Israel denies Palestinian reports Gaza fishing zone was restricted

Israel denies Palestinian reports Gaza fishing zone was restricted

Amid heightened tensions, news outlets in the Strip say permitted sailing area was cut down from 12 nautical miles to 5; military says there’s been no change

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinian fishing boats are seen in the Mediterranean Sea at the port in Gaza City on May 10, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Palestinian fishing boats are seen in the Mediterranean Sea at the port in Gaza City on May 10, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Israeli military on Thursday denied Palestinian reports that it had cut back the fishing zone off the coast of the Gaza Strip after extending it last week as part of an unofficial ceasefire agreement with the enclave’s Hamas terrorist rulers.

This de facto truce appeared to have passed its first test on Wednesday, when Hamas maintained control over the protests along the Gaza border marking Palestinians’ Nakba Day. However, the situation remained precarious on Thursday, following a massive flareup earlier this month and ongoing threats of war by both sides.

Last week’s fishing zone extension represented one of the first concessions by Israel as part of the unofficial ceasefire deal, and reneging on it could serve as a potential trigger for more fighting.

On Thursday morning, the head of the Gaza Fishermen Union, Zakariya Bakr, told Palestinian media outlets that Israel had reduced the permitted fishing zone to five nautical miles (9.26 kilometers), down from the 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) that Palestinian fishermen had been granted last week.

A crewmember of a Dvora patrol boat poses with the ship’s machine gun during the Israeli Navy’s flotilla in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day on April 19, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, known as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), categorically denied that the fishing zone had been changed.

The Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic-language spokesman Lt. Col. Avichai Adraee denied the reports, writing on Twitter: “We would like to clarify that there is no change in the fishing zone around the Gaza Strip.”

The discrepancy appeared to come from an incident earlier in the day in which the Israeli Navy blocked a group of Palestinian fishermen from traveling past the five nautical mile mark.

According to Bakr, Israeli sailors fired warning shots at their ship, forcing them to retreat back to shore.

Adraee said this was not because of a change in policy, but was due to a specific operation.

Palestinian fishing boats sail into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City, Monday, July 9, 2018, with buildings of Gaza City seen in background. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“The work that was carried out at sea this morning was only meant to make demarcations. This does not mean there have been any changes to the fishing zone,” he wrote.

According to COGAT, the fishing zone remains at 12 nautical miles.

Last Thursday, the Defense Ministry body said in a statement that the fishing zone expansion is “part of the civilian policy for prevention of deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and is consistent with the policy of distinguishing between terrorists and the general population.”

The statement warned that security forces would “handle any deviation” from the agreement.

Israel expanded the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles in some areas off Gaza’s coast in early April, but subsequently reduced and then canceled the move in response to rocket fire.

There are 3,700 fishermen in Gaza, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line, a 2018 report by the B’Tselem human rights group said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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