Analysis

At Odds With Military, Netanyahu Uses Gaza Fishing Zone for Collective Punishment

In recent months, following border escalations, fishing has become a lever for pressure on Gaza residents, who rely on it as a major stable of the economy

Palestinian fishermen unload their catch from boats after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport, May 21, 2019.
Hatem Moussa/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also serving as Israel’s defense minister, has been tailoring restrictions on the size of Gaza’s fishing zone in which Israel allows fishermen to operate in response to incendiary balloons that have been launched from Gaza over the border into Israeli territory.

Fishing is vital to the economy of the Hamas-controlled territory and an important source of food for residents of the Strip.

Over the course of the month of May, Netanyahu issued a range of orders that in turn expanded and limited the fishing zone a large number of times. In practice, the prime minister linked access to this important source of food in Gaza to quiet along the Gaza border despite the fact that the fishermen themselves have no control over what happens along the border.

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On May 25, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukon, announced “an expansion of the fishing zone in the Gaza Strip to a range of up to 15 nautical miles.” In a statement in Arabic directed at Gaza residents, the COGAT agency head described the move as “part of the civilian policy of preventing humanitarian deterioration in the Gaza Strip and part of a policy that makes a distinction between terrorism and the uninvolved population.”

The expansion of the fishing zone was conditioned on the fishermen complying with agreed limits. “Any violation will be dealt with accordingly by the [Israeli] security forces,” Abu Rukon stated.

Extending and limiting Gaza's fishing zone.

Over the past year, which has seen mass demonstrations on the border and the launching of incendiary devices, COGAT has repeatedly tried get the Israeli government to agree to expand the fishing zone, a position that has had the support of the army itself. Defense officials have also said that the size of the fishing zone should not be used as a means of applying pressure on Gaza due to the importance of fishing as a source of employment and food there.

Nevertheless, four days later, Netanyahu ordered COGAT and the army to again reduce the fishing zone to 10 miles after an incendiary balloon caused a fire on the Israeli side of the border. A statement was issued noting the strict steps that Israel was taking in response to the fire.

In practice, the curbs have only limited the operations of the small number of fishing ships that are capable of sailing 15 miles from the Gaza shore, but these are the vessels that bring in the big fish and haul them in in quantities that significantly boost fish supplies for Gaza’s residents. It is this supply that has also given Gazan consumers fish at relatively low prices.

The fishermen’s union in Gaza reported that there are only 12 ships that are authorized and capable of sailing 15 miles offshore. Since the fishing zone was reduced, it said, supplies have dropped and the price of fish has increased to levels that many residents of the enclave cannot afford.

Palestinian fishermen display their catch for sale in the Gaza seaport, April 3, 2019.
Khalil Hamra/AP

Defense officials highlight the importance of fishing at a time when the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which is subject to a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt that limits the passage of goods and people in and out of the Hamas-controlled enclave, is worsening.

As of April of this year, about 3,700 Gazans were employed directly in the fishing sector and another 1,500 had jobs indirectly related to fishing. That means that about 5,000 to 6,000 people are employed in the industry, about a quarter of the numbers involved since the mid 2000’s.

More broadly, however, about 35,000 people earn a living in the sector by trading and marketing fish in Gaza, so it still remains an important staple of enclave’s economy. September through December and mid-April through the end of June are peak fishing seasons. As a result, the prime minister’s decision comes during a peak month.