Gaza fishermen finally get fiberglass for boat repairs

White strips of fibreglass are laid out on the ground (AFP)

AFP  /  December 5, 2022

A 15-year Israeli ban on the vital material had threatened the livelihood of many Palestinians.

Wearing sky-blue overalls near Gaza’s port, technician Mohammed Jerboa celebrates the chance to repair fishing boats after a 15-year Israeli ban on vital materials.

It is a “great achievement”, he said after sanding down the faded paint as part of a team patching up rickety vessels with sheets of newly imported fiberglass.

The material has been prohibited from the Palestinian enclave since 2007, as one of scores of items Israel claims can be used for military purposes by Gaza militants.

The measures have left fishermen struggling for years to earn their living due to the state of their boats — until the UN brokered a deal that allows fiberglass to reach a supervised workshop.

“I started working at this workshop two weeks ago … for the fishermen and for us as technicians, this provided a job opportunity,” Mr Jerboa says.

According to World Bank data, Gaza has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates — nearly 50 per cent.

Dust flies as the team gets to work, within view of a security camera, while the smell of fresh paint drifts across the fenced yard from a recently refurbished boat.

Rows of unseaworthy vessels rest in the sand nearby, with rusty parts and covered in scratches, laying bare the scale of the task at hand.

Manal al-Najjar, a co-ordination officer at the UN Office for Project Services, says there are still about 300 boats to be fixed.

After months of negotiations with Palestinian and Israeli officials, the UN reached a deal which allows enough fiberglass for 10 boats to enter Gaza at a time.

“The repair process takes two weeks to a month for every 10 boats,” Ms Al-Najjar says.

With the first repaired boats hitting the water, she says the fishermen are happy with the project because “the price is very reasonable and the quality of the materials is high”.

Standing near piles of nets at the port, fisherman Saleem al-Assi is one of the first to be selected for the project and agrees that the costs are low.

“I’ve had boats out of action for eight years and they need a lot of fiberglass,” says Mr Al-Assi, who has about 50 relatives working in the fishing trade.

“Hundreds of fishermen applied to the project, but the project can’t cover everyone.”

In addition to difficulty obtaining materials, the fishing industry has been hit by restrictions at sea.

As part of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, imposed in 2007 after the Palestinian militant group Hamas took power, the Israeli navy enforces a fishing zone that limits the catch.

Israel has fought four wars with Palestinian militants in Gaza over the past 14 years, as well as a three-day conflict in August which left 49 Gazans dead.

At the port, Mr Al-Assi welcomes the fiberglass project but is disappointed that he still cannot get his family’s nine boats out to sea.

“We only have two motors. Motors are non-existent,” he says.

Ms Al-Najjar acknowledges the shortage and says the UN plans to import motors as part of its project.

Standing beside the calm Mediterranean waters, Mr Al-Assi says the lack of equipment due to the Israeli restrictions has “suffocated us”.

“I don’t know why Israel is blocking their entry,” he says. “Will rockets be fired from boats?”