One early morning in February, Isma’il Saleh Muhammad Abu Ryalah left his house in the Gaza Strip’s Al-Shati refugee camp as usual. With two friends, the 18-year-old boarded a rickety boat and set sail to try to catch some fish, earn a little money and put some food on the table.
At some point, the three fell asleep and the boat drifted far from the shore. They awoke to the sound of shooting. As they told the rights group B’Tselem, when they looked up they saw soldiers aboard a naval ship aim their rifles at them and shoot.
Abu Ryalah was hit in the head by a bullet and died. The two others were wounded by sponge-tipped bullets. The Israel Defense Forces later said the soldiers sought to halt the boat, which had left the waters where Gazans are permitted to fish.
The lethal outcome may have been a bit unusual, but shooting at Palestinian fishing boats isn’t. Even though senior IDF officers talk about the need to attend to Gaza’s humanitarian woes, naval ships take a hard line against Gaza fishermen, ruining the territory’s second most important source of income. (On average, each day a Gaza fisherman earns a little more than 20 shekels, or $5.55.)
The story of Abu Ryalah’s boat is the story of many other boats. It’s the story of thousands of poor Gazans trying to make a living by fishing.
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At a time when 90 percent of Gazans are under the poverty line, going to sea isn’t a pastime; it can be an existential necessity. To many Gazans, going beyond the maritime limits set by Israel in an effort to catch a few more fish justifies the risks.
This is shown in part by the hundreds of incidents off the Gaza coast over the past three years. Three incidents have ended in death.
In dozens of cases, boats have been confiscated, even though in most cases no legal proceedings have been opened against the fishermen. After all, it quickly became clear that no one intended to commit a terror attack. They only wanted to enrich Gazans’ poor diet a bit.
That was also the case with Abu Ryalah, as the Shin Bet security service concluded after questioning his two friends.
What happens to fishermen who get caught has become standard practice. They leave Gaza, cross the invisible border in the sea, are caught by naval ships, are taken to the military port in Ashdod and then to the Erez crossing on the Gaza border. There they undergo an interrogation by the Shin Bet; it’s the chronicle of a sail foretold, as it were.
Usually, these interrogations don’t take very long. The main goal is to try to extract information about Hamas operatives the fisherman might happen to know. In the end, the fishermen return to Gaza – straight into solitary confinement at the hands of Hamas, which rules the territory. The group interrogates them for several days, trying to find out what they told the Shin Bet.
This story would sound familiar, at least in part, to the family of Mahmoud Sa’id Jumah Baker, another resident of Al-Shati. One Friday in August 2016, the 20-year-old went fishing with his father and four brothers.
As they told B’Tselem researcher Muhammad Sabah, by 8 A.M. they had managed to catch three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of fish. They had also managed to sail 2.5 nautical miles outside the permitted fishing zone (to the northwest of it).
At some point they saw a naval ship sailing toward them, with a rubber dinghy alongside it.
“They chased us and shot live bullets and rubber bullets in the air,” Baker said. First they tried to flee, but they quickly realized it was better to obey the order to halt.
“The soldiers ordered us to strip and enter the sea,” he said. “We took off our clothes and swam, one after the other, to the rubber dinghy, which took us to the ship.”
The Baker family isn’t questioning the assertion that the father and his five sons went beyond the permitted fishing zone. They’re just questioning the means used to arrest them – though at least in their case there were no casualties.
Nor did the family have to endure the saga of getting a body back, as happened with the Abu Ryalah family. Three months after Isma’il Saleh Muhammad Abu Ryalah was killed, his body is still in Israel. The Israeli authorities are saying he went out to fish with Hamas’ permission, and the High Court of Justice granted the petition by the Goldin family not to release the body because the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin is still being held in Gaza.
But not everyone thinks that the two should be connected. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, for example, told Haaretz in late March that “the discussion about the return of the fisherman’s body was superfluous because this fisherman shouldn’t have been killed. He wasn’t a terrorist.” His opinion was not accepted.
The specter of Hamas
Stopping the fishermen doesn’t take place only on the water. In a sense, Israel prevents the fishermen from going out to sea to begin with. The numbers are probably the best proof. At present 3,700 people are registered in the Gaza fishermen’s association, compared with 10,000 in the early 2000s. But even these numbers are inflated.
For example, only 2,000 of the 3,700 are active fisherman who have boats. The others go out occasionally when they have a chance to work as hired labor, or when they save enough money to rent a boat from another fisherman.
Israel’s confiscations of boats tell only a small part of the story. The many boats that once anchored in Gaza have been badly damaged over the years. Sometimes it’s the weather and damage to the pier, sometimes it’s damage caused by the navy’s shooting, and sometimes it’s mechanical problems. But unlike boat owners in Israel, the Gazans have very few opportunities to mend their vessels.
