Gaza Strip – Under cover of early morning darkness, Hassan Zidan, a Palestinian fisherman in Gaza, puts on warm clothes and ventures out to sea in a rickety fishing boat along with his friends.
They hope to catch a good amount of fish to sell in the morning market. But before that, they will have to face a series of dangerous obstacles that hundreds of Palestinian fishermen are coping with on a near-daily basis.
“Only a few days ago, the Egyptians arrested four fishermen, and the week before that, Israelconfiscated five fishing boats,” Zidan told Al Jazeera, saying both incidents had no pretext or clear reason.
Israel enforces its 12-year blockade on the Gaza Strip with tens of gunboats that set the terms for an ever-changing limit on how far the fishermen can sail out into the Mediterranean Sea, keeping a tight grip on the siege against the impoverished enclave.
Fishermen in Gaza often clash with the gunboats, sometimes with deadly consequences on the Palestinian side.
“Almost every day, we receive news about our friends at sea coming under Israeli shelling or being sprayed with skunk water, or fired at with rubber bullets and live ammunition,” fisherman Ibrahim Haniya told Al Jazeera.
“The blockade and the Israeli navy have turned our profession into a suicidal pursuit. You never know if you’ll make it back alive from the sea,” Haniya added.
In a rare positive gesture to Gaza’s fishing community, Israel announced last month a pack of unilateral measures aimed at easing the blockade as part of a ceasefire agreement with the ruling authority in Gaza – Hamas.
The measures, most notably, included an unprecedented expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone to 15 nautical miles (28km), the largest range allowed by Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
According to the Israeli body that oversees the occupation of Palestinian territories, COGAT, or Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, this fishing range expansion meant a “civilian policy to prevent humanitarian deterioration in the Gaza Strip, and policy that distinguishes between terrorism and the uninvolved population”.
However, Palestinian fishermen in Gaza argue that the devil lies in the details of the expansion, saying the rules of when and where they may fish are arbitrary.
“We were shocked when we learned the details of this Israeli decision. The criteria they impose make this move entirely unpractical,” Zakaria Bakr, head of Gaza’s fishermen union, told Al Jazeera.
Bakr explained a long list of obstacles and threats that render the move “redundant” and “empty”, blaming COGAT for “disseminating false news and misleading pictures to boast that they care about us, while in reality, they do everything possible to make our job impossible”.
Bakr argues that “there’s no improvement here whatsoever. This expansion is only made for media consumption, at best”.
He explained how Israel’s tight restrictions on commercial imports in Gaza have made the fishing range expansion “meaningless”, changing nothing in their daily struggle to make ends meet.
“To utilise this expansion, we first need new fishing equipment. Israel continues to ban the entry of almost everything we need under the pretext that our requirements are on the long list of prohibited ‘dual-use’ items,” Bakr told Al Jazeera. “We can only import plastic wires to make fishing nets, nothing more.”
Adding to Bakr’s argument, Zidan told Al Jazeera that “in order to sail to the edges of the 15-nautical mile zone, we need bigger boats, reliable GPS systems and advanced fishing tools, but we can’t get any of this”.
“We try to make the best of what we have, but our boats are older than Israel’s blockade and Israel doesn’t even let fibreglass in to fix them. The engines, navigation systems and fishing nets are all weary without means for maintenance,” he said.
Bakr explained that Israel put strict criteria on what kind of boats were allowed to sail into the expanded part of the fishing zone; namely small boats.
He also pointed out that Israel’s 15-nautical mile expansion of the fishing range is confined to the southern part of the zone that neighbours Egypt. The northern fishing zone near Israel’s borders, however, is still strictly limited to 6 nautical miles (11km).
“They keep changing the map. It’s so vague that it needs a surveying engineer to decode it, instead of simple fishermen, who lack basic GPS navigation tools due to the blockade,” Bakr said.
He also complained about harassment and provocations that fishermen are often subjected to by Israel’s military at sea, including arbitrary arrests, spraying with skunk water and confiscation of, or shooting at, their boats.
“The Israeli navy invades our fishing zone anytime at free will,” Bakr said. “The number of Israeli navy ambushes and traps has doubled, and without proper navigation tools, we cannot avoid them.”
“To save Gaza’s endangered fishing industry, we need international protection so that fishermen can perform their jobs without fearing death, injury or losing their boats,” he added.
“We also call on Israel to release all boats and engines it confiscated from us, and to allow needed imports into Gaza.”
The blockade on Gaza has wrecked the enclave’s economy, and dramatically diminished the purchasing power, putting many trades, including the fishing industry, in a critical state.
“Even if I capture a good amount of fish and make it safely back to town, it would be difficult to find buyers,” Zidan told Al Jazeera.
About 80 percent of Gaza’s population is dependent on food aid, which renders fish an unaffordable luxury for many.
Israel also restricts the outflow of production in Gaza, making it virtually impossible to export to the outside world, or even to the occupied West Bank.
“We were born at the sea, we belong there. We inherited this profession from our parents for generations,” Mohammed Miqdad told Al Jazeera.
“But under Israel’s blockade, we’ve become the most oppressed, abused and bullied part of society. They are trying to drive us to utter despair, but we will nonetheless continue to struggle to preserve this heritage,” he added.