Israel reverses latest punitive reduction of Gaza’s fishing zone, but the frequent, arbitrary changes continue to harm Gaza’s fishermen

The fishing port in Gaza. Photo by Asmaa Elkhaldi

December 30, 2019. On December 24, Israel reversed its decision from December 19 to reduce the “fishing zone” it enforces in Gaza’s sea space to a maximal distance of 10 nautical miles off shore. The zone where Israel allows fishing to take place is now limited to a maximal distance of 15 nautical miles off shore in a southern section of the Strip, and up to six nautical miles opposite the area of Gaza City (see diagram below). Since the beginning of 2019, Israel has changed its demarcation of the fishing zone 19 times. On nine of these occasions, Israel reduced the fishing zone; in four instances this year Israel banned access to the sea altogether.

It was only recently, in April 2019, that Israel extended the fishing zone to a maximal distance of 15 nautical miles (about 28 kilometers) for the first time since it began restricting access to Gaza’s territorial waters. The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 1995 included reference to an area stretching 20 nautical miles (about 37 kilometers) off the coast of Gaza that Palestinians would be allowed to access, but the agreement was never fulfilled. Israel only allows large fishing boats to access the area of the zone reaching between 12 and 15 nautical miles off shore, meaning that only about 10 percent of the fishing vessels currently in working condition in Gaza can access that part of the zone.

Map of the fishing zone. Photo by Al-Tawfiq Labor Union

Despite the repeated changes to the demarcation of the zone, fishermen in Gaza tell Gisha that 2019 saw a rise in the quantity of catch, indicating the potential for growth in the sector if Israel was to remove additional restrictions. According to figures published by the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the catch of fish in the first 11 months of 2019 was the largest since the United Nations began monitoring the issue: A total of 3,472 tons of fish. This represents an increase of 19 percent compared to the catch in the corresponding period in 2018. In particular, this year saw an increase in the catch of fish commonly found further off shore; the catch of tuna in 2019 was 69 percent higher (518 tons more) than it was in 2018, and the catch of red mullet was 36 percent higher (9 tons more) than 2018.

Though the income of some fishermen increased slightly in 2019, the fishing sector in Gaza still struggles under the closure imposed by Israel on the Strip. Ongoing restrictions on the entrance of certain types of equipment, spare parts and boat engines into the Strip delay maintenance and repairs to fishing boats. According to the United Nations, the number of people making a living from fishing in Gaza has dropped from approximately 10,000 people in 2000 to about 3,600 people registered as fishermen today (of which, only about 2,000 people actually engage in fishing regularly).

Israel’s repeated reductions to the zone, often in response to rocket fire towards Israel that no one is claiming has anything to do with fishermen, constitute illegal collective punishment and puts people’s lives at risk. The way Israel enforces its restrictions at sea, shooting live ammunition, arresting and detaining fishermen, and seizing their boats and equipment, even when they are well within the permitted zone, have made fishing in Gaza a highly dangerous occupation.