Gaza city's skyline is seen from its port.
THE LAST SEAMEN OF GAZA
- Gaza's fishermen are on the verge of extinction -
Images and text, for Foreign Affairs.com
Mr. Ramez Bakr gazes at the pier at the Gaza City's coast in a wintery morning of November last year. His red scarf bounces in the wind. Mr. Ramez proudly explains it is a symbol of his leftist leanings. Red and white keffiyehs (scarves) are usually worn, although not exclusively, by Palestinian Marxists. In his hand, prayer beads he carries constantly with him.
The pier is located a few hundred meters away from where the fishermen sell fish and another 300 hundred meters from his home. From there, Mr. Ramez used to sail with his sons on his two boats to go fishing.
In an attempt to try to catch better and more fish as to compensate for the financial losses during the war last summer, he’d sometimes risk sailing close to a permitted fishing limit, that every fisherman in the strip carefully monitors with the boats built-in GPS and through the buoys placed by the Israeli Navy to mark the limit.
During those 50 days of violence, no fisherman could navigate in the sea of the Gaza Strip then packed with Israeli war vessels firing artillery into the enclave. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says that fishermen lost around $3 million in revenues during that time, which the NGO estimates at 300-400 tons of fish.
Mr. Ramez is also one of the last fishermen in Gaza. Thousands of fishermen have abandoned this traditional industry. The number of people making their livelihood in the sea of Gaza has fallen from 10,000 fishers in 2000 to 3,097 registered individuals in 2011 according to a report by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA).
The same report indicates an additional “2,000 other workers also indirectly depend upon the fishing industry for their livelihoods through the marketing, servicing and maintenance of the fishing vessels. Overall, an estimated 35,000 people depend on the fishing industry as their primary source of income, and are directly affected by the Israeli restrictions on access to the sea”.
Like almost everything in the Gaza Strip, this is an activity suffering under the compounded effects of war and isolation. Since this 2011 report, further high and low intensity rounds of violence have battered the Strip: two wars in 2012 and 2014, among other smaller escalations.
The last war between Israel and Hamas last summer in 2014 was the most destructive and the bloodiest for civilians.
The military operation, that the Israeli government called Protective Edge, included a land incursion, navy and ground artillery, as well as aerial bombardments. In Gaza, the armed forces of its leadership Hamas carried out thousands of rockets launchings over Israeli residential areas and ground operations into Israeli territory. Close to 2,200 people were killed in the Palestinian enclave - the majority, civilians, of which an estimated 500 were children. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed in Hamas attacks.
In the middle of the ground battles and air strikes that lasted 50 days, the 1.8 million people of Gaza struggled to take shelter and survive. Gazans live jostled in a less that 40x6kms strip of land, one of the most densely populated places on earth, and with no escape from the beleaguered enclave due to an eight year siege imposed by both Israel and Egypt.
But even in times of peace, food security is almost always a concern for a young and fast growing population.
According to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief Works Agency, the economy in the Gaza Strip was already collapsing before the conflict. The latest World Bank report found that unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world at 43 percent, following the destruction and the collapse of many businesses and infrastructure.
One of the sectors that has crumbled has been fishing even though fish is in high demand in Gaza, as its yield diminishes every year. As a result, less fishermen throw their nets in Gaza’s waters.
In principle, under the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in 1993, the permitted fishing area was supposed to be up to 20 miles off the coast. But in 2007, when Hamas took over the enclave, Israel set a land, air and sea blockade and unilaterally imposed a 3 mile limit that only allowed to fish little more than small stray schools of young sardine. According to OCHA, the concentrated fishing in such a small area has resulted in the decrease of revenues as well as the “rapid depletion of new generations of fish, with severe implications for fish life‐cycles and therefore long‐term fishing livelihoods”. The farther one is allowed to sail from the coast, bigger are the numbers of fish and species available.
Theresultant over-fishing in confined spaces has caused sardine catch to decrease by 90 percent since 2008, a year after Israel’s 2007 blockade of the Strip.
Numbers provided by OCHA indicate that approximately half of Gaza’s fishermen, who as a group have high levels of food insecurity, depend entirely on the biannual sardine season for their income.
As a result, according to a 2011 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, “nearly 90% of Gaza's fishermen are now considered either poor (with a monthly income of between 100 and 190 US dollars) or very poor (earning less than 100 dollars a month), up from 50% in 2008”.
“The potential fish catch lost as a result of access restrictions between 2000 and 2012 is estimated at approximately 1,300 metric tonnes (mt) per year and at least “95% of Gaza fishermen receive international aid” the UN says.
According to information obtained by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) quoted in the by the United Nations, from 2009-2011 the average catch of 437 tonnes, was less than a quarter of the average during the previous three years (2006-2008) when it was 1,817 tonnes. In addition, in recent years, sardine catch has consisted of undersized, juvenile fish, caught using nets with smaller mesh.”.
