ADALAH'S NEWSLETTER Volume 60, May 2009
Interview with Mr. Mahfouz Kabariti, Coordinator of the Fishermen's Solidarity Campaign in the Gaza Strip1
Interview conducted by Salah Mohsen, Adalah's Media Coordinator
What are the problems faced by fishermen in Gaza? When did these problems start?
There has always been Israeli harassment and restrictions on the Gazan fishermen. These problems are linked to the overall political atmosphere, but they have escalated since the first Intifada as well as with the start of the second Intifada in 2000.
In the Oslo Accords, it was agreed to allow the Palestinian fishermen to sail 20 nautical miles, which is equivalent to approximately to 37 km. This distance was never reached because Israel has restricted our movement at sea to a maximum of 12 nautical miles. Following the outbreak of the second Intifada, the distance was reduced to 6–7 nautical miles, and after the recent military offensive, Israel reduced the distance to 3 nautical miles.
Even in the permitted area, the Israeli gunboats harass the fishermen. There are many instances in which the fishermen's boats are attacked with live ammunition or with high-pressure water cannons that are mixed with bad smelling chemicals of unknown composition. These attacks lead the fishermen to slipping on their boats, causing them injury as well as damage to the equipment and the boats. The Israeli forces arrest the boat owners, after compelling them to undress in a humiliating manner and swim to the gunboats even on cold winter days. Then, after blindfolding the fishermen, the Israeli forces detain them and take them and their boats to the port of Ashdod. There, the fishermen are interrogated and attempts are made to pressure them to work as agents for the Israeli security services. In many cases, the fishing boats are seized for long periods of time. Each boat is the means of livelihood for 7–8 families and the larger boats for 10–15 families.
Besides the harassment at sea, the Gaza fishermen suffer from many problems, notably, the lack in the local market of equipment and raw materials necessary for fishing and for the boats, such as boat paint that prevents rust and the proliferation of algae on the boats, engine spare parts, fishing nets and other equipment. More importantly, however, is the alarming increase in the price of industrial fuel (solar) and petrol. In the past the price of a liter was six shekels, but during the military offensive it reached 35 shekels. Under these circumstances, the fishermen were forced to operate their boats with cooking oil, which is inefficient and leads to significant damage to the boat engines, in addition to the negative impact on the environment and health as a result of the exhaust fumes following combustion.
Does fishing close to the beach or in the deep sea only affect the quantity of fish or their quality as well?
The fish live and breed among the rocks; the coastal zone off of the Gaza coast is sandy, almost rock free. The fish farms are in the nearest rocky area, which is eight nautical miles from the Gaza shores. To overcome this problem, the fishermen brought remnants of old cars and threw them into the sea; over time, algae and sea plants began to grow on these vehicles and they became fields for fish breeding instead of natural rock. This solution is not good as it pollutes the sea as well as tears the nets, but it is the only way to overcome the Israeli restrictions.The best period for fishing is at the end of spring, from mid-April to late July. The fishermen wait for this period all year in order to pay their debts, as during this period, a large number of migratory fish such as sardines, which is one of the most popular meals in the Gaza Strip, pass through the area. Depriving the fishermen from fishing during this season poses an economic disaster for them.
The issue is not a security issue The security justifications given by the Israelis for clamping down on the fishermen are unfounded. The first and only concern of the fishermen is fishing for their livelihood and providing for themselves and their children. The real objectives of the harassment are collective punishment and hitting the Palestinian economy by opening the Palestinian market to the fish produced in the Israeli fish farms and the frozen fish imported through Israel.. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Gazan community needs 21,000 tons of fish annually. In the last year, the total extracted fish from the sea was only 3,000 tons in a fishing depth of 8–10 miles with international solidarity escorts. This number is a small amount that is reasonably good, but is not enough for the Strip. Furthermore, after the Israeli navy reduced the distance of sailing to 2.5-3 nautical miles and seized or damaged a large number of fishing boats, the anticipated amount of fish will not exceed a few hundred tons. The price of sardines has now reached its highest levels; it is a popular food that is an alternative and complementary to chicken in the Gaza Strip, particularly for those with limited income.
In addition, the Israeli navy often intercepts the wireless transmissions between the fishermen, and the soldiers shout and say repugnant words, telling the fisherman that, "If you want to fish freely, release Shalit and then we will leave you alone."
Environmental and health disaster
Near the coast, there is a seawall that constitutes a harbor used by the fishermen to dock their boats; it is also a fishing area for fishermen and fishing enthusiasts who fish with tackles. In a nearby area, a sewage pipeline was installed to be used in emergency situations when the normal sewage system is disrupted. Recently, after all the sewage pumps broke down and there are no spare parts or pipes and cement to repair them, all the Gaza sewage flows into the sea. The flow of sewage has converted the harbor into a quagmire of wastewater and contaminated a wide area of the water close to the beach. Therefore, all the fish caught near the beach may be unfit to eat, to say nothing of the direct impact on the marine environment, which will extend to beyond the shores of Gaza. What must be done: Leave us aloneDespite their tragic circumstances and poor economic conditions due to their heavy losses because of the siege, war and destruction of infrastructure and their financial needs, all the fishermen in the Gaza Strip seek is the lifting of the closure and providing the opportunity for them to do their work freely, safely and with dignity.
1 Mr. Kabariti is also the President of the Palestine Sailing Federation and the President of the Palestine Society for Marine Sports.