In the Interim Agreement, signed by Israel and the PLO as part of the Oslo Accords, Israel undertook to allow fishing boats from Gaza to go some 20 nautical miles (about 37 kilometers) from the coastline, except for several buffer zones near the borders with Israel and Egypt, to which they were prohibited entry. In practice, however, Israel did not issue permits to all the fishermen who requested them, and allowed fishing up to a distance of 12 nautical miles. Following the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, on 25 June 2006, Israel prohibited Gazan fishermen from going to sea for four months, and when fishing was again allowed, the distance was reduced to six nautical miles from shore. During the course of Operation Cast Lead, December 2008-January 2009, fishing ceased entirely due to the massive presence of Israeli naval forces. When fishing was resumed after the operation, the army reduced the distance to about three nautical miles (some 5.5 kilometers).
Video on the topic, Nov. 2008.
In addition to the harsh restrictions on fishing, B'Tselem has documented cases in which naval forces have attacked and harassed fishermen. The documented cases include, for example, gunfire, detention, delay, and confiscation of boats and fishing equipment. In some cases, these actions were also taken against fishermen who did not exceed the permitted distance from shore.
One of the techniques documented by B'Tselem is the “swimming procedure.” In this dangerous and degrading procedure, soldiers forced fishermen to sail into deep waters and then ordered them, while threatening them with weapons, to undress and swim to the navy's ship, in total disregard for the weather. The fishermen were then lifted onto the ship, which sailed to Ashdod Port. At the port, the fishermen were taken, handcuffed and blindfolded, to prolonged interrogation. Then, they were returned either to Erez Checkpoint or to the spot where their boats had been left, forcing them to swim back to the boats. According to testimonies of fishermen who underwent the “swimming procedure” and data from their GPS devices, these detentions took place in the area in which Israel's military had declared fishing was permitted.
The prohibition on entering deep waters and the danger now inherent to every excursion to sea deny fishermen access to areas abundant with fish, limiting their catches small fish of poor quality. As a result, it is extremely hard to earn a living from fishing, or even cover fishing expenses. Given the lack of other sources of income in the Gaza Strip, some fishermen are left no option but to violate the prohibition and endanger their lives. Also, the restriction of fishing to shallow waters has led to a sharp reduction of the fish population and harm to the habitat of young fish, endangering the future fish population.
The fishing sector in Gaza has suffered a sharp blow. According to various estimates, the livelihood of some 3,000 families in Gaza, comprising some 19,500 people, depends directly on the fishing industry, and another 2,000 families make a living from affiliated industries, such as building and maintenance of boats and sale and maintenance of equipment. The imports also raise the cost of fish, preventing many families from obtaining an important source of protein.. Because of the short supply, the price of fish has risen. Sardines, the fish with the highest demand in Gaza, rose from 10-12 shekels a kilo in 2008 to 23-25 shekels in May 2009.
In a response to B'Tselem in February 2007, the IDF Spokesperson's Office stated that the IDF's actions to limit the fishing area in Gaza was intended to serve security needs, primarily the need to prevent the smuggling of weapons and the movement of terrorists to and from Gaza, terrorist attacks at sea by booby-trapped boats, and the smuggling of the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza.
Israel has the obligation to protect its borders and residents and, when a threat arises, to take action to thwart it. However, security threats cannot justify the harsh and extensive harm to the fishing industry and the abuse and arbitrary detention of fishermen. Gunfire from naval ships endangers lives and breaches international humanitarian law, which requires the army to distinguish between citizens and combatants, and prohibits attacks against civilians.
To ensure these rights are not violated, the government of Israel must make public the open-fire regulations relating to the waters off the coast of Gaza, immediately cease the arbitrary detention and abuse of fishermen, and remove the harsh restrictions on fishing.