GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Mahmoud Abu Riyala, a young fisherman from Gaza City, returned to the sea March 23 after nearly a month off of work, despite the unhealed shrapnel wounds in his chest and hands from an Israeli naval patrol shooting at him off the Gaza coast Feb. 25.
His cousin Ismail Abu Riyala, 18, was not as lucky. He was shot dead by the patrols while both young men were fishing off the coast of the northern Gaza Strip.
Fishermen in Gaza were outraged by Abu Riyala’s killing, which they see as a serious threat to their own lives. They suspended their fishing trips for two to three days. The Israeli side held Abu Riyal's body for two weeks before his father recovered it March 14 from the Beit Hanoun checkpoint.
Mahmoud Abu Riyala, who has been fishing for six years since he was a young teen, witnessed firsthand how his cousin was killed. “We went off on a fishing trip in the afternoon on Feb. 24. The next morning, Israeli naval patrols … were circling the boat and taking photos of it. We were 5 miles from the shore," within the permitted fishing zone, he told Al-Monitor.
Israel Defense Forces said the "suspicious" ship had strayed outside that zone and ignored warning shots.
Under a truce agreement after their 2014 conflict, Israel restricts Palestinian fishing to within 6 miles of shore. Israel says it considers ships outside that zone suspect because they could be smuggling arms. However, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, Israeli attacks are taking place within the permitted area.
“The Israeli naval patrols fired at us, although we were within in the permissible limits of the fishing zone," Abu Riyala said. "We held our hands up and started waving. Then, I turned to the engine so that we could escape back to the shore. Ismail was trying to shelter me when he was shot in the head."
Saad Ziada, the director of the Support and Advocacy Department at Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “During the past three months, there has been an alarming number of attacks against Palestinian fishermen. One fisherman was killed, five wounded and 25 arrested. Three fishing boats were confiscated; other boats were sabotaged along with dozens of fishing nets. All these attacks occurred at 3-4 miles from the Gaza Strip coast.”
Statistics from another UAWC unit, the Department for the Documentation of Israeli Violations Against Fishermen, show that in all of 2017, two Palestinian fishermen were killed, 21 wounded and 39 arrested. Moreover, nine fishing boats were partially or fully destroyed, 13 boats were confiscated in addition to damages and losses in fishing gear.
“There's been an uptick in Israeli attacks on fishermen in the past three months, all occurring within 6 miles of shore, as per the designated fishing area set in the post-2014 war agreement," said Zakaria Bakr Abu Ayed, a coordinator of UAWC fishing committees in Gaza. "Meanwhile, the Oslo Agreement provided for a 20-mile fishing area off the coast."
He said Israel's actions are designed to displace and intimidate fishermen "who are being shot at, killed and arrested and are having their fishing gear destroyed.”
Mufleh Abu Riyala, a member of the Gaza Fishing Syndicate, told Al-Monitor that during periodic meetings with fishermen representing the Ministry of Agriculture and international organizations, Israel has been discussing proposals to prevent future conflicts.
“One of the proposals was to establish fish farms within the 6 miles, instead of increasing the fishing zone,” Mufleh Abu Riyala said. “Israel is seeking to [maintain] the 6-mile area as a fait accompli on fishermen, although this zone is rocky, while fishing is abundant starting at 9 miles off the coast."
He added, “Israel sees the maritime borders as more dangerous than the land border. This is why the Israeli side has already started the fish farms project and has been receiving applications for [Palestinian] professional divers, who will be trained outside Palestine."
A senior Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “The project to establish three fishing farms off the Gaza coast has been underway for six months. This will help increase the fishery resources of Palestinian fishermen.”
Adel Atallah, the director of the Fisheries Department in Gaza's Agriculture Ministry, told Al-Monitor that while “Gaza’s need of fish amounts to 20,000 tons a year," it is obtaining far less currently, with 4,000 tons "covered by domestic fishing and 8,000 from imports from Israel, as well as 600 tons from local fish farms.”