The IDF forbids the bringing of maintenance materials for these boats into the Strip. They’re considered “dual-use” materials that could be used for terror activities. Fiberglass, for example, the material from which most of the boats are made, is used to make missiles, the IDF says.
New engines for the boats? These also could be used to for missiles, or for Hamas’ boats. When spare parts are unavailable, at best the Gazans resort to smuggling from Egypt; at worst they abandon their boats.
“We tried to get fiberglass, but it was very hard to find,” Ahmad Jamal Lutfi Abu Hamadah, 31, told B’Tselem. “Once, a kilogram of fiberglass that came from Israel cost 16 shekels. Today we can only get fiberglass made here in the Strip, and it’s much more expensive, 80 shekels a kilo.”
Abu Hamadah adds that he had to repair a small area in the bow of his boat, which cost him about 1,500 shekels. “I didn’t have the money, and I was forced to borrow it so that I’d be able to work and earn a living,” he said.
A tale of nautical miles
Compared to Mustafa Muhammad Khalil a-Najar, also 31, his situation is relatively good. “My main income comes from fishing,” he told B’Tselem researcher Mohammed Sabah. “My hasaka was seven meters long and it had a lot of expensive equipment on it,” he added, referring to a traditional Palestinian paddle board.
Najar, a resident of Rafah and the father of two daughters, said he bought the boat four years ago, and it cost a fortune – for him. “To buy it I sold my wife’s jewelry, I took a loan from relatives and acquaintances,” he said. “I still owe money to the suppliers.”
For two years he set sail every morning. Everything was fine until one day in April 2016. In the afternoon, while he was still spreading nets off Rafah, a navy boat appeared and sailed toward him. He says the sailors ordered him to stop and he began to go back, toward the coast. The sailors fired at the boat; it was damaged and confiscated.
“Because I didn’t have a hasaka I missed the fishing season for grouper and porgy,” he said. “Losing the boat caused problems with other members of the family, too, because they had also used it for their livelihoods.” Since then he has no fish, no boat and no money to buy a new one. “I’m sitting at home with nothing to do.”
But even a fisherman who owns a boat, one that’s seaworthy, faces challenges. A main one is the size of the fishing area. And here too there’s a long history. During the talks before the singing of the Oslo Accords a quarter-century ago, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed that the fishing zone off Gaza would be 20 nautical miles.
But this number remained on paper. In the following years the fishermen sufficed with 12 miles, an area that seems like a dream today. After the 2006 election and the 2007 takeover, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, the 12 nautical miles was shrunk to six and later to three. The reason: the threat of Hamas’ naval commandos.
The pendulum of change continued after the 2014 Gaza war; now, in principle, it’s six nautical miles. Twice a year, mainly before the sardine season, it increases to nine miles. Not only does it let Gaza fisherman vie for a larger catch, it allows them to reach higher-priced fish – grouper, tuna and anthias.
But the importance of the fishing zone also has long-term consequences. When the area is limited there’s a greater fear of overfishing, which could significantly reduce the spawning areas and the quantity of the fish.
Some fisherman longingly recall the years 2011 to 2013. Back then the IDF unofficially let Gazans fish in the Egyptian fishing zone, up to a distance of 12 miles from the coast. Gaza fishermen brought in nine times as much mullet as in the official zone allowed by the IDF.
The fishermen would like to see the fishing range outside Gaza expanded once again, this time officially. According to the United Nations, expanding the area to 12 nautical miles would increase the Gaza catch by almost half to between 5,000 and 6,000 tons a year.
Meanwhile, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has launched a pilot project to raise fish in ponds to be built in the West Bank for the benefit of Gaza. Another idea is to start a marine agriculture industry on the Gaza coast – using fish cages – to make up for the shortage of traditional fishing.
This solution, which is still theoretical, could create a new problem: a total collapse of traditional fishing, pushing thousands of fisherman into unemployment, which has already grown to high levels.
For its part, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said that “the fishing industry in the Strip is both a source of food and an economic engine for its residents.”
“During fishing season the IDF increases the permitted range by three miles, which increases the amount of activity for the fishing industry, leads to a decline in fish prices and creates employment for hundreds more Gazans. The IDF policy in the fishing zone and the rest of the Strip is designed to distinguish between an uninvolved population and terrorist elements,” it added.
“Each year, thousands of fishing boats go beyond the area permitted for fishing in the Strip. In cases of repeated straying from the area permitted for fishing and a failure to obey the navy’s instructions, and because [these boats] constitute a genuine security threat to Israel’s sovereignty, the IDF seizes the boats. This applies to a small number of boats every year.”