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From the field

Lift the restrictions on the Gaza fishing range

Update: On Tuesday, 21 May 2013, the IDF spokesperson and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories announced that the prime minister and the minister of defense had authorized the IDF to extend the fishing range in the Gaza Strip from three to six nautical miles.

Reduction of the fishing range in the Gaza Strip in response to missile fire on southern Israel constitutes collective punishment and severely damages the livelihood of Gaza fishermen.

This past Thursday (21 March 2013) the IDF spokesperson announced that the Israeli military will once again reduce the permitted fishing range in the Gaza Strip from six nautical miles to three (approximately 5.5km). This is in response to missile fire by armed Palestinian groups towards the south of Israel on Thursday morning. In doing so, the military reinstated the harsh restrictions imposed on Gaza's fishermen prior to Operation Pillar of Defense. Earlier, the military announced it will close the Kerem Shalom crossing between Gaza and Israel in response to the shooting.

Gaza fishing range. Illustration:

Under the Oslo Agreements, the fishing range was 20 nautical miles (approximately 37 km). However, over the years, the Israeli military gradually reduced this range, severely damaging the livelihood of thousands of families and the availability of this basic and inexpensive food in the markets, which had served as a significant nutritional source.

Following Operation Pillar of Defense, Israeli expanded the range from three to six miles, which somewhat improved the situation. The decision to once again reduce the fishing range in response to missile fire by armed groups constitutes collective punishment imposed on fishermen for the actions of others. Article 33 in the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids collective punishment and states that a person must not be punished for an act that he or she did not commit. It is Israel's duty to protect its borders and its citizens and to act to neutralize a threat when it arises, but this cannot justify the harsh damage to fishermen who have done nothing wrong.

B'Tselem calls on the military to rescind its latest decision and the restrictions imposed on fishermen in the Gaza Strip in the past years, and to permit fishing in the 20 miles range, as was set under the Oslo Agreements.

Background on restrictions on fishing in the Gaza Strip

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 Palestinians who did not take part in hostilities have been killed under such circumstances.

Data from the UN agency, 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%), 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 (about US$2.50) for a kilo of sardines in 2008 to 20NIS (about US$5.00) 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.

Since Operation Pillar of Defense until today, about 40 fishermen were arrested in this manner. Most of them had passed the six miles line. Two fishermen were injured by live fire by the Israeli navy towards the boats and the fishermen. Eight boats and about 20 nets were seized, none of which has yet been returned to their owners. In 2012, about 40 fishermen were detained 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.

Following Operation Pillar of Defense, which ended on November 22, 2012, the media reported that in the context of the ceasefire negotiations, Israel and Hamas reached understandings that include the easing of restrictions on the movements of farmers and fishermen in the Gaza Strip. As a result, the military doubled the permitted fishing range from three to six nautical miles. An inquiry by B'Tselem with the Fishermen’s Association in Gaza port reveals that the restrictions were indeed implemented until 21.03.2012 and improved the situation of the fishing industry in Gaza.

However, a fishing range of six nautical miles is also far from meeting the needs of the population in the Gaza Strip and guaranteeing the livelihood of those who are dependent on the fishing industry. As stated above, under the Oslo Agreements, the fishing range is set to be 20 nautical miles (37 km).