Trapped by the Israeli Navy, Gazan Fishermen Are Just Glad to Make It Home Alive

Limited by an Israeli nautical cordon, fishermen catch fewer, smaller fish. Policed by the Israeli navy, every sailing risks their boats, even their lives. And they can’t sell up, because, unsurprisingly, there are no takers

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View of Gaza City from a fishing boat. November 2017.
View of Gaza City from a fishing boat. November 2017.Credit: Mohammed M
Writer from Gaza
Mohammed M.

It's no job for the fearful. The life of a Gazan fisherman isn't quite the poetic reverie suggested by the picture of sailing off into the Mediterranean Sea early each morning. It's a life of hard graft – punctuated by the risk of your boat being confiscated or worse: Losing your life to the Israeli gunboats that patrol the water.

The beautiful fishing boats decorated with big white lights inside the Gaza seaport give the impression of content authenticity; you might almost be excused confusing the photogenic fishing boats with a relative degree of prosperity for the fisherman. That's far from reality.

In Gaza, fishing is a risky business with low financial returns. The small fishing zone Israel allows Gazans to enter doesn’t offer enough fish for an adequate salary, and barely covers the cost of the diesel and oil required for the boats' engines and generators.

Gaza fishermen's catch on display on shore. November 2017Credit: Mohammed M

You need to be brave to do the job, too. The fishermen must sail towards the outer limits of Gaza's six-mile fishing zone in the early evening and getting out by dawn and not stay longer or further lest they're picked up by the Israeli navy patrolling the sea. Even without crossing the sea borders, fishermen are regularly harassed by the Israeli navy.

It’s common to be shot at or arrested by Israeli gunboats when they're out on the water. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 126 incidents were recorded during the few last years, two of which ended in Mohammed El-Hissi and Muhammad Baker being shot dead.

I met with Othman Ahmed, who used to have a comfortable life as a Gazan fisherman but now wants above all else to get out.

"In the past, everything was different. We could catch dozens of kilos of fish and make a lot of money every night," Othman told me.

For Othman, there’s never a good fishing day now, not least since Israel decreased the fishing zone around Gaza last year to 6 miles from shore. He and his fellow fishermen mostly catch in those shallower waters, are relatively tiny fish like small sardines that are mostly forbidden to be caught in other countries, to protect the fish lifecycle and maintain a healthy fish population.

A Palestinian fisherman prepares fishing net on a beach in the northern Gaza Strip August 21, 2017. Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Othman used to fish freely wherever and whenever he wanted. He used to cross the Egyptian and Israeli nautical borders, and no navy would stop him.

"When we used to fish up to 12 miles from shore, we could let the small fish survive to catch the bigger fish. Now we even sometimes do not find the small ones," Othman laughed, wryly.

Despite Othman stating he'd been attacked by water cannon and by live fire several times by the Israeli navy deep in Gazan waters, his boat is still functioning. He's physically capable of working the boat, together with his assistants, who include four of his sons. But what's pushing him out of fishing is the amount of diesel it consumes.

As well as its engine, his boat has a big generator producing enough power for searchlights that attract fish around the boat. The diesel of the generator costs between 1500-1700 Israeli shekels ($420-480) per night.

Gaza fishermen's catch on display on shore. November 2017.Credit: Mohammed M

"Sometimes I don't even catch that much fish to cover the diesel costs, and sometimes diesel companies refuse to fill my generator with oil because I do not pay them regularly," he said.

Othman’s brother was killed by an Israeli navy cruiser in 2013 when he was fishing close to the outer limit of the fishing zone. His deceased brother's boat is now being fixed up so other family members can get it back to sea.

Every Gazan dreams of a better future, but Othman's dream is very specific. "I hope someone rich buys my two boats so I can find another job," he declares.

"Maybe he'd even can buy me?" he added, his humor tinged with bitterness.

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