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Gaza's fishermen risking Israeli bullets to bring home daily catch

Palestinian fishing crews are coming under fire from patrol boats on a regular basis, despite recent extension of permitted trawling zone
The number of fishermen working the waters off Gaza has fallen from 10,000 to 4,000 since the blockade was enforced a decade ago, according to Gaza's syndicate of fishermen (Mohammed Asad/MEE)

GAZA - Kamel Baker’s father taught him how to fish when he was just 10 years old. Now 55, Baker has been trawling the waters off the coast of Gaza ever since.

“For 45 years I have been making my living this way,” Baker told MEE, sitting on the deck of his fishing boat, happily telling stories as he waited for a pot of coffee to brew. “We are close neighbours of the sea.”

Born in al-Shati, Gaza’s poorest refugee camp, Baker talks wistfully about the “golden days” of Gaza’s fishing industry when he could earn up to 6,000 shekels ($1,590) a day – more than a doctor or engineer – and would have to turn back to port early because his nets were full.

“We would eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he recalled, as his 25-year-old son Talaat, one of the 15 crew members including Baker’s three sons and several related children, looked on and smiled.

“Where are those days now, Daddy?” Talaat asked as one of his brothers steered the boat westward out of the harbour towards the setting sun.

Most aboard the boat will go home with barely enough to feed their families. On a good night nowadays, Talaat might hope to take home a kilo of fish and about 50 shekels ($13) for his wife and one-year-old son.

Kamel Baker has been a fishermen for 45 years but times have never been harder (Mohammed Asad/MEE)
“We are off now, and either Allah will honour us, or we must try again,” said Baker as the younger members of the crew hurry to cast out the fishing nets and the children clean the empty blue boxes lined up to be filled with fresh fish.

Out on the waves and under the Mediterranean sky, looking back at Gaza it is hard to believe that the strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth and starved of resources because of the decade-long blockade by Israel and Egypt.

But even out here, the lethal dangers of the blockade loom large.

Israel recently increased the distance from the shore that Palestinian fishing boats are allowed to trawl from six to nine nautical miles.

On 3 April, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli defence ministry unit that administers civilian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, said on Facebook that the first expansion of the fishing zone since 2005 would boost annual fishing revenues of six million shekels ($1.6m) by 400,000 shekels ($106,000).

But fishermen say they are still regularly coming under fire from Israeli patrol boats well within the permitted fishing zone.

As midnight approaches, the crew aboard Baker’s boat are sitting down to eat their supper when flashes of light appear on the sea and loud gunfire rings out, audible even above the noise of the boat’s generator.

“It is the Israeli warships,” said Baker, everyone standing up as spotlights shine down on the boat and its crew.

Earlier this month, Baker said, the fishermen had been allowed to venture further from shore towards the edge of the nine-mile limit where stocks are less depleted by over-fishing.

Tonight he had spent an extra 500 shekels on fuel in the hope of a similarly successful trip, but as the Israeli naval vessel forces the boat back towards the coast he fears his investment will be lost.

“The area we are allowed to fish in stretches from Gaza harbour down the south coast but that forces us to fish in waters that are depleted of stocks. We can only catch fish like red mullet and sea bream which live near the rocks,” he said, ordering the crew to tie the fishing nets to the boat.

“We are heading back in, shabab,” he called to the young men as the gunshots ring out again, this time closer to the boat.

According to Nizar Ayyash, the head of Gaza’s Syndicate of Fishermen, such incidents are commonplace.

"Fishermen are a target on a daily basis," he told Middle East Eye.

Ayyar said that one fisherman had been shot and injured in the face and three others arrested on 19 April while fishing within the nine-mile limit.

“The Israeli navy invaded another fishing boat and arrested three fishermen and confiscated their fishing gears. We strongly condemn such attacks on civilian fishermen," said Ayyash.

According to the syndicate, 35 small fishing boats worth an average of $15,000 have been confiscated since 2008, while the number of fishermen working the waters off Gaza has declined from 10,000 to 4,000.

In response to a request for comment about the 19 April incident and other alleged shooting incidents, COGAT referred MEE to the Israeli military. The Israeli military did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A military spokesperson told the Palestinian Maan news agency that an investigation had been opened into the 19 April incident.

By dawn, the crew are closer to five miles from the shore as they haul in the fishing nets filled with sea bream and sardines.

“We did not see these fish for years,” smiled Baker, referring to the few larger fish. “It is 110 shekels ($29) per kilo. Such fish is unaffordable to most of the population!”

The crew are ready to cast the nets out again, but Baker tells them: “Let’s call it a night.” Although the haul is not as much as he had hoped for, he believes it is enough to cover the cost of fuel and to pay everyone onboard.

Most of the catch these days is sardines, one of the the few fish ordinary Gazans can afford to buy (Mohammed Asad/MEE)

The morning sun is not yet fully over the horizon as the boat docks in the harbour and the sounds of other fishermen and merchants can be heard through the morning mist.

Baker negotiates with a middle man as the crew wait patiently, selling the sea bream for 500 shekels ($134) and the rest for 200 shekels ($54).

The crew will share the 200 shekels between them, with Taalat taking home just 13 shekels ($3.5) in return for the long night of fishing and risking being shot; enough only to buy a kilo of tomatoes, a few courgettes and an aubergine before he goes home to sleep.

“This is a carefully calculated Israeli plan, to neither make the Gaza fisherman starve, nor allow him to flourish,” said Baker, distributing the cash and saving 500 shekels to pay for the fuel on the way home.

But Baker knows he will be back out on the sea tomorrow because the sea is his life.

“It is a life-long friendship,” he smiled. “We are inseparable."

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