Access eased for Gaza farmers and fisherman

Published: 
27 Nov 2012
Updated: 
28 Nov 2012

Gaza fishermen's port. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem. 16 Feb. 2012.
Gaza fishermen's port. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem. 16 Feb. 2012.

Media reports state that in the ceasefire negotiations to end Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel and Hamas reached understandings that include the easing of restrictions on the movement of farmers and fishermen in the Gaza Strip.

Among other things, it was agreed that the Israeli military would permit Gaza farmers to cultivate plots located up to 100 meters from the Israel-Gaza perimeter fence. This is a change from the official Israeli prohibition of recent years which forbade any approach closer than 300 meters from the fence. In addition, Gaza fishermen may now fish up to six nautical miles (approximately 11 km) from the Gaza coast, compared with the 3-mile limit imposed prior to Operation Pillar of Defense.

B’Tselem welcomes the change in policy regarding the presence of Palestinians in areas near the perimeter fence. In recent years, B’Tselem has documented many instances in which the military fired live ammunition at Palestinian farmers and workers who came within 300 meters of the fence. There have even been cases in which the military fired at Palestinians that were as far as 1.5 km from the fence. However, media reports also suggest that the Israeli military, in accordance with the "apprehension of suspects" procedure, plans to maintain its policy of permitting the firing of live ammunition at the legs of any person coming within 100 meters of the fence. More serious yet is another directive, also issued at the conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense, permitting soldiers stationed along the perimeter fence to fire at the knees of any person trying to touch the fence. The use of live ammunition to keep people away from a particular location is illegal, and the military has other, non-lethal means of crowd control at its disposal.

Concerning the longstanding restrictions on Gaza fisherman, the reported doubling of the permitted fishing range from three to six nautical miles is a positive development and the Fishermen’s Association at the Gaza port confirmed to B’Tselem that this step has already been implemented. However, these improvements are nowhere near enough for meeting the needs of the population and ensuring a decent living for all who rely on fishing for their livelihood. Under the Oslo accords, the permitted fishing range was set at 20 nautical miles (approximately 37 km). In practice, the Israeli military initially allowed fishing up to 12 nautical miles from the Gaza shore, but as the years went by, it reduced this fishing range. As of January 2009, following Operation Cast Lead, the military limited the range to three nautical miles.

Background: Firing at Palestinians in areas near the Gaza perimeter fence

From January 2009, after Operation Cast Lead ended, and through October 2012, twenty two Palestinians who took not part in the fighting were killed in areas alongside the Gaza perimeter fence. During this period of time, B’Tselem documented another thirty cases in which Palestinian farmers and workers, not involved in combat, were injured by live Israeli military fire. Additional cases of injury under similar circumstances were documented by other organizations.

On several occasions, the military distributed leaflets warning that any person coming within 300 meters of the perimeter fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip was endangering himself. The leaflets warned that the military would take any action necessary, including the use of firearms, against anyone who violate the prohibition, regardless of the person’s identity or actions. B’Tselem documentation shows that soldiers also fired at civilians who were more than 300 meters away from the fence, even in cases in which the civilians clearly posed no danger to the soldiers.

The IDF Spokesperson’s office provided the following justification for this policy: “The area near the perimeter fence constitutes a combat zone, and terrorist organizations use it to plant bombs, plan terror attacks and attempt abductions of IDF soldiers.” B’Tselem does not dispute that these areas have been exploited for activities of Palestinian armed groups. Nonetheless, the behavior of the military in this area clearly demonstrates that it was able to distinguish between ordinary civilians and people involved in combat. Nearly all the armed Palestinians shot in the vicinity of the perimeter fence were injured by firing from the air, by tank shells or by mortar fire. In contrast, most of the civilians injured or killed in the area were hit by small-arm ammunition usually fired at their lower extremities.

A 2010 report by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) maintains that, in practice, the areas to which Palestinian access was restricted and where any person was at high risk of injury encompassed 62.6 square kilometers and ranged from 500 to 1,500 meters from the fence. These areas comprise 17% of the total area of the Gaza Strip and some 35% of its farmland. Ninety-five percent of the areas with restricted access were cultivated farmland.

