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Israel destroying Gaza’s fishing sector

Fishermen at Gaza's fishing port. Photo by Suhaib Salem, Reuters, 4 April 2016
Fishermen at Gaza's fishing port. Photo by Suhaib Salem, Reuters, 4 April 2016

In 2000, Gaza had about 10,000 fishermen. Today, the Gaza Fishermen’s Association has only some 4,000 fishermen registered, who are the breadwinners for approximately 50,000 persons. This figure, however, is misleading as half the registered fishermen are actually out of work, since their boats are out of commission and cannot be repaired due to the shortage in necessary raw materials. Ninety-five percent of Gaza’s fishermen live under the poverty line, defined as a monthly income of less than 2,293 ILS (roughly 600 USD) for a family of five. These families rely on humanitarian aid, and belong to the 80% of Gaza’s overall population who rely on humanitarian aid. 

The decline of Gaza’s fishing sector is a direct result of Israel’s policy, which includes severe restrictions on marine access, fishing exports, and the entry of raw materials into Gaza, as well as harassment of fishermen:

a. Limited fishing zone:

In March 2016, Israel expanded the range in which it permits Gazans to fish from six to nine nautical miles off the Gaza coast. In June, it reduced the range back to six nautical miles (some 11 km). These restrictions are in place despite Israel’s obligation under the Oslo Accords to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles off the Gaza coastline. Israel has never lived up to this obligation, and the widest range it has ever permitted since the Accords were signed was 12 nautical miles. Over the years, the range was repeatedly reduced; at times, it was as little as three nautical miles. During periods of fighting between Israel and Gaza, fishing is prohibited altogether. Notices of changes in the permitted fishing zone are provided to the Fishermen’s Association by the Israeli DCO. The Israeli navy also marks the boundaries with buoys. The shrinking fishing zone has led to overfishing in a small area, resulting in a decreased fish population and depletion of fish breeding grounds.

b. Shortage of raw materials, equipment, and spare parts for repairing fishing boats:

Israel prohibits entry into Gaza of materials that are essential for maintenance and repair of fishing boats, including fiberglass, steel cables, engines and spare parts. Israel claims that these items fall under its definition of “dual-use materials”, i.e. materials “that are primarily designed for civilian use, but are suitable also for military use”. Over the course of 2016, delegates from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture and the Palestinian DCO met several times with the Gaza DCO Commander, most recently on 10 June 2016. In these meetings, the Palestinian delegates provided the Israeli side with a list of items needed for the fishing sector. Not a single item on the list has been cleared for entry to date. According to the Department of Fisheries in Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture, some 200 rowboats and five small motor boats are currently out of commission as the materials and equipment needed to repair them are unavailable. 

Motorized Hasake rowboat in Gaza's fishing port. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 11 Jan. 2017
Motorized Hasake rowboat in Gaza's fishing port. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 11 Jan. 2017

c. Shootings and arrests:

Over the course of 2016, B’Tselem received dozens of reports from fishermen that their boats had been struck by Israeli naval fire. Some of the fishermen were injured and others arrested. According to the testimonies, soldiers forced them, at gunpoint, to take their clothes off and swim over to the navy vessels, regardless of the weather. The fishermen’s testimonies, as well as GPS records on their devices, indicate that some were arrested although they hadn’t sailed beyond the military-permitted fishing zone.

Fishermen brought on board navy vessels were taken to Ashdod port in Israel, where they were interrogated while blindfolded and handcuffed. Their boats were confiscated. Following the interrogation, which often focused on attempting to gather intelligence on Hamas operatives, most fishermen were sent home without their boats. The Gaza Fishermen’s Association has reported that since April 2016, Hamas has arrested and interrogated Gaza fishermen who were returned by the military to Erez Crossing, holding them for several days.

