Fluctuating fishing regulations a net frustration for Gaza’s industry

With fish zone policy ever changing in response to violence, locals say they shouldn’t pay price for attacks they didn’t launch; former COGAT official says Israel has no choice

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinian fishermen unload fresh fish at the Mediterranean seaport of Gaza City on June 18, 2019. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Palestinian fishermen unload fresh fish at the Mediterranean seaport of Gaza City on June 18, 2019. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip expressed great frustration this week with the constant changes Israel has made to the permitted fishing zone off the coast of the small territory, which they contended amount to a policy of collective punishment.

The number of shifts just this past month was dizzying: Israel increased the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles (17.2 miles or 27.8 kilometers) on May 21, reduced it to 10 on May 23, expanded it to 15 on May 26, decreased it to 10 on May 29, widened it to 15 on June 4, dropped it to 10 on June 6, shrunk it to 6 on June 11, completely closed it on June 12 and most recently boosted it to 10 on June 18.

Israeli security officials have said the frequent amendments are a response to the increases and decreases in flaming balloons and, in some cases, rockets that Palestinians in Gaza have launched into the Jewish state’s territory. Arson balloons have destroyed thousands of acres of Israeli farmland.

But Nizar Ayyash, the 63-year-old head of the Fishermen’s Union in Gaza, said he does not understand why Israel makes fishermen in the coastal enclave pay the price for incendiary balloons they are not responsible for.

Palestinian fishermen take to the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City on June 18, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

“Fishermen work in the sea. Have you seen balloons coming from the sea?” Ayyash, who has fished off the coast of Gaza for more than four decades, told The Times of Israel in a phone call this week. “Why do fishermen trying to make a living have to suffer for something they did not do? There is no way to describe what is happening other than collective punishment.”

There are 3,700 registered fishermen in Gaza, the overwhelming majority of which live below the poverty line, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, said in a February 2019 report. Approximately half of them do not fish on a daily basis because they either cannot use their boats due to a lack of spare parts, or cannot cannot access their boats since the Israeli military confiscated them, the report said.

Fishermen in Gaza provide for an estimated 18,250 people other than themselves, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a April 2018 report.

Ayyash said that when Israel reduces the fishing zone, it forces fishermen in the Strip to compete over a small area of the coast.

“When we don’t have a lot of space to fish, we have too many boats in the same area,” he said, noting that a greater variety of fish exists in the deeper waters. “A small space to fish makes it much more difficult to come home with a good catch.”

If Israel expanded the fishing zone permanently to 12 nautical miles, the amount of food that fishermen catch in Gaza would swell by half, the OCHA report said, citing the Agriculture Ministry in the coastal enclave. It added that such a policy could lead to a 60-65 percent increase in their incomes, if the Jewish state simultaneously took measures to permit fish exports from Gaza, and could guarantee full employment of all fishermen in the territory.

Nizar Ayyash, the head of the Fishermen’s Union in Gaza, speaking to Al-Kitaab TV. (Screenshot: Al-Kitaab TV)

Amjad Sharafi, a 45-year-old fisherman from Gaza City, said that when Israel expands the fishing zone, his chances of earning more income significantly rise.

“If I can fish further out, I can catch enough fish that will give me 100 shekels ($28) or more to bring home,” Sharafi, a father of eight, said. “If I can only go out a few miles, I usually come home with around 20 shekels ($5.5).”

The Prime Minister’s Office said that it did not want to comment “at this stage” on the frequent changes to the fishing zone and referred questions to the Israel Defense Forces.

But Ofir Gendelman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic-language spokesman, warned fishermen in Gaza last week that if the flaming balloons did not come to a halt, they would continue to suffer consequences.

“O residents of Gaza! Do not allow the terrorists, who are shooting off arson balloons to burn farms in Israel, to deprive you of your sources of income: Setting farms on fire means the reduction of the fishing zone,” he tweeted, attaching a photo of Mohammed Salah, a famous Egyptian soccer player, holding a large fish. “Look at Mohamed Salah. Do you want to be like him? Do you deserve to catch the same large fish? Of course, but that will not be possible, if the terror continues.”

The IDF referred questions to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry branch that liaises with the Palestinians.

Asked why Israel takes actions that impact fishermen in response to incendiary balloons they did not launch, a COGAT spokeswoman did not answer, but said that the ministry only implements policies and does not decide them.

Grisha Yakubovich, a former high-ranking COGAT official, defended Israel’s frequent changes to the fishing zone, arguing that as long as Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza do not hold up their end of recent ceasefire understandings with the Jewish state, they should not expect the Israeli government to maintain its commitments to them.

“The Hamas terror group agreed to stop the balloons as a part of the understandings in exchange for some measures including an expansion of the fishing zone,” he said. “I understand the fishermen’s frustration. But Hamas has not upheld its end of the bargain; so Israel cannot maintain its end of it.”

After two days of intense fighting over in early May in which terror groups launched over 650 rockets at southern Israel and the military carried out more than 300 retaliatory strikes throughout Gaza, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad announced that Egypt and other international parties had successfully brokered a ceasefire deal.

Palestinian boats wait to sail as they refuel at the fishermen sea port in Gaza City on Wednesday, July 31.(AP/Adel Hana)

A senior Palestinian official in Gaza said in a phone call in May that the agreement dealt with a number of issues including the expansion of the Gaza fishing zone to 15 nautical miles and a halt to “all resistance against Israel except for the weekly protests along the border in their peaceful form.”

Responding to Yakubovich, Sharafi, Gazan fisherman, argued that Israel and the terror groups should never have included the nautical zone in their understandings.

“Our livelihood should not depend on any understandings. We have nothing to do with the balloons and other issues,” he said. “We should simply be able to go to the sea and provide for our families.”

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