Gaza fishermen demand end to blockade

Gaza’s fishermen are particularly hard-hit by Israel’s offensive, with many decrying the bombings as ‘economic war’.

Gaza City – Ayman Alamodi was 18 when he began working as a fisherman in the Gaza Strip. But that was 30 years ago, long before the Egyptian-Israeli siege on the Palestinian territory made it nearly impossible for the father of four to provide food for his family.

“My experience from this ongoing war has been the worst; the intensity of air strikes and destruction has forced me to stay home,” Alamodi told Al Jazeera, explaining that fishing has been nearly impossible under a near-constant barrage of Israeli air strikes and naval shelling off Gaza’s coast.

At least 1,922 Palestinians have been killed, and 9,806 others injured since Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip began on July 8. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have also been killed, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

A 72-hour ceasefire that began on Tuesday in Gaza provided a brief opportunity for local fishermen, but Alamodi said he was unable to catch anything of substance when he went out on the water. Alamodi currently shares a boat with nine other fishermen, all members of his extended family, and their catch provides for about 70 people.

“Today there is no fishing. We went out during the 72-hour ceasefire to try and get food for our families, but we got nothing,” he said, while removing crabs from his fishing nets. Holding one in his hands, he added: “This is all you get when allowed to fish not more than two or three [nautical] miles out.”

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Since the war began, Palestinian fishermen have suffered severe financial losses after Israeli F-16s struck sheds storing fishing equipment. Amjad Shrafi, deputy head of the Gaza Fishermen’s Syndicate, told Al Jazeera that Israeli shelling has cost the fishing industry about $3m in the past month along the Gaza coastline.

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“Bombing the workrooms of fishermen [where fishing equipment, including motors and nets, is kept] is meant to drive us away from the sea,” Shrafi said. “It’s a [form of] collective punishment.”

Over the past several years, hundreds of Palestinian fishermen have been arrested, injured and even killed off the Gaza coast. Meanwhile, the Israeli navy has confiscated 54 fishing boats, Shrafi said. In the first half of 2014 alone, Israeli navy ships fired at Gaza fishermen at least 177 separate times.

Over a month ago, on July 6, the Israeli authorities reduced the fishing area off Gaza’s coast from six to three nautical miles. This was the fourth time restrictions were placed on access to Gaza’s coastal waters since a ceasefire agreement came into effect following Israel’s 2012 military offensive in Gaza.

Israeli officials gave no explanation as to why the recent limits were imposed, “nor whether [they are] permanent or temporary”, according to Gisha, a legal centre advocating for Palestinian freedom of movement.

Under the Oslo Accords agreement, Palestinians should be granted access to 20 nautical miles off the Gaza coast.

“It’s a waste of time: there are no fish within three [nautical] miles now, but further out, beyond six [nautical] miles, there are natural stones where we can find a variety of fish,” said Alamodi, adding that he remembered when he was able to go beyond 12 nautical miles and catch all types of fish in the Mediterranean.

Even in 2012, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was in power, fuel came cheaply from tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt, and fishermen could enter Egyptian waters, Alamodi said.

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Dr Moeen Rajab, an economist at Al Azhar University, said that Israel has purposefully targeted Gaza’s fishing industry to stem its profits and sever Palestinians from the historic profession. “This economic war [is] to force fishermen to rely on charity and eventually leave Palestine,” Rajab said.

According to the United Nations, at least 95 percent of Gaza’s fishermen rely on international aid to survive, while the number of fishermen dropped from approximately 10,000 in 2000, to 3,500 in July 2013. Palestinian fishermen lost approximately 1,300 metric tonnes of fish annually between 2000 and 2012 as a result of Israeli restrictions, the UN found.

But these challenges haven’t kept a younger generation of Palestinian fishermen out of the water.

Even motors for fishing boats are not available to us because Israel won't allow us to use them on our boats. So what is destroyed, is gone forever... This is Israel's aim for Gaza.

by - Saleh Abu Ryala, fisherman

Alamodi’s nephew, Mouneer, 34, makes a living from the family’s boat, but told Al Jazeera that whatever he earns has never been enough to meet his family’s needs. It costs 200 NIS ($58) to run a generator to power the boat each day, while what he catches only brings in 50 NIS ($14). Those earnings are then divided between his relatives: each of the 10 fishermen receives only 5 NIS ($1.44).

“We are living on debt owed to the gas stations; we pay [them] half of what we earn and we live on the other half,” Mouneer said, adding that for the past month he hasn’t been able to work at all. The family boat’s motor was also destroyed, and replacing it will cost 25,000 NIS (about $7,210), he said.

Another fisherman, Saleh Abu Ryala, had his workroom destroyed in an Israeli bombing. With all his belongings and work tools now unusable, the 45-year-old fisherman said that it might take years to get back on his feet.

“Even motors for fishing boats are not available to us because Israel won’t allow us to use them on our boats,” he said. “So what is destroyed, is gone forever… This is Israel’s aim for Gaza.”

Alamodi added that lifting the siege on Gaza – a main Palestinian demand in ongoing negotiations between Israel and Palestinian faction Hamas to end the violence in Gaza – is crucial to ensuring that their profession can continue.

“We just want freedom to fish,” Alamodi said, “and sustain our families exactly like our grandparents did”.

Follow Mohammed Omer on Twitter: @mogaza

Source: Al Jazeera