But even if the demand for fish is high in the enclave, the fishermen estimate that the current yield only supplies some 20 percent of the fish needs of almost 1.8 million people living in this strip of land.
Before Cairo destroyed the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt during the years of 2013 and 2014, it was through those controversial lifelines that the largest shipments of fish would enter Gaza from Egypt, along with all sorts of smuggled goods: entire cars brought through in pieces, exotic animals, arms, brides, students, and KFC meals.
But apart from the sailing restrictions imposed by Israel, not all days allow for the boats to even set to sea and put some fish on some tables in the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Abu Khalil Owaida is also one of the last still making a leaving from the troubled sea of Gaza.
As he bosses around his men to repair, mend and clean fishing gear, this seaman of dried leathered skin says the last days of November would put his boats in further risk and Mr. Abu Khalil says there is already enough to worry about with the Israeli navy alone.
Perhaps in his late fifties now, Mr. Owaida has come to own six vessels and employs several men apart from his sons, who toil in the family business.
But in Gaza the trade is far from promising for future generation of fishermen. All sorts of obstacles - from fishing limits, to the general blockade, to prices - concur to turn fishing into a rapidly fading tradition.
Every month, boat owners spend thousands of dollars in highly inflated fuel due to the blockade, damaged gear, salaries for other fishermen, generators and boat maintenance. The fishing business is increasingly becoming not just shocked by restrictions but also almost a luxury for fishers.
The price of fuel - of which fishing by motor boat is entirely dependent - is a stark example of the soaring prices in the tiny patch of land. Here the litter of gasoline is around 9.28 shekels per liter, or US$2,43. In Israel, for example, the price is 6.84 shekels, or US$1,79.
With these numbers, the margin of profit is usually meager.
“There is no way of improving our situation with these restrictions. Every time we go to sea we spend at least US$300 ( on fuel, manpower, as well as damaged gear and fish nets) and too many days we end only with US$100 worth of fish. Not only we don't make enough, but we also loose a lot of money”, Mr. Owaida explains.
To all of this, adds the damage caused by consecutive rounds of war. During the last 50 days of war alone, the boasts sat unused in the port for almost two months.
“During the last war, we lost a lot in land and at sea. Our fishing material was almost all destroyed, as well as our jeeps. The damage was so great that I can't even account for all the extent of the financial losses”,Mr. Owaida laments.
With the last ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, the fishing limit was then extended to 6 nautical miles. However that is far from enough. Although within that margin it is possible to catch more variety than within the previous 3 miles, the bigger and more mature schools of sardines and of most species in general, usually live deeper. Their best chances of making a living lie at least 10 miles away .
But those who transgress these limits in the attempt to get better yields face many dangers. Apart from restricted and costly, this has also become a specially dangerous business in the sea of Gaza.
According to United Nations data from 2013, between June 2007 and July 2013 five Palestinian fishermen were killed.
Since the end of the conflict in late August 2014, Gaza's fishermen have faced a steadily increasing number of attacks. Data compiled by Oxfam indicates that “in two months from early December to early February, at least 77 incidents of Israeli naval fire towards fishermen were reported - averaging more than one a da”.
In 2015 fisherman Tawfiq Abu Reyala was fatally shot by the Israeli Navy.
However, more frequently and less reported, is the punitive confiscation of boats when Palestinian fishermen are caught beyond the fishing limit.
That was also Mr. Ramez's case. The Israeli navy confiscated his two boats he used to provide for his family when he risked sailing close to the permitted 6 miles off the coast to try to catch more fish after the 50 days of war and dry land.
Over the past few years, the Israeli Human Rights Organization B’Tselem has collected dozens of testimonies from fisherman apprehended via the “dangerous and humiliating ‘swimming procedure’: fishermen were compelled to undress at gunpoint and swim from their boat to a navy craft, regardless of weather conditions. The fishermen were then brought aboard and taken to the port at Ashdod, inside Israel. The fishing boats were seized and towed away. At the Ashdod port, the fishermen were taken blindfolded and handcuffed to interrogation, and later returned to Gaza via the Erez checkpoint. Based on fishermen’s testimonies and data from their boats' GPS, some were apprehended this way even without having strayed beyond the military’s designated fishing limits’.
But not always life was this difficult for this Palestinian seaman. The Bakr family once had a relatively stable, although humble income. But presently, to provide for his wife and 6 children, Mr. Ramez has to buy and retail sell fish from the port, where he used to bring his catch on his boats.
At 5am, every morning the fish auction begins after the boats are unloaded, except when the weather does not allow for the fishermen to go to sea. But because of all the restrictions the yield is smalland the prices are high.
According to a UN 2013 report, the annual fish yield at various sailing limitations is directly correlated: in 1999 the limit was 12 nautical miles and the yield was 3,650 metric tons of fish. In 2008, 2,845mt caught within the permitted 6nm and in 2012, with 3nm, the quantity of fish caught was 1,938mt.
