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Egypt and Israel threaten sardine fishing season

January 23, 2014 at 12:55 am

Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip have been facing attacks and harassment by the Israeli navy for years. The political situation in Egypt has brought with it a new threat to their livelihood in the shape of the fuel shortages created by the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the tunnels used to get fuel into the besieged enclave. This is going to have a significant impact on the sardine fishing season.

Moreover, ever since the coup in Cairo, the Egyptian navy has prevented Gaza’s fishermen from venturing the few kilometres into Egypt’s territorial waters which they were allowed during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency.

According to Zakaria Baker, the Head of the Agricultural Work Committees Union, the sardine fishing season is one of the most important for fishermen. “Sardine fishing is one of the main seasons giving fishermen a chance to boost their meagre income, which also enables them to renew their equipment.”

The sardines account for 58 per cent of the total fish production of 2,245 tons per year, according to the Department of Fisheries at the Ministry of Agriculture. “The season begins in September,” said the department Director Jihad Salah. “Given the interrupted flow of Egyptian diesel to the Gaza Strip, and the greater frequency of Israeli violations against fishermen in the high seasons this is going to be a difficult time for the industry.”

A recent report from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights records the shootings, detentions and boat confiscations by the Israeli navy. Although the Israeli government has, in theory, allowed fishermen to go up to 6 nautical miles from the shore, in practice they are harassed and attacked well within that unilaterally-imposed limit. Internationally-recognised territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the shore. Israel “relaxed” the previous 3-mile limit in May this year but it hasn’t made much difference to the fishermen; attacks still take place close to the shore. The official Israel-Palestinian Authority agreement covering fishing limits sets the allowance at 20 miles but this is disregarded by the Israelis.

Since last November’s Israeli offensive against the people of Gaza, 58 fishermen have been detained by the navy; their boats and equipment were confiscated even when they were released by the authorities.

Nearly 3,700 fishermen supporting 70,000 family members rely on fishing as their profession. They operate around 700 boats.

Recently, two Palestinian fishermen were wounded and five were arrested when an Egyptian navy patrol attacked their boats close to the maritime boundary with Egypt. Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported earlier that the Egyptian military banned fishing in the area of the northern Sinai towns of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and El-Arish as from July 18. The Head of the Palestinian Syndicate of Fishermen in Gaza, Nizar Ayesh, said at the time that this wasn’t conveyed officially to the Palestinian government. Around 80 per cent of the fishermen are now more or less unemployed due to the fuel shortage and high prices, added Mr Ayesh.

“The Ministry of Agriculture,” Jihad Salah pointed out, “has been able to secure a small quota of diesel fuel for fishermen in the few past days to help them with the sardine season as usual, but if the current shortage is extended the crisis will become unmanageable.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.