By Motasem Dalloul
GAZA CITY – Khalid Abu-Reyalla, a 45-year-old father of 10, hasn’t made enough money from fishing since 2000, but life has been particularly difficult for the past several months.
"I can hardly cover the expenses of fishing and save some money for my house and children," the Gaza fisherman told IslamOnline.net setting on the deck of his small, wooden boat, known locally as a felucca.
"It’s too much hard work and very little money."
Abu-Reyalla, who has seven children attending school, blames his problems on the Israeli occupation and its oppressive practices.
The Gaza blockade is causing severe shortage in fuel and gas supplies, the backbone of the fishing business.
The open-decked feluccas need fuel to run their engines and gas to operate large lamps, whose bright lights attract the fish at night.
The fishermen would then circle the fish in their net and then draw them on board in a night of long and heavy labor.
Abu-Reyalla is one of thousands of fishermen reeling under the Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip and its Mediterranean shores.
Caught between Israeli restrictions and shortage of fuel supplies, they are struggling to make ends meet.
"We suffer too much because of the loss of fuel and gas which are considered the spirit of our work in the sea," explains Salim Baker, the father of five married fishermen with an extended family of 39 members.
Helpless and desperate, the fishermen are using cooking oil to run the engines of their boats, coloring the dark exhaust with a burning orange glow.
"Look! My son is pouring cooking oil to fill the fuel tank of the felucca in order to sail," says Baker, pointing to his son.
"This is the problem of more than 3000 fishermen along the Gaza shores," complains Nezar Ayyash, the head of the Gaza fishermen syndicate.
He says only 30 percent of about 600 boats are operating while the rest are moored in the small harbor at Gaza City.
Palestinian fishermen are most of the time not even allowed out of harbor, which was the case for several months last year.
Any even when Israel allows them into the sea, they are continuously harassed by high-speed Israeli naval boast under the pretext of security checks.
"They come towards us and about 50 meters away they call on us over loudspeakers to leave our boats, take off our clothes and swim naked towards them," Hassan Abu-Hassera, a fisherman, recalls a recent incident.
"They conduct investigations on their warships sometimes for 5 to 6 hours," he notes.
"All this while we are naked. They don’t care whether it’s cold or not."
In many cases, things do not end at just interrogations and harassments.
"Israeli naval occupation troops have arrested 300 fishermen and conducted investigations with an unspecified but huge number of them since 2000," says Ayyash, the head of the Gaza fishermen syndicate.
For years, Israel has been preventing fishermen from venturing 20 nautical miles out to sea as stipulated under the 1993 Oslo peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
Its high-speed boats patrolling the sea off Gaza, intent on keeping the fishermen close to shore, start shooting at them once they are a couple of miles off the coast.
This virtually denies Palestinians from reaching schools of large fish or making any decent catch to cover their expenses and eke out a living.
Abu-Reyalla and his two fishermen sons had a nightmarish experience with the Israelis one night.
"In 2004 while we were fishing and our nets were spread, the Israel troops shot live bullets towards us and one of my sons was severely injured," he recalls bitterly.
"When I screamed they asked me to let him leave our boat and swim towards them in order to give him first aid.
"I refused medical help in that brutal way because he was heavily bleeding and it was winter time."
The result of that day, beside the injury of Abu-Reyalla’s son, was the loss of his fishing nets in the sea after he had to rush to shore to save his bleeding son.
"The injury of my son was serious, a bullet inching four centimeters below his heart, and my loss was also serious because the nets were about half of my wealth," he explains.
"From that time until today, I have been indebted to the fishermen syndicate with $3,500 that I am unable to pay," laments Abu-Reyalla.
Dawwas, who owns a fishing nets’ workshop, says he is not expecting to be paid by fishermen anytime soon.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, the problem is also affecting at least 1000 workers in related industries.
Abdullah Hassan, 53, a fishing nets’ weaver, complains that demands on fishing nets have hit all-time low.
He is not making enough money to cover the needs of his house or the tuition of his two sons studying in university.
"About 7 blacksmiths whom I know have closed their shops during the past 6 months as they depend entire on fishing boats," agrees Kamal Dawwas, the 42-year-old owner of a workshop.
"I usually mend feluccas for fishermen who pay for me after the fishing season," explains the father of nine, who is sometimes paid in installments.
"I’m the only one who’s still working but business is very bad."
"The peak of the fishing season is in April and May and we are still unable to exploit this season in the right way," laments Baker, the old fisherman.
"So we will not be able to pay Dawwas or any other creditors."
It hasn’t always been this bleak for Gaza fishermen.
The industry produced an annual income of nearly ten million dollars in the 1990s, a figure that had halved by last year and is still shrinking fast.
"This is the new life of Gaza fishermen."