Israel extends Gaza fishing zone, apparently as part of ceasefire with Hamas

Palestinians permitted to fish up to 15 nautical miles from the coast; expansion said to be first part of 6-month truce agreement

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

Palestinian fishermen clean a net after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport on April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian fishermen clean a net after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport on April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Israel announced Tuesday that it extended the permitted fishing zone around the Gaza Strip to 15 nautical miles (27.8 kilometers), apparently as a first step in a six-month ceasefire with Hamas, the terror group that rules the coastal enclave.

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinian, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), said in a statement that the measure was aimed at preventing the “deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and is consistent with the policy of distinguishing between terrorists and the rest of the population.”

Israel refuses to officially acknowledge the existence of a ceasefire agreement, but has largely abided by the reported terms of it.

On Monday night, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported that the agreement includes a Hamas obligation to halt violent incidents along the border fence, maintaining a buffer zone 300 meters from the border; an end to the launching of incendiary balloons at Israeli communities and nighttime clashes between Gazans and security forces; and a stop to flotillas trying to break through the maritime border between Gaza and Israel.

In return, Israel expanded the fishing zone and will enable United Nations cash-for-work programs, allow medicine and other civil aid to enter the Strip, and open negotiations on matters relating to electricity, crossings, healthcare and funds.

As the agreement is maintained, Israel and Hamas will also reportedly discuss a prisoner exchange. The terror group holds captive Israeli civilians Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers — Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

The deal was brokered with Egyptian and UN mediation.

Palestinian fishermen unload their catch after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport on April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

After Hamas fully took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel severely restricted the Gaza fishing zone, mostly keeping it at six nautical miles (11.1 kilometers), with occasional three-mile extensions during peak fishing seasons.

Over the past year, Israel has extended the fishing zone to 12 or 15 nautical miles as part of ceasefire agreements on a number of occasions, but restricted it back to six when those truces fell apart.

Recent weeks have seen tensions in the Gaza Strip soar, following a massive two-day flareup earlier this month between Israel and terror groups in the coastal enclave, in which terrorists fired nearly 700 rockets, mortar shells and anti-tank guided missiles at southern and central Israel, killing four people.

The military struck back, hitting over 300 targets linked with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups, including several rocket-launching teams. Twenty-five Palestinians were killed in the fighting, most of them members of terror groups.

A man examines the damage inside a building on May 6, 2019, that was hit during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on the southern Israeli city of Ashdod (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Following the fighting, as an initial armistice appeared to go into effect, Israel extended the fishing zone to 12 nautical miles.

Abu Rukun added that Sunday’s further extension to 15 nautical miles would be rescinded if there were any violations of it.

“Application of the measure is conditioned on the Gaza Strip fishermen respecting the agreements. It is emphasized that deviation from the agreed-upon limits will not be allowed, and the security forces will handle any deviation accordingly,” he said.

Last week, Palestinian officials said Israel had again restricted the fishing zone, citing an altercation between the Israeli Navy and Gazan fishermen. Israel fiercely denied that there had been a change, blaming the incident on a misunderstanding.

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

A Palestinian rioter hurls stones at Israeli troops as a woman wearing a traditional Palestinian outfit waves a national flag near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 10, 2019. (Photo by Said KHATIB / AFP)

Since March 30, 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in regular protests along the border, demanding Israel lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of the Jewish state.

The protests have included many acts of violence against Israeli security forces, and have seen at least 200 Palestinians killed.

Israeli officials maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip. They also say the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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