The tiny motorboat’s engine coughs a couple of miles offshore and whirls to a stop. Gazing out over the aquamarine Mediterranean waters, I feel high from the fumes of cheap Egyptian diesel and the smell of sea salt. “Let’s get in,” says Mahfouz Kabariti, a fisherman, stripping down to swim trunks and diving overboard. A Palestinian friend who is a medical student also came along for the ride. We eye each other cautiously. She winks, and we both jump in the water, fully dressed, our long pants weighing us down. It’s a perfect Friday afternoon. From out here, the ubiquitous bullet holes in buildings are invisible and Gaza City looks like a coastal resort town.
Of course, in Gaza, things are never what they seem. We are less than a nautical mile from the Israeli naval blockade that locals refer to as the kill zone.
Imagine, for a moment, living in a rectangle roughly twice the size of Washington D.C., with a population of more than a million and a half—three sides walled and wired off by nearly impenetrable borders. Those borders can change without warning (it’s part of an unilaterally fluctuating buffer zone after all), and sometimes without signs indicating where they stop and start. That’s where most of the farmland is, but get too close to the crops and groves, and you just might get shot. Now imagine about 25 miles of gorgeous sandy coastline, scattered with ancient-looking fishing boats. Yet, if you glance out over the westward-facing horizon, you are more likely to see menacing naval vessels encroaching than you are fishers on the troll at sunset.
Welcome to the Gaza Strip.
Out at sea, the three of us tread water for a bit, staying close to the boat. Mahfouz recounts fishing tales, Palestinian style. He describes how scarce and small his catches are. He points towards deeper water where the big fish swim, explaining that if fishers were allowed back there again they could save the fisher community. As if to remind Mahfouz that that things have not changed, an Israeli naval ships comes into view, firing live ammunition in the direction of a boat near us. “Let’s get out of here,” he says—and with that we are back on the boat and headed for the docks.
Flouting the Laws of the Sea
Under International Maritime Law, fishers have access to 200 nautical miles off their country’s coastline—which is the exclusive economic zone a country enjoys as per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. A country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles. The absence of Palestinian sovereignty complicates this, so much so that it was a key negotiating point in the run-up to the 1993 Oslo Accords that were meant to pave the way to peace between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
The Oslo Accords ended up granting the people of Gaza access to 20 nautical miles of water (only 10 percent of the international legal limits) for fishing and recreational purposes. For the next seven years until the turn of the millennium, Gazans fished unprovoked up to the 12-mile marker (8 miles less than what was guaranteed to them in the accords) in the Mediterranean.
However in 1999, the British Gas Group discovered abundant offshore gas reserves 10-15 nautical miles from Gaza’s coast. Dubbed Gaza Marine 1 and 2, the resources are estimated to be worth more than $4 billion and contain over 150 billion barrels of oil. Within a year, Israeli authorities decreased the offshore area in which Palestinians were “allowed” to fish to six nautical miles. With the 2008-09 attacks of Operation Cast Lead came another reduction—slicing the area in half to three nautical miles—and, all too often, even that limit is not respected.
Since Cast Lead, armed patrol boats regularly harass Gaza’s fishers. At least 15 fishers have been killed, and the seizure of boats is commonplace—both inside and outside the fishing area that Israeli authorities unilaterally define. Midmonth this April, while Grassroots International staff Mina Remy and Nikhil Aziz were meeting Gaza fishers and our partners, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), the Israeli navy arrested four fishers and captured one boat, which was confirmed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
Aquatic Life, and Death
I had met Mahfouz Kabariti at Tawfiq, the local fisher’s association, where he is active the day before we went out to sea. Several members had gathered in an open-aired room near the beach to share stories about life at sea.
A slight man sitting to my right named Sami al-Qouqa raised his left arm, to show that his hand was missing. On March 11, 2007 Sami was out on the water before dawn when an Israeli gunboat shined its lights on his small wooden vessel. “Before I knew it they were shooting randomly,” he said, eyes darting back and forth, perhaps traumatized from recounting the memory. “I jumped overboard to protect myself, but I felt I was already injured,” he continued. Hours later, doctors at al-Shifa hospital amputated his hand—also permanently cutting off his livelihood as a fisher (he has ever since been unemployed and lives off of UNRWA rations).
Ibrahim Naim al-Najar sat on a peeling and weathered wooden bench next to Sami. The first words out of his mouth were: “My child was killed at sea.” In 2006 Hani, his son, was shot in the head while fishing about a nautical mile-and-a-half offshore. Hani was 27 years old, married, and had three young children of his own. Ibrahim said that the Israeli government has neglected the al-Najar family’s legal inquiries into Hani’s death.
The group of fishers agreed that beyond the physical danger of going out to sea, the economic impact was devastating. Mahmud al-Asi, Tawfiq’s president, said that they were catching only five percent of what they had before the siege. A jovial man in the group chimed in, naming the species he and fellow fishers once caught: mullus barbatus, red mullet, brushtooth lizardfish, pink cuttlefish, and hake. Then he named the ones they have been mostly catching since the blockade started: crabs, common pandora, and the occasional barracuda. “Fishers used to assist the poor, but now they must be assisted,” said Mahmud, explaining that while they once exported fresh fish to Israel, they were now lucky to find frozen fish brought in through the underground tunnels from Egypt.
“The Israeli siege has totally affected our whole community,” Mahmud summarized. “We don’t think the three mile boundary is about security reasons,” he added, “For us it is collective punishment.”
Fishers Mobilize for Change
Gaza’s fishers have more in common than a shared suffering. Together they resolve to fight back. Tawfiq has grown to more than 450 members, many of whom are involved in a larger syndicate of workers and fishers with about 4,200 members. Their organizing strategies vary from providing basic goods like the boats and nets that keep the industry afloat, to an overall vision of ending the siege.
And Tawfiq is just one of several fisher’s associations in the Gaza Strip. The recently formed “Fishermen for Human Rights” group, for example, is 150-members strong. Knowing that they can’t realize their goals alone, fishers link together with farmers—maintaining strong relationships with Grassroots International partner organizations like UAWC and the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC). UAWC includes four fishing committees among their 23 in total (the other committees are made up of farmers). PARC brings fishers to the table in their awareness-raising work around the buffer zone, drawing attention to the fact that it’s not only land borders that are fluctuating in Gaza.
PCHR stands beside the fishing community, both documenting violations and bringing their inquiries and legal cases to the Israeli government. Some Gazan fishers are held for years in Israeli prisons, where they are denied fair legal procedures. PCHR follows those cases as well, while providing support to the prisoners’ families in Gaza. One of their staff members was taking rapid notes for colleagues during our meeting with Tawfiq.
At the end of the meeting, Mahfouz Kabariti took me aside to make plans for the next day’s open-water expedition. We exchanged contact info, and I flipped his card over, where “Palestine Sailing and Surfing Federation” was carefully printed. “We love everything about the sea,” he beamed. “We just hope our children will be able to enjoy it as much as the generations that came before us.”
Salena Tramel is a journalist and international development consultant, and formerly the Program Coordinator for Haiti and the Middle East at Grassroots International.