Occupied Palestinian Territory, Gaza City, Gaza Strip–Had it not been in Palestine, the scene would have been unsuspecting. People laughed and smiled. The Mediterranean Sea sparkled, and waves set the rhythm of the boat.
Yet only mentioning that would be a mirage. The boat had set off from a port in Gaza City with around 30 international delegates who had traveled to Gaza from Cairo, and were accompanied by around 5 Gazan fishermen. Even in the calming ocean, the crippling Israeli siege and last year’s assault on Gaza can’t be escaped, a fact amply demonstrated by the sight of destroyed buildings off the coast. The outline of Israeli territory, where you’d be free if you were to set out to sail, could be seen, reminding everyone of the prison that is Gaza.
Israel has imposed a catastrophic blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007, when Hamas took power in Gaza after democratic elections and a mini-civil war with Fatah. Fishing in Gaza has been an activity hard hit by the siege.
Under the Oslo Accords, the peace agreement between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel that was signed in the early 1990s, Gazan fishermen are legally allowed to venture out 20 nautical miles. But Gazan fishermen who go beyond the Israeli enforced “buffer zone” of 3 nautical miles, an arbitrary area prohibited to Palestinians, are often harassed by Israeli gunboats and shot at.
“The buffer zone is an illegal thing [under international law]. You’re not allowed to do it. There’s no military justification for it,” said Daragh Murrary, a legal officer for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR).
The boat filled with internationals couldn’t go farther than about 2 nautical miles because the Gazans on the boat were afraid that Israel would open fire. The restrictions on fishing, a vital source of livelihood for many Gazans that supplies sustenance to the larger population, are not a new problem for the people of Gaza. As early as 2007, B’Tselem reported that the Israeli Navy had been harassing and humiliating Gazan fishermen.
“As a result of the Israeli occupation, we cannot reach many points and we cannot catch many fish from the sea, so we stick together. All of the boats fish at the same points, and there is no fish as a result,” said Mohamed Abu Amera, a 20 year-old fisherman from Gaza. “That means there is not much fish for Gaza.” Abu Amera has been shot at many times by the Israeli Navy, he said.
According to a report by the PCHR, the harsh restrictions set by Israel “has lead to over-fishing of the areas near the coast and has and severely impacted the fishing industry, which supports the families of over 3,400 fishermen and 2,000 workers.”
Abu Amera and his brother, Abdullah Abu Amera, who is an 18 year-old fisherman, say they are grateful when members of the International Solidarity Movement accompany them when they fish, because some Israeli gunboats don’t fire because of the presence of internationals. But even internationals aren’t always safe when challenging the “buffer zone.”
For instance, while the boats have been successful at times, the Israeli navy has often harassed the Free Gaza boats that have attempted to deliver aid to Gaza since the implementation of the siege. Members of delegations, including Cynthia McKinney, a former Congresswoman from Georgia and the 2008 Green Party presidential candidate, have been arrested and deported from Israel after being part of a Free Gaza boat.
Even after the Gaza attack that occurred last year, fishermen continue to be shot at and detained by the Israeli Navy. According to the PCHR, from January 20 to December 2, 2009, after the end of last year’s Israeli assault, there have been 36 naval attacks by Israel when enforcing the illegal “buffer zone.”
The confinements that Israel has imposed on fishing in Gaza serve as yet another stark reminder of the near-total control Israel exercises on the Gaza Strip. Israel controls most of Gaza’s air, land and sea borders, save for the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza.
“We are very frightened when they shoot,” fisherman Abdullah Abu Amera said.