Al Jazeera World

A Fish Out of Water: Gaza’s First Fisherwoman

Palestinian teenager Madeleine Kolab takes over her father’s fishing business when he’s injured in an Israeli attack.

Filmmaker: Mohamed Harb 

Madeleine Kolab always had a strong relationship with the sea. She grew up swimming and helping her father in the family’s fishing business, while dreaming of a career as fashion designer. But the life of the Gazan teenager changed dramatically when her father was attacked by an Israeli patrol boat in 2009.

“I would always go to the sea with my father to play and swim. As I grew older, my relationship with the sea turned from being a game to a part of my life. My dreams were swept away by the waves and became broken ones,” she says.

Due to Israel’s ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, fishermen are struggling to make ends meet. Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Gaza offshore fishing limit was set at 37 kilometres. But over the following 23 years, Israel gradually reduced this to as little as five kilometres at one point. The fishing limit is enforced by Israeli gunboats, so fishing in Gaza has become a risky business.

As the eldest of three children and with no other source of income, Madeleine felt obliged to become the sole family breadwinner after her father was badly injured in the gunboat attack – a challenge she now takes great pride in.

I am very happy with my work and feel relaxed when I am on the sea. The days I go to sea, I feel safe, although it's a tiring job and a big responsibility.

by Madeleine Kolab, Gaza’s first fisherwoman

“When my father fell ill, the doctors said he couldn’t be exposed to seawater, the cold or the wind anymore,” says Madeleine.

“There was no other choice for me but to take his place. I manage the money and go sea fishing. That was difficult for both of us. I didn’t know what to expect but I had to rely on myself. I didn’t want him to feel he had to go to sea or start begging. I wanted him to feel he could depend on someone. I pushed myself and overcame my fear. My challenge was to make my father proud of me.”

Madeleine is 22 now but she took over the family fishing business at the age of 13, becoming Gaza’s first fisherwoman.

At first, she tried to juggle school with fishing but eventually left her studies to work full-time.

She had to survive as a young woman in an exclusively man’s world at a raw age and deal with regular gender discrimination in her own conservative community.

“When I first started fishing, the fishermen asked my father not to allow me. My father ignored them … no matter how much they talked, I ignored them until they got used to me and I became one of them,” recalls Madeleine.

Madeleine’s father, Mohamed Kolab, tested her on occasions and discovered “she was skilled, serious and brave”, he says. “She would go in and dive into the wide sea. Thank God, she’s feeding the family. We’re blessed to eat every day.”

A fellow fishermen remembers Madeleine going to sea as a child. “She would dive from the rock,” says Mohamed Omar Bakir. “Now she’s more skilled than any fisherman. At first, they gave her weird looks. But because she works hard and shows them respect they look at her with admiration now.”

Bakir acknowledges his initial suspicion of Madeleine when she first started fishing. “But when I got closer to her as her father’s my friend, I found she was more capable than a man,” he says. “She doesn’t count as just one man, but as five. I call her ‘daughter’. All the fishermen here respect her because she’s capable and smart. She supports her family which is in a bad situation.”

In Gaza, fishing is risky business. In 2016, there were 126 incidents when the Israeli navy fired at Palestinian fishermen and their boats. Twelve fishermen were injured that year, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, as previously reported by Al Jazeera. 

Gaza’s First Fisherwoman

Fisherman Sami Ali al-Qouqa lost a hand in an Israeli gunboat attack, preventing him from ever fishing again.

“Our conditions were fine under the Palestinian Authority, under the Oslo Accords. We were allowed a 37-kilometre fishing limit”, says al-Qouqa who, like Madeleine, is his family’s sole breadwinner.

“After Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, they [Israel] put restrictions on us. From 22 kilometres to five. This area is only fit for swimming.”

Ninety-five percent of Palestinian fishermen in Gaza live below the poverty line, living off of loans and humanitarian aid to survive.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Israel has decimated Gaza’s fishing sector by imposing severe restrictions on sea access, fishing exports and entry of raw materials into Gaza – as well as harassment of fishermen.