Israel says PA stymying Gaza fishing zone extension

Palestinian official rejects COGAT’s ‘unrealistic’ demand for a monitoring ship off the coast of the Hamas-ruled territory

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Palestinian fishermen, as seen in boats at the port of Gaza City, May 13, 2015 (Aaed  Tayeh/Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian fishermen, as seen in boats at the port of Gaza City, May 13, 2015 (Aaed Tayeh/Flash90)

Israel accused the Palestinian Authority of holding up the planned temporary expansion of the permitted fishing area surrounding the Gaza Strip, as the plan got postponed for the third time on Sunday.

The Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) had announced that beginning November 1 it would increase the distance Palestinian fisherman were allowed to travel from the shore, from 11 kilometers (six miles) to 17 kilometers (nine miles), for up to two months.

Sunday’s announcement marks the third time Israel has postponed the expansion. The first delay, on October 30, was chalked up to inclement weather, while the postponements on November 3 and on Sunday were due to the Palestinians’ “lack of compliance,” COGAT said.

Though initially reticent to comment on which requirements the Palestinian Authority had failed to uphold, COGAT said an agreement had been reached whereby the Palestinians “would have a boat on the side of Gaza to ensure that there are no infractions in the enlarged fishing zone, and to maintain order between the fishermen.”

But the Palestinians have yet to provide this monitoring ship, and thus, “the enlargement is currently postponed,” COGAT said.

Such a demand did not exist in the previous agreement on extending the fishing zone, from April to June of this year, during the other high point of the fishing season.

Though the monitoring ship, which is meant to act as a go-between for the Israeli Navy and Palestinian fishermen, wasn’t required during the previous extension, Israel says the need for one arose during that period.

“As a result of a joint study, based on the previous fishing season, between representatives of COGAT, the Israeli Navy and the Palestinian Civil Committee, and in order to avoid infractions by the Palestinian fishermen, the Israeli and the Palestinian sides both agreed that there would be a Palestinian supervision boat, within the fishing zone, to allow the current expansion of the fishing zone in a safe and optimal way,” COGAT said.

In a statement, Muhammad al-Maqadma, a spokesperson for the Palestinian civil affairs administration, called this request an “unrealistic precondition,” saying the Palestinian Authority could not furnish such a ship.

It’s not entirely clear how COGAT expects the PA to monitor the waters off the coast of Gaza, as its rival, the Hamas terrorist group, has been ruling the coastal enclave since 2007.

“Israel is prepared to expand the fishing zone when the necessary parts of the agreement are upheld by the Palestinian side,” COGAT said in an email.

The extension was not meant to apply to fisherman in Gaza’s north, only in the southern half of the Strip.

The temporary expansion was expected to bring in hundreds of thousands of shekels in revenue for Palestinian fishermen, according to Israeli figures.

The Strip of 1.8 million people has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates — approximately 40 percent — and poverty is widespread.

Some half of the roughly 4,000 fishermen working in Gaza live below the poverty line.

Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade on the territory, in order to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, dug attack tunnels into Israel and waged three wars against it, from importing more weaponry.

Dov Lieber and AP contributed to this report.

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