Numbers provided by the Israeli Human Rights organization B’tselem in a 2013 report indicate that because of the short supply, the price of Sardines - the fish with the highest demand in Gaza - rose from 10NIS (about US$2.50) for a kilo of sardines in 2008 to 20NIS (about US$5.00) a kilo in 2012.
The public in general, shop owners, small retailers and eatery cooks are there to buy. Heated bidding ensues. The mood is somber.
Even though Mr. Ramez can extract some income from the resale of fish, not rarely, the father of six is forced to rely on the good will of family and friends. Lately, in their kitchen, the only food that can be found is flat bread baked in a little electric oven, olive oil, sugar and mint for tea.
Milk on average is expensive in Gaza, costing around 8 shekels, or US$2,1 while in Israel it costs 6 shekels, or US$1,57.
But while other products, such as vegetables, are cheaper in Gaza than Israel, the average monthly disposable salary (After Tax) in the Gaza Strip is 1,500 shekels, or US$393,8. In Israel it is 8,262 shekels or US$2,1694.
Still for Mr. Ramez, one of the remaining estimated 3,000 fishermen of Gaza, losing his boats - and with that, most of his family's income and his way of life - was still the least of his losses.
His 11 year old son Mohamed was killed by an Israeli drone missile as he was playing football on the beach during last summer's war. Three of his nephews were also killed along with with his sons.
“The problem its not the boats. What is terrible about the (Israeli) occupation is the killing of the children. The boats we can recover, but the children no”, laments the bereaved father.
The Israeli army says it was a tragic mistake and that its own investigation over the deaths of the four boys led to it clearing itself of wrongdoing. Military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner, said on June 11th this year,in his official IDF spokesman Facebook page, that “the incident took place in an area that had long been known as a compound belonging to Hamas's Naval Police and Naval Force (including naval commandos), and which was utilized exclusively by militants”.
The many journalists who witnessed the deaths, and surveyed the structures around which the children were killed, dispute the allegations and say they were empty at that time.
The families of the four boys hope the case will come under the International Criminal Court jurisdiction, as analysts and critics suggest a general “incapacity of the Israeli military conducting a reliable investigation of itself”.
Mr. Ramez's now oldest son Sayed survived the attack, but saw his brother and cousins killed instantly just meters away and he himself was seriously injured.
The boy suffers from severe post traumatic stress and is in urgent need of neurological examination which is unavailable in Gaza. Although there is a neurological surgery department at Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, Sayed’s parents say the boy needs further examination not available in the territory.
Sayed sometimes plays with his siblings, but most of the time he is in a deep state of grief. The boy hardly eats or speaks, stopped attending school and lives in constant fear. At night he dreams of his own death and relives the killing of his brother and cousins night after night.
Among bombardment and mayhem, Mr. Ramez's wife Sarya had given birth the day before Mohammed was killed to a little boy. The baby survived but suffers from cardiac difficulties that, according to the couple, are being monitored even though it is expensive, they say.
But regardless of the joy brought by the newborn, Mrs. Sarya says she laments that it is hard to be hopeful and to cope with what she sees as the inevitability of tragedy looming over them in Gaza. When the missile struck and killed her oldest son, Mrs. Sarya was just breastfeeding the newborn for the first times. It is hard for the mourning mother to think about the future when this is the present and the past were 3 wars in the last 6 years, she explains.
“Life was beautiful with Mohammed. My son is dead. And Sayed is very traumatized. He wishes he had died instead of his brother. The future does not exist for me”, Mrs. Sarya says.
That was one of the many dark hours of the 50 days of war last year, and the desperation of Mrs. Sarya was broadcast all over the world. That day, this fisher family buried 4 children. That same day, the 8th of the conflict, Israel mourned its first victim. On the Palestinian side more than 200 people had been killed by then, among them some 40 children.
Because of the non-stopping waves of tragedies that have affected almost everyone in Gaza, many people, including fishermen, have not only been forced to abandon their traditional livelihoods but have also tried to escape the besieged enclave. This is also why the Bakr family has also been anxiously waiting for news of three other young relatives for months.
They managed to escape to Egypt after the war and just before the smuggling tunnels were destroyed by the Egyptian military, closing off the underground import of goods and weapons and movement of people out and into Gaza.
From there, they set to the Mediterranean Sea along with dozens of others, hoping to escape and reach calmer days in Europe.
As Mr. Ramez grips in his arms and kisses his youngest baby boy under his late son's memorial portraits, this hardened Gaza fisherman says he hopes they are alive as that he can't bear more losses.
But the three are feared dead. It is believed they were in one of the many boats reported to have capsized few months after the war with hundreds on board coming from other war torn regions.
Left behind remain their families and millions of others like Mr. Ramez and his family who, trapped in the Gaza Strip, having survived three wars in six years and a year after the latest, fear and ask themselves how much longer they have with relative calm.
In the time being, the last seamen of Gaza, along with its population, are increasingly bound by the land in this tiny territory while patiently waiting for a political solution or just the next war.