By Rada Daniell and Bianca Zammit – Gaza
Gazan 45 kilometers long, beautiful Mediterranean coast is fished by 3,500 professional fisherman. Many more people earn their daily bread doing jobs related to this trade, such as producing and repairing nets, transporting fish and selling it at the markets, running restaurateurs etc.
We met Mr Mahfouz Kabariti the President of Palestine Sailing Federation and Palestinian Association for Fishing and Maritime Sports and a group of fishermen at the end of January for a long evening chat to find out more about what it means to be a fisherman in Gaza. A few days ago Mr Kabariti took us to the the Mina (Port) of Gaza to meet another group of fishermen who we chatted with while they were preparing for their next fishing trip. The majority of them wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of being targeted by Israelis for speaking out.
Mr Kabariti is a man deeply passionate about fishing, sailing and anything else to do with the sea. He told us that they used to have sports fishermen and anglers, but unfortunately not any more. “For Gazans this is not a time for hobbies, everyone is preoccupied with surviving”.
Walking along the coast one will always see many small fishing boats which Gazans call hassaka. At night the sea is dotted with lights which shine into the water to attract fish. Gaza does not have a navy and its fishing fleet consist of less than 300 boats. The largest are the fishing trawlers, they are about 20 meters long and there are 18 of them. There are 55 so called shanshula boats which are 10- 14 meters long and about 200, 4-7 meters long hassakas.
To say that the life of Gazan fishermen is not easy would be putting it very mildly. And they are not facing just the usual hazards which are part and parcel of working at sea.
The siege, which is now in its third year, is predictably the source of many problems. Everything fishermen need, starting from nets, boat paints, spare parts etc. have to be smuggled in from Egypt at excessive prices. But the biggest worry for every Gazan fisherman is the daily possibility of being shot and kidnapped by the Israeli sea patrols.
Israelis say that for national security reasons and to prevent weapon smuggling they have to restrict the movement of Gazan fishing boats to three kilometers from the shore.
But the fisherman tell us that they are not safe anywhere and that they have been attacked and kidnapped even in the harbour.
Those who cannot cope do not have much choice. It is not easy to abandon even the most dangerous job when unemployment is at almost 50 percent and where 80 percent of people live below the poverty line.
Several fisherman told us that they would sell their boats and give fishing up if they could make a living doing something else. Many have done just that inspite of the lack of alternative employment and the ranks of the fishing profession have halved over the last 10 years.
The most recent shooting was reported near the Palestinian town of Rafah at the Egyptian border on 22 February. Fisherman Musbah Quqa, who we met near his boat in the Mina, told us that Israelis recently sunk one and captured two hassakas. They were taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod and the boats were confiscated.
We asked Mr Quqa if things were getting better or worse and he said that there were always problems and that he could not see the end to them because ‘nobody is looking for a solution’.
To illustrate what they have to cope with, another group of fishermen told us a story about the kidnapping of the largest Gazan 23 meters long trawler.
The trawler was intercepted while in the Palestinian waters and taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod on the 23 September 2009. They got it back on 23 Jan 2010, a whole four months later. To have it returned to them the owners had to sign away their right to take Israeli Authorities to court or seek compensation. They were also told that if they are caught beyond the three kilometer ‘limit’, their trawler would be permanently confiscated.
Even after agreeing to such a comprehensive gagging deal it took Israelis 60 days to return the boat.
We asked Mr Kabariti about the rationale behind the sailing restrictions. According to him Gazan fishermen were allowed to sail depending on the Israeli political mood of the day. ‘Sometimes neither boats nor ordinary people on the beaches are safe anywhere’, he said relating the distressing example of the seven members of the Ghalia family who were killed by a missile fired from an Israeli gunboat on the Al Sawdania beach on June 9, 2006. Huda, the daughter of the family was the only survivor.
He summarised for us the ‘history’ of restrictions placed on Gazan fisherman, to illustrate how the rules change at the whim of Israelis. Following the 1967 Israeli occupation of Gaza fishing was allowed in the area of up to 15 nautical miles (nm). The 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine initially extended it to 20 nm but Israelis challenged it and it was reduced to 12nm.
This lasted until the Second Al Aqsa Intifada in 2000 when Israel introduced a six to seven nm limit which was cut down to tree since the Israeli attack in December 2009.
Palestinians see those restrictions as both arbitrary and excessive and they have been a cause of much suffering for both fisherman and ordinary people.
Gazans have centuries long fishing tradition and they know only too well that there is little fish in the narrow belt near the shore.
