Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fishing in the Gaza cesspool

Gaza fishermen (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Gaza fishermen (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Gaza fishermen (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Gaza fishermen (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Gaza fishermen (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Shelled buildings along the Gaza skyline (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Said Saidi, had to give up on fishing after 40 years (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Mohammed and Said, both gave up fishing (Photo: Karl Schembri/Ramattan)

Gaza fishermen are allowed a mere two miles out at sea to earn their livelihood. Karl Schembri joins them out at sea as Israeli gunboats looming on the horizon fire warning shots

Karl Schembri

Wed Sep 24, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza (Ramattan) - The reeking stench overwhelms you immediately on the sandy Gaza beach, polluted by thousands of litres of untreated sewage dumped into the sea every day since the sewage treatment facilities were destroyed in the January war.

The port greets us with fishing boats completely destroyed in the war and others abandoned on the shore in front of the ruins of boat houses shelled during the Israeli bombings.

A dozen fishermen are on the beach repairing some of their boats with the little material they have. Bullet holes dot most of the sea craft lying on the golden sand.

We board a boat in the port of Gaza with former fishermen who have given up the job they had been doing all their life. The reasons why became clear even before they started telling their stories.

On the horizon, Israeli gunboats could be seen waiting ominously for any craft that dared approach the two to three-nautical mile limit allowed to Palestinians to fish and sail. Approaching that limit, indeed just setting sail, is a risky venture.

“We have turned this fishing boat into a tourist boat, even though there are no tourists. But we always have hope,” Mohammed said as we were leaving port.

Mohammed and his colleagues could no longer make a living out of fishing within the permitted zone. Fish worth catching lie in deeper seas, but Palestinian fishermen have seen their fishing zone diminishing from the 12 nautical miles agreed to in the Oslo Accords to six miles after the 2000 intifada, and now to a measly three nautical miles, although Israelis often shoot at whoever goes beyond two miles.

“There is no radio communication between Israelis and Palestinians on the sea; the communication is by shooting,” Mohammed said. “The fishermen are always on their own out here, away from the media and the public, and whenever there is trouble with Israel they are the first ones to bear the brunt.”

His colleague, Said Saidi, a refugee forced out of the harbour town of Jaffa in 1948, had been fishing for 40 years before he had to give up his livelihood and passion.

“My family has always consisted of fishermen who know and love the sea, but it is now impossible,” he said. “There are no fish to be caught in here.”

As we sailed further out we could see the Israeli ports of Ashkelon and Ashdod up north. We suddenly hear warning shots being fired at a fishing boat heading towards the forbidden lines.

Equally prohibited is the Egyptian side to the south, where Israeli gunboats too lie waiting for any approaching vessel making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave the 25-mile-long coastal strip through the sea. A ship carrying activists from Cyprus intent to break the siege earlier this year was held up by Israeli forces, with all the people on board arrested and eventually deported.

The crippling restrictions on sea faring are yet another facet of the Israeli siege on Gaza; home to 1.5 million Palestinians denied entry or exit by land, sea and air. This makes fish – a long-time source of staple food for Gazans – ridiculously expensive given its scarcity in what should otherwise be an abundant resource.

Meanwhile thousands of litres of sewage keep being pumped into the Mediterranean as pipes and other material necessary to repair the treatment facilities remain banned from entering the strip.

Close to our boat, fishermen on board a battered long line fishing trawler wave at us smiling upon seeing us, making the victory sign with their hands.

But the view of the Gaza skyline from out there was desolate with the bombarded buildings overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.