According to the Department of Fisheries in Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture, the Israeli military arrested 113 fishermen over the course of 2016. Of these, 107 were released after interrogation and six are still in custody. Ten more fishermen were injured by Israeli navy fire. The Department of Fisheries has also reported that during 2016, the military confiscated 38 motorized Hasake rowboats and eight non-motorized ones. Only ten have thus far been returned to their owners, all in April. In 2015, 73 fishermen were arrested and 22 Hasake rowboats confiscated. At present, 14 boats are out of commission due to damage caused by the Israeli navy, either by shooting or during confiscation of the vessel. Department of Fisheries data also indicates that the direct losses suffered by Gaza fishermen in 2016 as a result of Israeli navy fire or confiscation of boats and equipment amounts to some 0.5 million USD. 

d. Restrictions on exporting catch to Israel and selling it in the West Bank:

Prior to the blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007, fishing was a thriving sector. Fishermen sold their catch in the West Bank and exported it to Israel, making a decent living. As part of the blockade, Israel has banned the sale of fish from Gaza in the West Bank or its export to Israel, devastating the fishermen’s livelihoods. In 2014, Israel began allowing restricted sales in the West Bank once again, but under fastidious limitations that raise the cost of the process, and therefore the price of the goods. Current sales of fish caught in Gaza to the West Bank are much lower than they were prior to the blockade. 

Israel’s practices with respect to Gaza’s fishing sector illustrate why it is impossible to accept its contention that it ended its responsibility for the fate of Gaza’s residents and for what takes place there upon completing implementation of its disengagement plan in 2005. Though Israel removed its regular military presence and settlements from Gaza, it continues to control many aspects of daily life there from a distance. The terrible harm it inflicts on fishermen has no justification, and is yet another facet of the cruel blockade policy that Israel has been implementing in Gaza for a decade.

Fishermen who gave their testimonies to B’Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah described the harsh circumstances forced on them: 

Mahmoud Sa’id Jum’ah Baker, 18, from a-Shati Refugee Camp, related on 5 Sept. 2016:

Mahmoud Baker. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 9 Sept. 2016

I work at fishing with my father and brothers, on a motorized Hasake rowboat. We go out to sea almost every day – off the shore of Gaza City and northward. We usually leave home at 5:00 A.M. and work until noon, depending on the situation and on how many fish there are. We sell the fish to merchants. Sometimes we catch twenty kilos of fish, sometimes ten or five, and sometimes not even a single fish. It depends on their availability, on the weather, and on what the Israeli navy does.

On Friday, 12 August 2016, we went out to sea at 5:00 A.M. I went out with my father, my four brothers, and a hired worker we have. We sailed to the area of a-Sudaniyeh, about 2.5 nautical miles northwest of the permitted fishing zone. By 8:00 A.M. we had caught about three kilos of farida (blue-pointed porgy). While we were working, an Israeli navy patrol boat approached us, followed by a rubber dinghy. We tried to get away. The patrol boat and the rubber dinghy chased us, firing live bullets and rubber[-coated metal] bullets into the air. After we’d gotten about 200 meters away, the soldiers ordered us to stop, and we did. They told us to take our clothes off and jump in the water. We took our clothes off and swam over to the rubber boat, one by one. It took us to the patrol boat. The soldiers blindfolded us, tied our hands, and sat us down next to each other.

After sailing for about an hour, the boat stopped. They took our blindfolds off and ordered us off the boat. It was Ashdod port. They gave us flip-flops and took us to a room, where they sat us down and blindfolded us again. Then a doctor came and took my temperature. He asked me if I was sick and I said I wasn’t.

Then they used metal handcuffs to tie our hands and put us in a small bus that took us to Erez Crossing. At the crossing, they replaced the metal handcuffs with zip ties and brought us in, one by one, to an interrogation room. I went in last. When I got in the room, there was an interrogator there. He started asking me why I was angry. I said I was angry because they’d taken our boat, which is our livelihood. He started saying that they’d taken the boat because we’d crossed the border, and I told him it wasn’t true. He asked where we’d been, and I said in the permitted area. Then he asked if I was afraid of getting hit by a bullet. I said no. The interrogator asked me to point our house out on a map on a computer. When I asked what he wanted with our house, he said he wanted to know if I was really a fisherman or not. I told him he’d taken my boat, which I use for work. He asked for my cell phone number, and I told him I don’t have one. The interrogator kept asking me about my uncle’s house and my neighbors’ houses. Then he asked where I wanted to work. I said I don’t know, because I have no job other than fishing. He asked if I wanted to work in Israel. I said no. Then he started telling me they’d get me a car or a motorbike. I said I didn’t want to and that I wanted to leave. The interrogator asked: Don’t you want to tell me about a house that belongs to someone from Hamas?

