Gaza fishermen: Restricted livelihoods

19 July 2016
Fisherman Amjad al-Shirafi is preparing his boat at the Gaza seaport. “All I wish is to live my life with my family in dignity and to be able to sail like other fishermen in the world,” he said. © 2016 UNRWA Photo by Tamer Hamam.

At the main fishing port of Gaza City, Al-Mina, there are dozens of fishermen trying to earn a living to provide for their children under harsh economic conditions. Forty-two-year-old Amjad al-Shirafi, a fisherman from Beach camp in western Gaza City, is a father of six. He owns a boat that he runs with his son, 17-year-old Ismail.

Fishing and fishing-related activities have traditionally supported the livelihoods of thousands of families across the Gaza Strip. However, over the past nine years, the ability of people to gain a living from this sector has been severely undermined as a result of fishing access limits imposed by the Israeli authorities along the Gaza coast.

Technically, the fishing zone was set to 20 nautical miles (NM), according to the Oslo Accords signed in the early 1990s. But as part of Israel's blockade of the coastal enclave since 2007, Palestinian fishermen have only been allowed to work within a limited ‘designated fishing zone’ of 6 NM from Gaza’s shore.

”I've been a fisherman for 22 years. My father was a fisherman and my grandfather before him. Back then, fishing was safer and more productive. Now we are subject to many different risks,” Amjad said. In 2007 Israel announced that access to sea areas beyond 6 NM from Gaza’s shore was prohibited. Then, in January 2009, the accessible area was further reduced to just 3 NM. It was then returned to 6 NM after the 2012 ceasefire. Boats going beyond the limit received ‘warning shots’, forcing them to return, or were requisitioned by the Israeli Navy. This has severely affected both fishermen specifically and the overall food security for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Amjad’s boat was expropriated in 2012 by the Israeli Navy. To continue providing his family with a livelihood, he had to borrow money to buy a new boat and still has his debt to repay.

“Our life is a daily struggle and we never know what tomorrow will bring us; we live in constant fear of losing our boats and hence our sole source of income to provide for our families,” Amjad stated.

Due to these access restrictions, more than 3,000 fishermen have not had access to 85 per cent of the maritime areas agreed upon in the 1995 Oslo Accords; as a result, the fish catch – a principal part of the Gaza diet – has decreased dramatically over the years of the blockade.

On 4 April 2016, the Gaza fishing zone was extended from 6 to 9 NM in areas below Wadi Gaza – located in the centre of the Gaza Strip. The fishing zone remained within 6 NM north of Wadi Gaza. At the end of May, however, Israel unilaterally reduced the fishing zone back to 6 NM in all of Gaza’s waters.

Amjad said, “Our life and livelihood depend very much on the political situation and so does the life of my children. My son dropped out of school because I can’t pay for his secondary education.” Amjad also commented, “The fishermen and their families moved from self-reliance to dependence on food aid and job creation programmes.”

Being confined to short distances from the shore also means the quality of the catch is poor in terms of the size of fish and market value. High-value fish such as tuna are not present in-shore, meaning a potential source of income is lost.

“Now I can’t even provide enough to meet the minimum needs of my family. I hope the restrictions will be ended to compensate for all I lost in the last nine years. All I wish is to live my life with my family in dignity and to be able to sail like other fishermen in the world,” Amjad declared.

The restrictions imposed by Israel over the course of the last nine years have led to intensive, near-shore fishing, which has depleted fish stocks by disturbing their natural breeding grounds and threatened the fisheries resource base. Fishermen have been forced to drop their nets in waters that contain young fish and spawning species. This means that the fish caught are typically small, and this practice leads to long-term damage to marine habitats.

The fishermen in Gaza are also reportedly being fired at by the Israeli Navy on an almost daily basis. Their boats are allegedly regularly sunk or impounded and the fishermen themselves arrested. Additionally, different materials used by the Gaza fishermen to repair their boats and nets are considered by Israel to be ‘dual use items’ – meaning items that Israel believes could have a military purpose, such as steel bars, concrete, electrical material, pipes or wood thicker than 1 cm, among others – and therefore fall under Israeli import restrictions.

Recurrent conflict and the illegal blockade on land, air and sea, entering its tenth year in June 2016, remain today the principal causes of the socioeconomic and psychosocial crisis in Gaza. The restrictions on the movement of people and goods continue to collectively punish the civilian population, affecting every aspect of life in Gaza; undermining the local economy; and threatening the enjoyment of most human rights, in clear violation of Israel’s legal obligations under international humanitarian law. The compounded effects of the blockade, and the closure of tunnels to Egypt, have also had a less visible, but quite profound, psychological impact on the people of Gaza.