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Gaza fisherman get boats back in ship-shape as Israel lifts ban on fiberglass

Hundreds of vessels waiting to be repaired following UN-brokered deal to allow sheets in, ending 15 years of restrictions imposed due to military uses of material

A cat waits to eat a fish on a boat the port in Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)
A cat waits to eat a fish on a boat the port in Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

GAZA CITY (AFP) — Wearing sky blue overalls near Gaza’s port, technician Mohammed Jerboa celebrates the chance to finally repair fishing boats after a 15-year Israeli ban on vital materials.

It’s a “great achievement”, he said after sanding down the faded paint as part of a team of workers patching up rickety boats with sheets of newly imported fiberglass.

The material has been prohibited from entering the Palestinian enclave since 2007, as one of scores of items Israel deems could be used for military purposes by Gaza terrorists.

The measures have left fishermen struggling for years to pursue their livelihood due to the state of the boats — although Palestinian statistics indicate that their catch has more than doubled since the blockage was introduced — until the United Nations brokered a deal that allows fiberglass to reach a supervised workshop.

“I started working at this workshop two weeks ago… for the fishermen and for us as technicians, this provided a job opportunity,” said Jerboa.

Gaza has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates at nearly 50 percent, according to World Bank data.

Palestinian fishermen work at the port Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

Dust flies as the team gets to work, within view of a security camera, while the smell of fresh paint drifts across the fenced yard from a recently refurbished boat.

Rows of unseaworthy vessels rest in the sand nearby, with rusty parts and covered in scratches, laying bare the scale of the task at hand.

Manal al-Najjar, a coordination officer at the United Nations Office for Project Services — which handles infrastructure projects — said there are still some 300 boats to be fixed.

After months of negotiations with Palestinian and Israeli officials, the UN reached a deal which allows enough fiberglass for 10 boats to enter Gaza at a time.

“The repair process takes two weeks to a month for every 10 boats,” Najjar said.

With the first repaired boats hitting the water, she added that fishermen so far are happy with the project as “the price is very reasonable and the quality of the materials is high.”

A Palestinian fisherman arrives with a boat at the port Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

Standing near piles of nets at the port, fisherman Saleem al-Assi was one of the first to be selected for the project and agreed the costs were low.

“I’ve had boats out of action for eight years and they need a lot of fiberglass,” said Assi, who has around 50 relatives working in the fishing trade.

“Hundreds of fishermen applied to the project, but the project can’t cover everyone,” he added.

In addition to the difficulty to obtain materials, the fishing industry has been hit by restrictions at sea.

Israel’s navy enforces a fishing zone that limits the catch as part of a blockade on Gaza which is also enforced by Egypt. Israel says the blockade, imposed in 2007 after the Palestinian terror group Hamas took power, is needed to keep terror groups in the Strip from building up their forces, including by importing weaponry and the materials for weapons.

Palestinian fishermen sit in their boat off the shores of the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, as an Israeli patrol is seen in the distance, March 26, 2014. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Israel has fought four wars with Gaza-based terrorists over the past 14 years, as well as a three-day conflict in August which left 49 Gazans dead.

At the port, Assi welcomed the fiberglass project but lamented that he still cannot get his family’s nine boats out to sea.

“We only have two motors. Motors are non-existent,” he said.

Palestinian fishermen work at the port Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

Najjar acknowledged the shortage and said the UN plans to import motors as part of its project.

Standing beside the calm Mediterranean waters, Assi said the lack of equipment due to Israeli restrictions has “suffocated us.”

Nonetheless, figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that Gaza fishermen have more than doubled their catch since the blockade was introduced — from over 1.5 million fish in 2009 to almost 4 million in 2019.

“I don’t know why Israel is blocking their entry. Will rockets be fired from boats?” he asked.

Israel has said that fiberglass is restricted because Hamas seeks to use it in the manufacture of rockets.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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