Then I was taken to a room where we waited for about an hour. At around 2:00 P.M., they told us to go to the departure hall that leads to Gaza. We walked all the way to the other side of the checkpoint, where Hamas police are stationed. They interrogated us about what happened at sea and at Erez. Then they took us to the Internal Security Services Headquarters at Jabalya, where they kept us until 8:00 P.M. From there, they transferred us to the Internal Security Services Headquarters in Gaza, at al-Ansar, where they arrested us. They gave us dark glasses instead of a blindfold, so we wouldn’t see anything. Then they asked me my name and led me to a small cell, 2 meters by 80 cm. Later, they brought me food and drink. The next day, Saturday, 13 August 2016, an officer took me into a room and asked me about what happened. Then they took me back to the cell. I stayed there until the next morning, Sunday, 14 August. Then they took me into an interrogation room where there were two officers. They asked me again about what had happened at sea and at Erez Crossing until I got to the Hamas checkpoint. Then they took me back to the cell, and I stayed there the next day, too. On Tuesday, 16 August, they transferred me to another cell, where my father was, and brought us a meal. At 3:00 P.M., they released us. The officers asked us not to go close to the border at sea, and not to put ourselves at risk so we don’t get arrested. Then they gave me a summons to a meeting on 31 August 2016, at 9:00 A.M.

I came on the set date. They sent me to a room on the fourth floor. An officer came and asked me again about what had happened at sea. He was looking at some paper in front of him, comparing what I was saying to the notes from the previous interrogation. When he finished the interrogation, he asked me: “Did you come from the sea?  I said I had. He said: “You won’t give up and still go to sea!” I told him it’s my work and that there’s no other work in Gaza.

Launch boats in Gaza's fishing port. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 11 Jan. 2017
Launch boats in Gaza's fishing port. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 11 Jan. 2017

Mustafa Muhammad Khalil a-Najar, 29, a married father of two from Rafah, said in a testimony from 19 July 2016:

I’ve worked in fishing with my father and brothers since I was 14 years old. We have six Hasake rowboats of various kinds and one Felucca sailing boat. On Monday, 18 April 2016, at 5:00 P.M., I set off from Rafah port with two hired workers. To save on fuel, a big launch boat tugged us out to sea. When we were about 8 nautical miles off shore, we disengaged from the launch. I turned toward the area off Khan Yunis, to keep away from the Egyptian border and stay out of dangerous areas. When I got to about 9 nautical miles off shore, we put the nets out and went to sleep on the boat, sometime between 10:00 P.M. and midnight. We waited for the wind to die down before pulling up the nets, which were spread to a distance of about 2 km. 

At 12:30 A.M., an Israeli military boat came from the northeast and started shooting from a large distance, straight at us. We got scared and turned on the motor and started fleeing to the southeast. The boat kept chasing us and shooting for about an hour. Our boat took a few bullets. When they started shooting directly at me and at the other people on the boat, I stopped. The Israeli boat stopped about 200 meters away from us. They sent a rubber boat over, and the soldiers ordered us to take our clothes off. We stayed in our underwear. They tied our hands behind our backs and brought us on to the rubber boat. They blindfolded us and took us to the ship, and had us sit in the bow. It was cold, and we asked for some clothes or something to cover ourselves. The soldiers refused. When we kept asking, they kicked us. Then they tied my boat to their boat and tugged it. We sailed to Ashdod port and got there at about 8:00 A.M. While we were sailing, I asked an officer on the ship about my boat, and he said it had been confiscated. I asked him when I would get it back, and he said within two weeks. When I asked him why they’d done it, he said I’d broken the law. 

When we got to Ashdod port, they gave us our clothes and took us into a room where there were already about seven fishermen from Rafah and Gaza. Their hands were tied with metal handcuffs and they were lying on the floor. We joined them. They left us like that, without food or drink. 

