Israel bans access to sea in Gaza in act of collective punishment

Fishing boats off the coast of Gaza. Photo by Eman Mohammed

April 27, 2021. On April 25, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced that the Gaza “fishing zone” would be reduced from 15 to nine nautical miles. Yesterday morning (April 26), COGAT announced that access to Gaza’s sea space is banned altogether “until further notice.”

Israel is framing the ban on access to the “fishing zone” it enforces in Gaza’s sea space as a response to rockets being fired from Gaza towards Israel, punishing the entire fishing sector for actions that are clearly unrelated to it. Israel’s actions harm thousands of people, fishermen and their families, who rely on access to sea for their livelihoods, as well as the rest of Gaza’s population and the local economy. The harm to Gaza residents is of particular concern given that this is the month of Ramadan, with Gaza’s economy already nearing collapse due to coronavirus restrictions and the closure enforced by Israel since 2007.

Deliberate or indiscriminate fire on civilian population centers is a breach of international law and may be considered a war crime. However, Israel’s ban on access to sea constitutes illegal collective punishment. Israel’s toying with the demarcation of the zone, including bans on access to sea, causes deliberate harm to one of Gaza’s most vulnerable economic sectors.

Israel repeatedly reduces the “fishing zone” or bans access to sea as a collective punishment measure. In 2019, Israel reduced the fishing zone at least nine times as a measure of collective punishment, imposing a full maritime closure in four of these instances. This practice continued over the course of 2020. The fishing sector in Gaza is also beleaguered by Israeli restrictions on the entry of materials required to repair boats, and the violent enforcement methods used by Israel have greatly diminished this historical sector’s feasibility, forcing many out of it. According to the United Nations, the number of people working in the sector dropped from about 10,000 in 2000 to roughly 3,600 by early 2020. Most of the people still working in fishing have no other choice, given Gaza’s unemployment rate of 43%.

Yesterday morning, Gisha’s field coordinator spoke with Nizar Ayash, Head of the Gaza Fishermen Association, who said: “Israel is continuing its practice of collective punishment against Gaza’s residents. The effects aren’t limited to fishermen and their families, but extend to everyone else whose livelihood depends on the normal functioning of the sector. The economic situation in Gaza is hard enough as it is. The coronavirus is spreading, and Israel is just adding to our troubles by closing the sea.”

Yesterday, responding to Israel’s decision to prohibit fishing off Gaza’s coast, human rights organizations Gisha, Adalah, and Gaza-based Al Mezan sent an urgent letter to Israel’s Minister of Defense, the Attorney General, and COGAT, demanding the decision be reversed. In their letter, the organizations said: “The decision to close Gaza’s sea space constitutes a blatant violation of Israel’s obligations towards Gaza’s civilian population and a serious infringement on their rights and ability to lead a normal life. This is an unlawful decision which clearly violates the law, Supreme Court jurisprudence, and Israel’s proclaimed commitments. It results in an unjustified, unreasonable, and disproportionate violation of the right to freedom of movement and the rights to livelihood, work, and dignity.”