Israel’s decades of control over Gaza’s territorial waters have had a profound impact on the lives and livelihoods of fishermen, their families, others in the sector, and on the economy as a whole. Recently, there has been a sharp rise in attacks by the Israeli navy at sea. Fishermen are reporting an uptick in the number of boat seizures, incidents of use of live fire, and arrests of and assaults against fishermen, including children. This comes on top of the routine, arbitrary restrictions Israel enforces in Gaza’s territorial waters, which curtail fishermen’s ability to fish and make a living in the first place.
According to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, from the beginning of the year and up until May, Israel seized 10 fishing boats in the Gaza Strip, which is the same number of boats seized in the two previous years combined (four in 2020 and six in 2021). Each boat that is seized or put out of commission due to damage caused by the Israeli navy results in loss of income for fishermen, their families, and others who rely on the sector for their livelihoods. In May alone, 46 incidents of use of live fire were recorded, as well as ten fishermen arrests, including the arrest of a child. According to sources in the industry, the escalation of violence against fishermen began following the May 2021 military assault on Gaza and has continued since, though violent enforcement is unfortunately a norm.
Head of the Fishermen’s Union Zakariyya Baker described one incident in late May when Israeli soldiers, using live fire, seized a large boat, demanded the fishermen strip and swim towards their vessel, and then bound their hands and arrested them. In another incident that took place the same day, May 31, the navy fired on another boat’s engine, putting it out of commission. Israel arrested eight fishermen that day.
Incidents recorded since the beginning of the year compared to all of 2021:
|2021||January - May 2022|
|No. of live-fire incidents||313||167|
|No. of persons arrested||12||35|
|No. of persons injured||5||11|
|No. of children arrested||2||7|
|No. of children injured||0||3|
|No. of boats confiscated||6||10|
Early this year, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) openly said (Hebrew) that “the military is expected to take more resolute action to seize and permanently confiscate sea vessels that breach the security restrictions as occasionally updated.” However, what COGAT describes as a “breach of restrictions,” or rather, exceeding the fishing zone arbitrarily imposed by Israel, is usually simply fishermen’s attempt to provide for themselves by accessing areas that have not been overfished or contain otherwise inaccessible catches. Not only that, but many shooting incidents, boat seizures and fishermen arrests take place inside the so-called fishing zone, not beyond it. Seizing fishing boats and holding them in Israel for months and sometimes years harms fishermen’s livelihoods and Gaza’s economy as a whole, and it is prohibited under international law.
In addition, over the years, Israel has restricted the entry of items required to rebuild and repair boats damaged as a result of gunfire or accidents, leaving fishermen no choice but to decommission damaged boats. According to the Fishermen’s Union, the Israeli authorities are well aware of the dire need for fiberglass, steel cables, engines and spare parts. Still, applications for coordination to bring these items in are processed slowly, go unanswered or disappear within the labyrinthine bureaucracy Israel maintains in order to prevent what it defines as “dual-use equipment” from being brought into the Strip. A new pilot program to bring in goods for the sector under United Nations supervision has been slow to get off the ground.
Decades of access restrictions, violent enforcement of those restrictions, full maritime closures, and restrictions on entry of goods by Israel have already decimated the fishing sector, one of Gaza’s oldest, and must end.