Abdelhakim Abu Riash
Al-Jazeera / August 23, 2023
Dozens in Gaza staged a sit-in after a new wave of violations by Israel saw fishermen arrested, boats seized.
Gaza City – Fisherman Nafez al-Sheikh says his dream is to be able to “fish freely” in the water off the coast of Gaza.
The small area Palestinian fishers can access under Israel’s at-times violent blockade of the besieged enclave is usually overcrowded with people trying to make a living, resulting in overfishing that has depleted fish stocks.
In an attempt to make room for each other, smaller fishing boats often sail out at dawn while the bigger ones follow in the afternoon, he said.
“If we have one good day, it’s usually followed by 10 bad days at sea,” he said.
Protests and pleas for protection
More than 200 fishers stood together on the docks of Gaza’s seaport on Tuesday to voice their anger at the continuing Israeli violations against them and to demand immediate international intervention.
The demonstration in the besieged enclave came as a round of escalation in the last 10 days saw the arrest of at least six fisherfolk and the seizure of multiple boats, according to Zakaria Bakr, the head of Gaza’s fishermen union.
Fishers who operate off the coast of Gaza are constantly chased, harassed, intimidated and even killed by Israeli forces, he said.
Seizures of fishing essentials like boats, engines and nets are also a regular occurrence.
That morning, a fisherman was targeted and injured by Israeli forces, Bakr told Al Jazeera. His engine was partially destroyed.
A frustrated Bakr said he believes Israel is using the Palestinian fishers as “lab rats” to try out new weapons.
Saad Eddin Ziadeh, director of the Lobbying and Advocacy Department at the Union of Agricultural Work Committees – the party that called for the solidarity event – said the sit-in’s objective was to keep attention on the struggles facing fishers in Gaza.
“The event comes to tell the international community to stop the shameful silence,” he said.
His frustration mirrors that of 4,000 fishermen in Gaza, who are constrained by the Israeli restrictions on how far they can go out to sea.
They can only access a small portion of the sea, with a fishing zone limit of six nautical miles (11km) in the north and 15 nautical miles in the east. But many of the fisherfolk in the east lack adequate equipment or fuel to even make it all the way out to 15 nautical miles.
But even within those limits, Bakr said, Israeli forces have targeted fishermen from “half a mile” out.
“We’re actually never left alone at all,” he said. “They are systematically destroying the fishing sector – and the world simply has to hear the plight of fishermen and their demands.”
Throughout his 44 years of fishing, Al-Sheikh said, his boat has been hit repeatedly.
“They harass both the big and small boats – mostly the small ones that are without an engine,” Al-Sheikh told Al-Jazeera, adding that Israeli forces deliberately open fire and spray boats with wastewater.
Under the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, Israel is obligated to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles, but this has never been implemented.
Any expansion to the fishing limit has had little effect on Gaza’s economy, which is heavily reliant on the fishing sector.
‘No one cares’
An Israeli land, aerial and naval blockade on Gaza since 2007 has added to the woes of nearly two million people there, who have also borne the brunt of several offensives over the years.
During these offensives which have heavily damaged much of the city’s infrastructure, fishing is often banned altogether.
The siege has blocked access to raw materials and has left most boats lacking the necessary renovations needed to function at full potential.
“It’s madness,” Bakr said. “Pretty much all of the fishermen’s engines are either outdated or damaged.”
Jamal Bakr, another fisherman, said he has been a victim of multiple crimes committed by Israeli forces. In 2010, his boat was taken and never returned.
And in 2012, during one of Israel’s assaults on the Strip, the dock where several fishers’ rooms were was bombarded. Jamal’s room and everything in it burned down in the blink of an eye.
In that room were 30 years’ worth of tools and resources for his family’s small fishing business, his daughter-in-law, Madelyn Culab, told Al-Jazeera.
Culab is the Gaza Strip’s only female fisher. She and her husband Khadr Bakr met at sea before getting married and now work together.
They say they don’t want their children – Sandy, Safinaz, and Jamal – to rely on fishing for a living because “it means poverty, deprivation and extreme risk,” Bakr told Al-Jazeera last year.
The family fell victim to Israel’s crimes several times, most notably back in 2016, when their boat, engine and net were seized.
“Until this day, we haven’t seen any sort of compensation for the boat, the engine, or the net – which was brand new,” Culab said. “No one cares about us, or thinks of us.”
After losing their source of living, they were forced to stop working for “quite some time”. Eventually, they applied for a $15,000 loan that they have used to buy a new boat and engine – forced to take on the debt to be able to feed the 20 family members they’re responsible for.
“Since 2016, we’ve been struggling to pay it off. Our whole life has become about how we’re going to pay off the debt and its mounting interest,” Culab said.
“We had to adjust to living with the bare minimum, and the hardest part was to teach our children to live with as little as possible, too,” she said.
Culab had previously told Al-Jazeera that she would have liked to open up a small seafood restaurant where she could secure a living for her family through something other than fishing.
But many of Gaza’s fisherfolk simply do not have any other sources of income, making them particularly vulnerable to restrictions by Israel.
An added stress factor has been the political situation in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, a group that has long been at loggerheads with Fatah, headed by the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.
The fragmentation has caused the further alienation of Gaza’s most vulnerable, Bakr said.
Only an end to the political fragmentation could allow the fishermen’s union to try Israel for its crimes in international courts, and demand financial compensation for damages it has inflicted, Bakr said.
“It’s our right as a population to benefit from the economic area at our disposal,” he said.
Culab also called for international protection as well as financial compensation for damages that likely exceed tens of millions of dollars.
The time has come to end the blockade, she added, and press for the entry of fishing equipment, in addition to holding Israel accountable for the crimes committed against Palestinian fisherfolk.
Abdelhakim Abu Riash is a Gaza-based photographer