Gaza City – Shortly after Israel retracted its decision to allow Gaza fishermen access to six nautical miles instead of three, Ashraf Hessy abandoned his fishing boat he worked on for more than 25 years and decided to work as a fishmonger instead.
Ashraf, 38, a father of eight, said three nautical miles is hardly better than zero, with no fish to be had in the limited zone.
“I used to make almost $30 a day, but now $3 is the maximum I can do. This is why I left fishing,” Ashraf said.
Last November, Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza reached a ceasefire agreement ending eight days of fighting. The agreement also stipulated that Israel would increase the fishing zone from three to six nautical miles.
But when two rockets were fired into the southern Israeli city of Sderot last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defence Moshe Yaalon instructed the Israeli military to constrict the permitted fishing zone back to three, according to a joint statement by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Israeli military.
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“The IDF (Israeli military) considers this incident with great severity and holds the Hamas terror organisation responsible for any hostile activity emanating from the Gaza Strip,” the statement said.
Ashraf’s colleague, Abu Muhammad, recently borrowed $50,000 ahead of sardine season, which started in early April. Upon learning that the zone would be narrowed, Abu Muhammad had a heart attack.
“Abu Muhammad has been at the hospital until now. I understand his loss: none of us expected the fishing zone would be restricted at this very wrong time,” Ashraf said.
Fishermen in this coastal enclave have often suffered from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, fishermen have not been permitted more than three nautical miles of sea access – although the 1993 Oslo accords between the Palestinian Authority and Israel grants fishermen 20 nautical miles.
Muhammad al-Hessy, the deputy head of a fishermen’s union, said thousands of fishermen have lost their sources of income after Israel’s recent decision.
“Three miles can’t provide fishermen with the minimum they need. Especially with the sardine season coming, it’s a great loss for them,” he said.
Even before the limit was reduced to three nautical miles, Gaza fishermen say they were often subjected to violations by Israel. Dozens of fishing boats were forced to the Israeli seaport of Ashdod with the fishermen on board for investigation, and ships were often seized without being returned.
Earlier this month, dozens of fishermen and international activists led a flotilla of more than 50 boats from the Gaza seaport to the Gaza town of Beit Lahia and back to demand the return of 36 fishing boats seized by Israel.
The event, organised by the nongovernmental Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees, was meant to put more pressure on the international community to support Palestinian fishermen in Gaza.
Joe Catron, who like many international activists accompanies fisherman to sea to protect them from Israeli violations, said the new restrictions are yet another broken promise from Israel.
“After the many Israeli attacks on farmers, fishermen, and other Palestinians in blatant violation of the ceasefire, none of us could have expected they would keep their word in this regard, either,” Catron said of the move to reduce the fishing area.
Israeli authorities contacted for comment referred Al Jazeera to the joint COGAT and Israeli military statement.
A senior Hamas delegation, including its political leader Khaled Mashaal and Prime Minister Ismael Haneyya, made it earlier this week to Cairo to discuss many major issues, including the constant Israeli violations of the ceasefire agreement.
“Now we only have 1 percent local fish [compared] to 99 percent imported Egyptian fish.”
– Mahmoud Abu Haseera, market owner
In Cairo, Hamas spokesperson Taher al-Nono said he doubted the Israeli narrative about the Palestinian rockets allegedly fired into Israel, and condemned what he said were constant Israeli violations.
“Haneyya has discussed with Egyptian intelligence officials the ceasefire agreement and the Israeli violations for it. The Egyptian intelligence promised it will follow the issue and make things even better than it used to be,” Nono said.
The restrictions mean Gaza’s 1.7mn population doesn’t have enough fish. Fishmongers have had to import fish from Egypt through tunnels under the border, said Mahmoud Abu Haseera, the owner of a market.
“We always import fish from Egypt, but the rate differs from time to time. Before the new decision, we used to have half Egyptian fish with half local fish, but now we only have 1 percent local fish [compared] to 99 percent imported Egyptian fish,” he said.
Abu Haseera said even when the Egyptian fish is available, the demand diminishes because of the difference between the two qualities.
“The Egyptian fish grow in farms unlike the local fish which grow in the sea, which makes the local fish taste many times better.”