Sea blockade sees dry patch for Gaza's fishermen
Rory McCarthy, The Guardian. May 12 2008
The sun had not long set into the Mediterranean and the fishing launch was motoring out into the rolling sea, only an hour into what was to be a long night spent in search of shoals of sardine.
Without warning, a sudden burst of machine gun fire came rattling a few feet overhead, the red tracer bullets arcing into the night sky above the fishermen. Abdul Salam al-Hissi and his crew instinctively crouched to the deck. He brought the engine to an abrupt stop.
The high-speed Israeli naval ship, invisible in the darkness, shone its powerful searchlight and Hissi turned his boat around and headed briefly back inland. So began another night in the sea off Gaza, a night of brinkmanship between a Palestinian fishing fleet in rapid decline and searching in vain for a decent catch, and the Israeli navy that patrols these waters, and is intent on keeping the fishermen close to shore.
Less than 10 minutes later, there was more gunfire directed just over the head of Hissi's ship and as the evening went on two more salvos of fire from the Israelis, both apparently shells, one of which landed with a loud report and a sharp hiss into the sea just a few feet away. The bullets, shells and spotlight were the sole communication from one ship to the other that night.
But Hissi and his crew of nine, among them his brother, his two sons, and his brother-in-law, seemed resigned to the gunfire and more deeply concerned about the restrictions that prevent them heading more than a few miles off the coast. It means their catches are small and make barely enough money to pay for the fuel they use, fuel which has in turn risen sharply in price because of the tight economic siege Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip.
"You can see how difficult it has become," said Hissi, 57. He has worked as a fisherman all his life, learning the trade from his father, who learnt from his father before him. "I'm happy at sea, happy to be fishing, all of us are, but only if there's something to catch. When we come back with as little as this it's depressing." Shortages of diesel have meant the crew now sometimes run the engine on cooking oil, which colours the dark exhaust with a burning orange glow.
His open-decked, wooden boat is little different from the others moored in the small harbour at Gaza City. It is 16m long and 28 years old, its troubled Volvo engine kept alive only by repairs and cannibalised parts from elsewhere. There is a rudimentary radar to check depth and search for fish, but no radio or satellite positioning system.
Behind the boat trail, five small, wooden dinghies each with two large lamps attached. When Hissi finally spots fish on the radar he sends out the dinghies, whose bright lights attract the fish. The crew circle the fish in their net and then draw them on board in a night of long and heavy labour before they return to the harbour at 6am, where a truck is parked ready to rush the catch to market.
On this night, the haul was 70 plastic crates filled with fish, a few holding adult sardines but most holding their young, barely 5cm long, a sign that fish stocks are being rapidly depleted. As Hissi sat warming himself in the morning sunshine, his son Mohammad returned from the market with the small, red account book which showed the night's catch brought in just 3,499 shekels (£520).
After 2,000 shekels was deducted to cover the cost of a night's fuel for the engine and gas for the lamps, the rest was divided in two: half for the upkeep of the aging boat and the rest shared equally between the captain and his crew, meaning each man should have taken home just 75 shekels. In the end, even that was to be reduced to cover outstanding costs left over from previous nights of poor fishing earlier in the week.
"I wonder what guilt the Palestinian people have that made God so angry with us?" said Hissi. He talks proudly of how his father, who was born in Jaffa and fled with the wave of refugees in 1948, started with only a small boat and how the family have grown to a much larger business today. Three of his four sons are already following him into the business.
It hasn't always been this bleak for the fishermen. In the 1990s, the Gazan fishing industry produced an annual income of around £5m. That had halved by last year and is still shrinking fast. Under the Oslo accords, which in 1993 were supposed to herald the coming of an independent Palestinian state, Gazan fishermen were to be allowed 20 nautical miles out to sea, where they could catch sardine as they migrated from the Nile delta up towards Turkey during the spring.
But Israeli naval ships in recent years have imposed their own, much-reduced limits as part of the tightening pressure on Gaza that came after the election victory of the Hamas Islamist movement in early 2006. On the night's fishing with Hissi, he and all other fishermen were allowed less than six miles offshore, not far enough out to reach the schools of large fish. For several months last year, they were not even allowed out of harbour. Nor can the fishermen any longer export abroad - exports from Gaza have been prevented for nearly two years.
"We want to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis," said Hissi. "Then we can export our fish and live to a good standard again. But where is the peace? Do the Israelis really want peace with us?" He voted for Hamas in the election and said he would do so again, though his family is split on politics and teased each other relentlessly on the boat. Regardless of their politics, Hissi and some of the others knelt on the deck in prayer on the way out to sea and again as they returned at sunrise.
He argued Hamas bears little responsibility for the crisis and had no criticism of their rocket fire into Israel, even though it kills civilians and has provoked Israel into its blockade. But later Hissi said that life was better in the 1980s when Israel had a full military occupation in Gaza, even with the thousands of settlers, soldiers and checkpoints that entailed, and that the Palestinian Authority, the creation of the Oslo accords, had proven "useless."
"We were expecting a real Palestinian state and that we'd be able to work and move freely but it never came," he said. "Now instead they've put Gaza under siege."