Because they had no alternative source of livelihood, many Palestinians felt compelled to enter the restricted areas despite the grave risk. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip for September 2012 was approximately 32%. The land in the areas with restricted access has broad employment potential, including growing crops, sheep- and goat-herding, bird hunting, firewood gathering, and scrap collection. As far back as 2010, B’Tselem contacted the Israeli Military Advocate General (MAG) demanding an investigation of the open-fire regulations for the area near the Gaza Strip border. To date, no response has been received from the MAG. B’Tselem also contacted the MAG Corps demanding an investigation into the circumstances of Israeli military firing in these areas in 10 cases of Palestinian fatalities and 26 cases of injuries, all occurring in the period between the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead and the end of October 2012. As far as is known to B’Tselem, the Israeli Military Police is investigating two cases of fatalities and six cases of injuries.

Statistics: Palestinian fatalities near the Gaza perimeter fence

Palestinians killed near the perimeter fence by small-arms fire Total number of Palestinians killed near the perimeter fence by all weapon types
Did not participate in combat Participation in combat unknown Participated in combat Did not participate in combat Participation in combat unknown Participated in combat
1 1 1 5 1 9 2012
10 12 1 8 2011
3 7 2 26 2010
8 8 8 2009 (from19 January 2009)
22 1 1 32 4 51 Total number since the end of Operation Cast Lead 

Background: Restrictions on fishing in Gaza

Under the Oslo accords, Gaza fishermen could go out to a distance of 20 nautical miles (approximately 37 km) from shore. In practice, the Israeli military initially allowed them to fish at a maximum distance of only 12 nautical miles. Over the years, Israel reduced this range and after Operation Cast Lead limited it to three nautical miles (approximately 5.5 km). In 2011 the Israeli navy even placed buoys to mark the 3-nautical-mile boundary. Navy craft would fire warning shots at fishing boats that approached the buoys and fishermen who risked going beyond the borders of the closed area were apprehended via the dangerous and humiliating “swimming procedure” and their boats were confiscated. Since 2000, four Palestinian who did not take part in hostilities have been killed under such circumstances.

Data from OCHA indicate that, between 2000 and 2010, the number of fishermen in Gaza dropped from about 10,000 to fewer than 4,000. In Gaza, where unemployment is high, currently at 32% as mentioned above, this significantly curtailed the livelihood of thousands of families as well as the availability of a basic, inexpensive food in the markets – fish having been an important part of the Gaza diet. The Fishermen’s Association in Gaza port said that despite the significant decrease in the number of fishermen, the diminished fishing area could not accommodate all the fishermen, so they staggered their departures and sometimes even breached the prohibition on sailing toward Egypt, where they bought fish from Egyptian fishermen. These combined difficulties led to a massive price increase: from 10NIS for a kilo of sardines in 2008 to 20NIS a kilo in 2012. Moreover, as a result of the restrictions and the limited fishing area, the shallow waters where fishing was permitted were overfished, diminishing fish reserves and harming the habitat of young fish, thereby endangering future fish reserves.

Over the past few years, B’Tselem has collected dozens of testimonies from fisherman apprehended via the dangerous and humiliating “swimming procedure”: fishermen were compelled to undress at gunpoint and swim from their boat to a navy craft, regardless of weather conditions. The fishermen were then brought aboard and taken to the port at Ashdod, inside Israel. The fishing boats were seized and towed away. At the Ashdod port, the fishermen were taken blindfolded and handcuffed to interrogation, and later returned to Gaza via the Erez checkpoint. Based on fishermen’s testimonies and data from their boats' GPS, some were apprehended this way even without having strayed beyond the military’s designated fishing limits.

In 2012, about 40 fishermen were arrested in this manner and 13 boats were seized, six of which were returned to their owners. In 2011, 24 boats were seized, 15 of which were returned through the Kerem Shalom crossing. Fishermen whose boats are returned must pay a 500 NIS fee to the moving company that transported their boat from the port at Ashdod to the Gaza Strip.