Located in the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, and Palestine’s only access to the ocean, the Gaza Strip could be a natural gateway to regional trade for the Palestinian economy. However, near daily shootings and arrests by Israeli forces since a ceasefire agreement last August are exacerbating a decade-long crisis in the fishing sector, with livelihoods particularly vulnerable following a 51-day war on the coastal territory.
At least eighty fishing boats, dozens of fishing huts, and hundreds of nets were destroyed during the Israeli military offensive last summer, according to Oxfam, adding further restrictions to the industry, which began in the year 2000.
The 2007 Israeli blockade, followed by a large-scale military offensive a year later, imposed a three nautical mile zone for fishermen along Gaza’s 40 km coastline, crippling an industry that could have been thriving in the blue expanse of the Mediterranean.
As a result, the numbers of fishermen registered in Gaza have dropped dramatically over the past ten years as the profitability of the sector continues to decrease.
In 2005, there were over 10,000 fishermen registered in Gaza, according to Oxfam. Today, that number stands at around 3,500, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Oxfam’s partner in Gaza, says only a third of those go out to sea regularly.
"Shootings Occur Daily"
Fishermen and Palestinian rights groups say there has been a notable increase in shooting incidents along Gaza’s coast since the ceasefire agreement last summer.
The agreement had promised to expand the fishing area to six nautical miles – still below the agreed twenty nautical miles under the Oslo Accords – but locals say nothing has changed and the Israeli navy is enforcing the zone with excessive force.
On March 7, Israeli naval forces shot and killed a Palestinian fisherman after a group of fishing boats allegedly strayed from the designated fishing zone.
In reality, the area has never been expanded past twelve nautical miles, with Israeli authorities claiming it is a security prevention measure.
Rights group Gisha says that Israel has often reduced the fishing zone to three nautical miles during escalations in fighting, such as when rockets have been fired from Gaza.
“This implies that the restriction was imposed as a punitive measure as there was, of course, no causal link between fishing beyond three nautical miles and the firing of rockets,” the executive director of the group said.
Hamdi Shaqqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza (PCHR), says the increase in attacks on fishermen is intentional and designed to stifle the industry, part of a wider set of measures which collectively punish Palestinians in Gaza:
“Attacks on fishing boats, confiscation of equipment, destruction of boats, fishermen wounded, and arrests are all regular and routine. They are almost a daily business for the Israeli navy.”
PCHR reports that nearly all of the attacks since August have taken place within six nautical miles from the coast, further proof that no fishing zone extension took place.
“Putting these restrictions in place prevents any opportunity for economic development and has nothing to do with so-called security, which is the justification for the land and sea closure,” Shaqqura says.
PCHR reports that there were over 236 attacks against fishermen in 2014, including 150 shooting incidents, the destruction of 14 boats, the confiscation of 25 vessels and the arrest of 51 fishermen.
“Everyone was hoping that the blockade would be lifted following the ceasefire. But it has not improved and there are almost daily incidents of shootings against fishermen,” Gaza spokesperson for Oxfam, Arwa Mhanna, says.
"Struggling to Survive"
Over 90 percent of fishermen in Gaza depend on aid for survival, and half live below the poverty line, Oxfam says.
During the war on Gaza, fishermen lost around $3 million in revenues due to restrictions on going out to sea, which PCHR estimates at 300-400 tons of fish.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that on average, fishermen miss out of on roughly 1,300 metric tons of fish per year due to Israeli restrictions since 2000, a massive financial loss for the sector, now one of the poorest in Gaza.
Despite the risks, some Palestinian fishermen head out to sea as most do not have any other livelihood option.
“The problem for fishermen is that they have invested everything they have in fishing boats. Often they sell the jewelry of their wives, take loans, or borrow money. But they have never been able to pay it back as they never receive profits,” Mhunna from Oxfam says.
During arrests, Israeli naval forces confiscate the boat and nets of fishermen, and they are often never returned. With fishing boats costing up to $10,000, a livelihood can be ruined instantaneously.
Israeli forces also often fire at the engine of the boat to disable the vessel during incidents, the most expensive part to repair, further adding to the financial woes of fishermen.
In a bid to mitigate the loss of equipment, and rising fuel prices, fishermen pool resources and share boats. But the majority of fish stocks lie beyond nine nautical miles off the coast, meaning the catch is often meager. Even if fishermen do achieve a modest catch, the Israeli blockade ensures they have no access to international markets, or to the West Bank.
“We firmly believe there is great potential for economic development in Gaza but Israel must lift its hands from the sea and land,” Shaqqura says.
“The same way Israeli fishermen have free access, to the Mediterranean and Atlantic seas, Palestinians need the same treatment: to be able to go into international territory.”