At noon, an officer came and told us we would be taken to Erez Crossing and interrogated there. We all asked about our boats. He said they were confiscated at Ashdod port and that one had been hit in the bow, and the navy was trying to keep it from sinking. I knew it was my boat. Then they put us a bus that drove us to Erez checkpoint, where Shabak (Israel Security Agency) interrogators questioned each of us separately. The interrogator asked me for my details and took down my cell phone number. He told me I’d exceeded the 9-nautical-mile range and that was why they shot at us and confiscated my boat. I told him I hadn’t sailed past the buoy that the military had put out and that I’d stayed within the nine-mile range. I asked him about my boat and he said it hadn’t sunk yet, and that it was with the rest of the boats that had been confiscated. My interrogation lasted about half an hour and ended at around 4:00 P.M. At about 6:30 P.M., they let us go and we went back to Gaza.

Later that day, I contacted the Ministry of Agriculture, the Fishermen’s Association, and the Coast Guard. They told me my boat was at Ashdod port. After about ten days, I was told by the Fisheries Department that my boat had sunk and that the Israeli ship hadn’t managed to salvage it. 

I make most of my income from fishing. My boat was seven meters long and there was a lot of expensive equipment on it. We bought it about four years ago, and it’s now worth 20,000 ILS [over 5,000 USD]. The motor was worth 30,000 [almost 8,000 USD]. I sold my wife’s jewellery for about 3,000 JOD [just over 4,000 USD] in order to buy it. I also took out a loan for the same amount from relatives and acquaintances. I still owe money to the suppliers. Because I didn’t have the boat, I missed the grouper and porgy season. Losing the boat caused problems with other members of the family, too, because they had also used it for their livelihoods. The employees who were with me that day lost their jobs. I’m heartbroken about the boat and the motor – they were new and I can’t afford to buy others to replace them. Ever since that happened, I’ve been sitting at home with nothing to do. 

Ahmad Abu Hamadah. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 27 Jan. 2017
Ahmad Abu Hamadah. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 27 Jan. 2017

Ahmad Jamal Lutfi Abu Hamadah, 29, a married father of four from a-Shati Refugee Camp, said in his testimony on 16 November 2016:

I work as a fisherman on one of my dad’s four Hasake rowboats. I started working in fishing when I was 17 years old. Our boats are made of fiberglass and they require constant maintenance and replacement of fiberglass parts due to saltwater damage, crashes with other boats at the port, or just wear, and also because of Israeli navy fire. About a year and a half ago, the boat I work on crashed into the port dock. There were high winds and the rope tying it to the dock had broken. The bow got holes in it. The side of another of our boats also crashed, apparently by a fisherman who hit it when it was docked at the port, but we don’t know who it was. 

We pretty much stopped working on both these boats because of their state. They constantly had to be drained, and we had to make sure they didn’t fill with water so we wouldn’t sink. We tried to get fiberglass to fix them but it was very hard to find, because Israel has been banning this material from coming in for a few years now. Before the ban, a kilo of fiberglass that came from Israel cost 16 ILS [around 4 USD]. Then there was fiberglass that came from Egypt through the tunnels, but in 2013 they got shut down. Since then, there’s been a shortage and the only fiberglass available is what they make here in Gaza. It’s much more expensive. I decided to get fiberglass anyway, and I bought 8 kilos for 80 ILS [around 21 USD] per kilo. I bought another 2 kilos of paint for 50 ILS [around 13 USD] and three meters of a special wrapping cloth for 180 ILS [a little over 45 USD]. I also paid 300 ILS [almost 80 USD] for timber and labor. So, altogether, repairing a small part in the bow of the boat cost me about 1,500 ILS [almost 400 USD]. I didn’t have the money, so I had to borrow it so I could work and make a living.

The repair to the other boat is more significant. It would cost 2,500 ILS [around 660 USD], and we can’t fix it at the moment. We will have to do it soon though, because I work with my father and my three brothers, and that’s our entire family’s livelihood. Now, with the boat out of commission, our income is very low, especially during winter when there isn’t much fishing.

The ban on fiberglass causes a lot of losses to fishermen, because we can’t fix boats and continue working, which makes everyone’s already difficult financial situation even worse.

Ahmad Abu Hamadah by his boat, now out of commission. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 26 Jan. 2017
Ahmad Abu Hamadah by his boat, now out of commission. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 26 Jan. 20177