And what fish there is, is likely not to be fit for human consumption. As a result of the damage to the sewage processing plants in the Israeli attacks a year ago and the lack of spare parts due to the blockade, the sewage is pumped into the sea causing serious public health concerns.
‘According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Gazans need about 21000 tons of fish per year. But because of the sailing restrictions, pollution and the risks of attacks on fishermen we only managed to achieve about 3000 tons even when six to seven nautical miles restriction was in place’, says Mr Kabariti. He said that Palestinian fisherman cannot keep to the three miles limit simply because there is no fish there, adding that ‘Even the 10 miles belt is overfished’ .
‘For fisherman this means no income, other professions might be getting their salary whether there is work or not, but not us’, commented Musbah Quqa.
Other fisherman who joined us in front of Mr Quqa’s boat said that because there was no fish in the sea most of the fish in Gazan markets comes from the Egyptian port of Al Arish. Fisherman have to make a living and buy it from their Egyptian colleagues who are free to fish where they like.
So the choices for Gazan fisherman are to either risk their lives by sailing further from the coast than tolerated by the Israelis, where fish is plentiful and unpolluted, or to risk their lives by ‘breaking the siege’ and buying at sea from the colleagues form Al Arish.
“The only safe option is to give up fishing and import the frozen fish form Israelis or the fish brought in through the tunnels’ said one of Mr Quqa’s friends. Even that is not safe said another fisherman. He went to the Gaza City to buy some equipment for his boat and Israelis fired a missile and he was hit and injured in the market. ‘No escape’ he says and shrugs his shoulders.
He believes that ‘Israelis want to sell Gazans their farmed and frozen fish and it is in their interest to destroy Gazan fishing.
Mr Kabariti agreed that that is exactly what Israelis aim to achieve. ‘Their motivation is primarily financial. They are confining us to a ‘fish-free’ area and attacking our fishermen in order to leave Gazans without any other option but to buy their frozen fish’. And he worries about the impact this would have on many very poor Gazans . ‘Cheap fish, such as sardines is a staple protein rich food eaten by the poorest families. People cannot afford meat and it is important that we can catch enough fish’.
Going back to the story of the snatching of the largest trawler and its crew, the Israeli patrol boat started shooting straight away, without warning. The captain and the fishermen were puzzled because there was another Gazan boat further away from them, but Israelis did not bother them. The captain attempted to withdraw to shore but this only provoked more fire. The Israeli military vessel was nearby and they got involved. More than 20 soldiers got into the inflatable and boarded the trawler. They shouted orders not to move, asked the crew to undress to their underclothes, blindfolded them and then asked them to swim to the moving army boat blindfolded! One fisherman was asked to stay behind on the trawler with an Israeli soldier to teach him how to operate it.
Have they been beaten? ‘We were not treated very gently’, they said.
Fisherman laughed as they explained that it was not easy to operate Gazan vessel where everything was homemade ‘and not high tech push-button Israelis are used to’. The fisherman and the soldier who stayed on the trawler argued throughout the journey to Ashdod over the Israeli’s bad driving and the soldier managed to cause damage even before the trawler reached the port.
Once in Ashdod the navy passed the fisherman on to another lot of ‘nicer’ soldiers who asked them if they had been beaten, the doctor was arranged and they were given clothes to put on after spending all the time since the kidnapping, possibly several hours, in their wet underclothes!
Did they report the pushing and kicking? No they did not as there was a possibility of them being returned to the care of their initial captors. They were fed, if only bread and jam, and a fisherman remarked with the smile that if it was the other way around Gazans would be more generous with the choice of food.
Than their captors asked them what they thought of Hamas and tried to impress them with their technological almightiness by showing them their houses via something similar to Google Earth. They then drove them to Erez and set them free.
The trawler had to wait for liberation much longer and it suffered so horribly in the hands of its captors that Israelis had to tow it back to Gaza .
Having been deprived for four months of making their living, the owners and the crew, altogether 14 of them feeding six families, were very happy to see it back. But on closer inspection the mood became somber.
Apart from numerous dents, the batteries were dead, the inside was fire damaged, the fuel tank, which had 1200 liters in it when the trawler was captured, was empty.
Wenches, cables, nets, all suffered because they were left uncovered and exposed to the elements and so did the ropes which will all have to be replaced.
The biggest damage was to the wooden hull which was flooded and left to rot. In the past, when Israelis confiscated Gazan boats they would pump the water out, but not this time. The maximum damage seems to have been desirable.
