Gaza Cease-Fire Helps Fishermen, but Risks Remain
By STEVEN ERLANGER and FARES AKRAM
Published: December 24, 2012
GAZA CITY — Khader Bakr, a 19-year-old fisherman, was thrilled to hear that he could now fish up to six nautical miles from the coast, up from the three-mile limit Israel had had in place since 2009. The change was part of the cease-fire deal that halted last month’s fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.
But testing the waters late last month, Mr. Bakr apparently sailed out too far. An Israeli gunboat patrolling against arms smuggling ordered him to stop and strip to his underwear. As the Israelis sank his boat, he jumped into the sea and was hauled aboard the Israeli vessel for questioning.
“I spent four hours trembling,” he said, before the Israelis ordered another Palestinian fishing boat to ferry Mr. Bakr back to shore.
Run-ins with Israeli patrols are still the bane of Gaza fishermen. But in most respects, the new arrangement has been a boon.
The fishermen have raced to take advantage of broader fishing grounds, farther from the shore where sewage is pumped into the water untreated.
Catches have improved in quantity, quality and freshness, and thus price. The fish are bigger and include desirable species like grouper, red mullet and Mediterranean sea bass that were no longer present closer to land.
But the fishermen risk rapidly overfishing. “In the first few days, I caught fish worth $1,580 to $1,850,” said Yasser Abu al-Sadeq. “Today, I made around $1,050.” But the situation is still better, he said. “Before the cease-fire, I would barely catch $790.”
“It’s like when you come to a house that’s been abandoned for years and start cleaning it,” he said. “When you start cleaning, you get out a lot of trash, but when you clean daily, you get out only a little.”
He and his crew go out for 24 hours at a time, he said, cooking the small crabs and squid they catch in the nets.
He described an early trip out past the six-mile limit, when an Israeli gunboat circled his boat, shaking it in the wake, and ordered him back toward shore.
He remembers a golden time, before the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, when he could go out as far as 12 nautical miles, where he could find sardines and what he called guitarfish, a small ray. “There, it’s a reserve protected by God,” he said.
The fishermen say they estimate their distance, since most of them lack precise navigational systems, but there is usually one indicator.
“When we were allowed within 3 miles, the gunboats would attack us at 2.5 miles,” said Monzer Abu Amira, as he repaired his green nylon nets. “Today, they hit us when we are at 5.5 miles.”
The Israelis generally use loudspeakers and water cannons, but sometimes they shoot live ammunition at fishing gear, the motor or the boat itself. Gazans in principle can apply for compensation if boats are damaged or destroyed, but in practice few do.
A senior Israeli official said that there had never been an official announcement that the fishing limit had been extended to six miles from three, but he confirmed that six was the new reality. Israel is continuing to negotiate indirectly with Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, with Egypt as an intermediary, to turn the cease-fire agreement into something more permanent, the official said.
“We have an interest in prolonging the longevity of the quiet,” the official said. “We understand that relaxation of some of the restrictions is conducive to that goal. Quiet is in our interest. So we have an interest in showing flexibility where we can, and to show the Egyptians that we’re serious.”
There were problems immediately after the cease-fire, the Israeli official said, because “some in Gaza were interested in testing the limits and pushing the envelope,” and because the expansion of the fishing zone meant deploying more Israeli resources to cover more sea.
“But if people don’t exceed the six-mile limit, it’s O.K.,” he said.
The Israelis are not interested in the smuggling of “Kalashnikovs and bullets,” he added, but in preventing Iran from resupplying longer-range missiles and preventing Hamas from smuggling in foreign experts to aid them in missile development and technology. “The important thing for us is to prevent Hamas from rearming,” he said.
There have been other cases besides Mr. Bakr’s of Israelis shooting on fishing boats, especially in the first 10 days after the cease-fire, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The centersays that on Nov. 29, Israeli sailors intercepted a fishing boat five nautical miles from shore, detaining and questioning the six people on board, including a child. At least two other fishing boats were fired upon or stopped, and their crews questioned, sometimes in the Israeli port of Ashdod, before being released.
On Dec. 17, Israeli naval forces wounded a Palestinian fisherman, Mas’ad Bakr, who they said was beyond the six-mile limit and was “injured by shrapnel” when they fired on the boat to halt it because it had failed to respond to orders to stop. He was brought to an Israeli hospital. Nezar Ayyash, head of the Gaza fishermen’s union, said that boat had been within the six-mile limit.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official, said that Israel was to blame for violating the cease-fire agreement, which he said allowed the expansion of the fishing limit. “We follow up any violations with the Egyptian sponsors of the truce,” he said.
The expansion of fishing has not immediately changed the buying habits of restaurateurs here, who have gotten used to buying cheaper farmed fish smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt. The fisherman say smuggled fish is often bad, since keeping it consistently cold on its journey is difficult.
For Rafiq Balaha, 38, a fishmonger selling his wares near the port, Egypt remains an important source. “There is not enough fish in Gazan waters,” he said. “I bring in sea bream,” known locally as denise, which are grown in Egyptian and Israeli fish farms. “People here love this kind of fish,” he said.
Hatem Bakr, who runs a seafood restaurant here, was examining the day’s catch. “Now we can buy red mullet and sea bass,” he said. “Here people prefer to buy local fish, not Egyptian fish, because they like the taste.” He believes that fish will stay expensive, however, at least until the fishermen can go out at least 10 nautical miles.
Fishermen are trying to feed their families, Mr. Abu Amira said. “He fights in the sea so he can feed his children, not in order to cause trouble between himself and the Jews.” Like fish, he said, when fishermen are taken from the sea they die.
“The sea is everything for us — our hobby, our work, our pleasure, our income,” Mr. Abu Amira said. “We don’t know anything on the land. If we leave the sea, we get lost.”
That is where Khader Bakr is now, sitting on shore, at the small Gaza City port, bemoaning his boat. “Now I’ve lost everything,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to fish in.”
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