May 14, 2017. On May 3, 2017, Israel expanded the fishing zone from six to nine nautical miles. The expansion applies only to the area south of Wadi Gaza. To the north of this area, fishing is only permitted up to a distance of six nautical miles, as it was previously.
Zakariyya Baker, chair of the Gaza Fishermen’s Union, which is part of Gaza’s Farm Labor Union, spoke to Gisha’s research coordinator and said that though extending the fishing zone was important, it was unlikely to affect real change for Gaza’s fishermen. Since the expansion only applies to the south of the Strip, a larger concentration of fishermen is drawn to the area, depleting each fisherman’s catch. According to Baker, there are currently 3,750 fishermen working on 1,270 boats in Gaza.
Khaled al-Habil, a fisherman from Gaza, told Gisha that the area south of Wadi Gaza is sandy, rather than rocky, meaning less fish can be found there. Al-Habil says that more ample and varied catches of fish are found beginning at 7.5 nautical miles off shore. As most of the fishermen try to reach that area, which is only a kilometer and a half wide, overcrowding occurs. Al-Habil himself has only sailed out to that area of sea once since it was opened, due to the higher costs involved in getting there. He emphasizes that the expansion helps, but is not sufficient. When he sailed out to the expanded area he was able to catch types of fish that are unavailable closer to the shoreline, including red mullet, grouper fish, seabream and shrimp of various sizes. The yield of Gaza’s fishermen often includes only sardines, which are available in the small area they are usually permitted to access.
Baker explains that Israel demarcates the fishing zone using buoys, and the Israeli navy strictly enforces the restrictions. Any departure from the zone defined by Israel places fishermen’s lives at risk. Incidents in which fishermen made a navigational error, or drifted outside the zone by mistake, ended with Israel confiscating their boats and/or opening fire at the fishermen, resulting in injury, damage to equipment and even death. An incident such as this was reported last week, when a fisherman tried to retrieve a net that had floated past the buoy. He was shot and injured, his boat sustaining heavy damage.
According to information collected by Palestinian human rights organization Al Mezan, during 2017, so far: 14 fishermen have been detained by the Israeli navy, five have been injured and one has been killed; five boats have been confiscated. In 2016, 135 fishermen were detained, 26 were injured by gunfire and 43 boats were confiscated. Dozens of fishing boats, and a large amount of fishing equipment are damaged or destroyed every year.
Both Baker and al-Habil say that despite the meager living conditions and the risks involved, most of those working in the fishing industry are in no hurry to leave the trade, mostly because of the high rate of unemployment in the Strip, which means there is little chance of finding other work.
Before expensive and improbable projects such as artificial island-ports are contemplated, steps must be taken to ensure Gaza residents can earn a decent living, including from the resources most readily available to them, such as the sea, which has sustained the port city of Gaza for many generations. Shooting at unarmed civilians is a disproportionate method of enforcing a closure that should be lifted, before all else. Restricting the fishing zone, which, according to the Oslo Accords, should have stretched 20 nautical miles off the coast, also contradicts repeated statements from top Israeli officials about the importance of economic recovery and development in Gaza, both of which are impossible without access to livelihoods.