable conditions because of wilfully thought-out political decisions aimed at collective punishment and continued colonization.
Impact of the Israeli Blockade on Fishing in Gaza
Following the Oslo Accords, Gazan fishermen were allowed access to waters 20 nautical miles from the shore. In 2002, Israel reduced the permitted fishing zone to 12 nautical miles. In 2006 the allowable zone was further restricted to 6 nautical miles, and since the devastating Operation Cast Lead (December 2008 to January 2009) - and where it stands to date - fishing is not permitted beyond three nautical miles off the coast.
Thus 85% of fishing waters are now inaccessible to the Gazan fishing community.
Since 2010, the Israeli Navy arrested 66 fishers, including seven children.
Prior to being arrested, often within the sanctioned, militarily enforced fishing zone, fishermen are typically and sadistically ordered to remove their clothing and to swim to the patrol boats. Once on board, they are blindfolded and interrogated. The Palestinians can have their boats seized and they face imprisonment.
The rationale for this aggressive, and increasingly lethal action is that the fishing boats may be carrying weapons intended for coastal Israel. If that was the real concern, why not simply search the boats?
Fishers represent the most impoverished sector of Gazan society. In 2012 90% of fishing folks were at the poverty level. In 2008, there was a 50% poverty rate amongst the fishers. The rate in which the fishing life-style is being destroyed is tragic. In 2009, 53% less fish were caught then just one year earlier. Today there is 35% less income generated by fishing then there was in 1999. Due to these restrictions, fishing has been reduced by 65% in ten years.
There are now 3, 500 fishermen, and I understand one fishing woman – Go Girl! - attempting to eke out a living and heroically maintain a traditional way of life that is being destroyed by occupation forces. 65,000 people’s lives are impacted by these maritime closures and 26.5 million dollars in potential revenue has been lost in the last five years.
The human cost? Totally preventable devastation due to an illegal and brutally enforced closure policy.
This outrage must be stopped!
Oliva – An International Civil Response to the Unfolding Catastrophe
One courageous civil response to this humanitarian catastrophe is the work done by people sailing out on the small boat, The Oliva. Oliva started its work in April 2011. The international crew escorts the Gazan fishers while working within the permitted waters. By documenting the inevitable violent incursions by the Navy, they are able to limit the Navy’s aggressive behaviour and furnish valuable data to human rights organizations. The ultimate aim is of course to end the illegal assault on Gazan fishers. Fishing is a time-honoured profession. It is a way of life; a way to sustain a family, a community and indeed a culture. It certainly is not a crime, nor is it a threat to Israel’s security. State-sanctioned attempts at destroying a vital aspect of Palestinian maritime culture must therefore be resisted.
What We Are Doing
Recently the Oliva has come under fierce naval attack and has sustained damage. We were asked by the Gazan activists working with the Oliva to raise $600 to replace the boat’s radio as it suffered irreparable salt-water damage. People reading this may have been amongst those generous individuals who responded to the need. I am delighted to report that to date $760 was raised. I have wired the money for replacement of the radio to the Palestinian Association for Fishing and Marine Sports. They are in close contact with the crew of the Oliva. This new radio is essential and it will ensure that the solidarity workers can continue their valuable mission of ensuring that the Military Occupation and Blockade of Gaza does not destroy a traditional fishing-based lifestyle.
Thank you kindly.
John Max Soos, PhD
Clinical Psychologist, Peace and Social Justice Advocate
Vancouver, BC Canada