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Gaza fishermen hope for new start with expanded zone

Palestinians are pleased with the Israeli army's decision to expand the Gaza Strip fishing zone, though fishermen there still have to recover from years of hardship that have taken their toll.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — On April 1, Israel expanded the Gaza Strip fishing zone to a maximum of 15 nautical miles offshore — the longest distance allowed for Gazan fishermen since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993.

On his official Facebook page, Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee said the distance falls within the scope of Israel’s civil policy to ease the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Adraee warned that no fisherman will be allowed to the cross the limits agreed upon.

The measure, highly welcomed by Palestinians, follows the recently reached Egyptian-led truce between Hamas and Israel. It also coincides with the start of the fishing season in Gaza from April to June.

In Israel, however, the zone expansion was heavily criticized. On April 1, Oded Forer, a Knesset member representing the Yisrael Beitenu party, slammed the measure as a security breach that could endanger Israeli coastal residents. He also said the extension will encourage attempts to smuggle weapons to Hamas.

The Jerusalem Post reported April 7 that an Israeli district court sentenced fisherman Mamdouh Bashar to eight years in prison and gave fisherman Hamis al-Araishi 13 years in jail for smuggling hundreds of kilos of explosives from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Israel had arrested the two along with fisherman Fadi Bakr, who has not yet been sentenced, in 2016.

Under a 1994 protocol signed by Israel and the PLO, Palestinian fishing boats are entitled to sail in an area that extends more than 20 nautical miles from the coast. Israel, however, hasn't allowed that distance since 1996. The area was reduced by a unilateral Israeli decision to a maximum of 12 nautical miles. With the start of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2006, the distance was further reduced to only 3 nautical miles. In addition, the Israeli navy at times fired at fishermen, confiscated their boats and arrested them, hurting the fishing sector in Gaza and prompting many fishermen to quit.

Nizar Ayyash, head of the Palestinian Fishermen's Association in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that since April 1, “Fishermen have been informed that the fishing zone in the northern Gaza Strip to the port of Gaza was broadened to 6 nautical miles. The zone off central Gaza was extended to 12 and the zone in the south near the Egyptian border was widened to 15.”

The different distances were set to keep Palestinian fishermen away from Israel's borders for security concerns, he said. “Therefore, the zone off the shore of central Gaza was the most expanded, given its distance from the border.”

The Israeli army also is allowing, under the recent truce understandings, for steel cables and wires to be brought in for fishing boats, as well as some items that have been banned since 2006 because they could be used for nefarious purposes other than their intended use. Israeli authorities are still reviewing whether to permit the entry of fiberglass, which is needed to repair damaged boats.

“This [zone expansion] should have been preceded by [admitting] the necessary materials to allow the fishing boats to travel this distance,” Ayyash said. Gaza’s fishermen have become accustomed to sailing only in the limited zone for many years, and most no longer have large boats and nets.

Fishermen prepare their nets at the Gaza seaport in Gaza City, April 3, 2019. (Entsar Abu Jahal/Al-Monitor)

“Israel’s practices have destroyed the fishing sector,” Ayyash lamented. “The sector has been hit by an unprecedented stagnation of 75%, with about 6,000 fishermen abandoning the sector because of Israeli practices.”

Al-Monitor talked with Mahmoud al-Asi, a fisherman for 60 years, who said it's too soon to predict when or if the sector will recover. “The decision was surprising and many fishermen were unable to prepare their equipment and nets for traveling the new distance that they had been denied for many years. Add to this, many of them don't have the necessary equipment and sufficient funds to buy fuel to sail to this distance. But they are optimistic about this expansion, hoping it will be further stretched and that Israel won't reverse its decision," he said.

“This was my grandparents’ profession and I have 10 children, all of whom are fishermen. But amid the deterioration of the situation, I advise my grandchildren to search for another job."

Asi’s nephew, Darwish al-Asi, has been a fisherman for 35 years. He spoke with Al-Monitor while lifting his net April 3 at the Gaza seaport. “The fish quantity today was very small, not what we expected. We hope things will improve in the coming days, especially as we are approaching the sardine fishing season that begins in mid-April and is one of the most important seasons for us," he said. Another fishing season starts in mid-September and ends in November, he said.

“The last 10 years have been very hard on fishermen, who suffered terrible losses and could barely make daily ends meet and provide for their families," Asi added. “A group of fishermen was shot at today, although they didn't cross the authorized distance. They were fishing within a ​​5-nautical-mile area. Fishermen around the world fear only the dangers of the sea, but Gazan fishermen fear those of the sea and Israel."

Muin Rajab, an economics professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The fishing sector is one of the most important productive activities in the Gaza Strip. Its recovery is linked to the authorized fishing zone. The wider this zone, the greater and more diversified the number of fish caught.”

He complained about the bitter situation in Gaza: “Gazan fishermen face great risks and hardships that have pushed many of them to stop fishing, which is exactly what Israel wants.”

Rajab continued, “Israel often quickly reneges on its promises under illusory pretexts. However, the expansion decision, if maintained, would have a great positive impact on fishermen and all fishing-related transactions. Citizens would be able to purchase high-quality fish at reasonable prices. Most of the residents of the Gaza Strip have been denied a fish meal amid the scarcity and high price."

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