Gaza’s fishing fleet has hundreds of boats.. The blockade has whittled it down to hundreds, but most of those boats are beached or remain at anchor in the harbor. Maritime law dictates a minimum legal boundary of 12 miles offshore for every country. The Oslo agreements, signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, gave Gazan fishermen the right to fish up to 20 miles from shore. By 2000, Israel, as part of was attacking fishermen who ventured beyond a 6 mile limit. More recently, as part of the response to Hamas' election, Israel announced a 3 mile limit. This, in itself, is enough to crush the fishing industry. Much of the fishing industry depends on migrations of fish that are at least 6 miles offshore. So, for example, between March and May, the height of the fishing season, is when huge schools of sardines pass offshore. The sardine catch within the 3 mile limit is less than 30% of what the fishing fleet would take if it could fish within Gaza’s internationally recognized 12 mile limit. In addition, the high price of diesel fuel – which must come in through the tunnels – makes fishing marginally economic. Nonetheless, the fishermen have not entirely given up their trade. They must pay for their boats and feed their families. Each day, a few fishing boats go out to try to fish. In mid May there was a demonstration of 25 boats, demanding their right to fish.
Here is what they meet. Israel has six gunboats patrolling the 25 mile Gaza coastline. According to the both the head of the fishermen’s union and to a fishing boat captain, Hassan, with whom we talked at length, fishing boats are targeted with both water cannons and live ammunition. Since 2000 15 fishermen have been killed and more than 200 wounded. Since the Israeli attack on Gaza, attacks on unarmed fishermen have been stepped up.
Even more common is piracy. The Israelis abduct the fishermen and steal their boats. The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled these boat thefts illegal. In November, the court ordered the release of two impounded boats, and the release of imprisoned fishermen and internationals. Despite this, in March, 16 fishermen were abducted and boats were impounded. In one case, fishermen were abducted leaving a child alone in a boat at sea. In another, two children were abducted. Typically, the Israelis attack the boat, force the fishermen to strip and to jump into the sea to swim to the gunboat. Then they are handcuffed and blindfolded. If the boats are returned after being impounded, typically they are heavily damaged, with the engines removed. If the fishermen refuse to follow the orders of the Israeli Navy pirates, their boat may be rammed. In one case, the side of a trawler was ripped off. In the case of the Free Gaza movement boat Dignity, the boat was rammed and damaged so badly it had to be evacuated. Since 2005, six fishermen have been killed, 30 injured, and over 300 abducted.
The Israeli Navy is not attacking to enforce its arbitrarily declared 3 mile limit. All the actions described above have taken place inside the 3 mile limit. In one case, a fishermen was kidnapped only 50 meters from the beach. The Israelis also fire on the beach and at swimmers. We heard that someone was killed on the beach not long after we left.
For a good look at what life is like for fishermen in Gaza, see Fishing under Fire at www.vivagaza.org. It is almost incomprehensible to me that any nation’s army can be given orders to fire at unarmed civilians pursuing their normal occupations. It is even more incomprehensible that this is not news. I cannot find any mention in searches of the press of the pirate acts of the Israeli Navy.