The vandalized and neglected trawler also had a damaged gearbox and electrics, no ignition and the fisherman feared when we spoke to them, that the whole expensive engine would have to be replaced.
The owners, desperate to start making a living told us that they could not afford the time to carry out all repairs properly. ‘The water damage to the wooden hull would require the trawler to be brought to shore and allowed to dry thoroughly, but this would take far too long’, says one of the crew.
The owners will have to spend a small fortune to get his trawler in the working order. The conservative estimate for the repairs and replacements of the essentials of $5000, that is if the motor could be fixed at all. Together with the loss of daily income of about $650 per day, the estimated overall loss to the owners is $80,000. No wonder Israeli authorities forced the owners to abandon their compensation rights!
Like lots of people in Gaza , the fisherman feel that their future is uncertain. When the trawler is fixed and ready to fish it can be confiscated again at any time. In fact this is not the first time that the trawler was snatched.
The trawler was previously taken in November last year and an international solidarity volunteer was on board. He was an Italian from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and he frequently went with them to film Israeli attacks. On this occasion the Israelis entered the trawler and asked the captain what the international was doing on his boat. When the captain said that he was there to protect them, an Israeli soldier said ‘ We’ll show you the protection’. As they were roughing up the fisherman and chasing the international, he managed to climb up and continue filming. When soldiers got near, he jumped into the sea and held on to the keel. What happened after is stuff for the stories about the heroes and villains, and surely Hollywood will one day make it into a blockbuster.
The Israeli navy ordered the Gazan captain to drive at speed and when he complained that that could kill the ISM-er, they took over the navigation of the trawler and drove it back and forth trying to ‘unhinge’ the determined Italian. In the end Israelis used electrical shocks to tear the Italian away from the keel and smashed his camcorder with all its precious footage. On the same day two other fishing boats with an ISM-er on board each, were kidnapped. All were taken to Ashdod and deported.
To go to all this trouble, Israelis must worry a lot about the world finding out how they treat Gazan fisherman. They would obviously rather not have any witnesses to their deeds and blame Hamas for making things up about them.
So do the fisherman fear another confiscation? Yes they do, it can happen at any time and they could do nothing about it. And to illustrate further that this is all about the economy and not the Israeli national security, the fisherman told us they were not allowed to buy a piece of navigation equipment which would tell them exactly their distance from the shore. Strangely or not, it is on the list of banned imports.
As we were speaking with Mr Quqa in the Mina on another day, about the lives of Gazan fisherman, the group of his colleagues joining us grew larger. His brother Ali was already there and than their bother Sami arrived. He was a young pleasant man and it took us some time to notice that he did not have an arm.
The three Quqa brothers used to fish together until 13 of March 2007 when an Israeli missile was fired at them and Sami lost his arm.
Sami described how it happened. The Israeli navy boat approached at speed and fired directly at them, without a warning. They panicked and tried to flee to the shore and Israelis started firing missiles at them. They managed to reach the shore and hide behind their small boat when a missile fell near Sami, than age 26, and their 14 years old nephew. They were both seriously injured. The barrage of fire made it impossible for the Red Crescent ambulance to reach them for a long time. Precious time was lost and they were first taken to a nearby hospital in the Khan Younis and than Sami was transferred to a hospital in Israel, but they could not save his arm.
The Quqa brother Ali acquired several bullet wounds in his fishing career. He showed us one of them – a deep dent on the calf of his leg with a cut nerve.
Again, we hear a story about how it happened similar to all the others I heard before. They fired directly and without the warning at Ali while he was pulling the net out. He was fishing with his brothers with other well lit Gazan boats.
His wounds still hurt he said, if he has a busy day or if the weather is about to change.
Ali said that most of the fishermen have bullet wounds and that he was no exception. ‘It happens so often that some fisherman don’t even bother to report it’. Some of them like their colleague fisherman Hani Najjar while fishing. He was shot dead by the Israelis at sea in 2006.
Talking to the others we realise that almost all the fisherman around us had bullet wound scars and one of them was shot on three separate occasions.
Sami comes to the Mina every day but cannot join his two brothers at sea because as he says ‘one needs two arms for that’.
The Quqas have been fisherman for generations and Sami’s absence has affected both his livelihood and the livelihoods of the extended family. Sami himself has been without a job since his injury and his young family relies on the help from his brothers for their survival.
Musbah Quqa said good bye to us with the words ‘ To understand what the life of Gazan fisherman is like all you have to do is to look at Sami and all of us.’
– Bianca Zammit and Rada Daniell are human rights activists with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza. They contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.