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The easing of Gaza fishing restrictions meets Israel’s security needs, not fishermen’s interests

April 4, 2019 at 10:14 am

Fishing in Gaza [Moahammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

The head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, revealed on Tuesday that the Israeli occupation authorities have handed over a time frame for the implementation of the terms of the truce deal reached between the two sides under Egyptian and UN sponsorship. Hamas made public the terms of the truce, which included an increase in the number of truckloads carrying commodities to Gaza; allowing medical supplies to get to hospitals; easing restrictions on imports and exports; the entry of some materials currently banned by Israel on the grounds that they could be used for making weapons; an easing of the restricted fishing zone; carrying out strategic infrastructure projects in Gaza; and the expansion of a UN job creation programme to cover 40,000 workers.

The Israeli time frame indicated that some of these terms would be implemented before the General Election slated for 9 April; others are to be implemented after the election, while the third group would be implemented long term because they need years to materialise.

READ: Israel bans fishing off Gaza’s coast for 4th consecutive day 

Expansion of the zone in which Palestinian fishermen are allowed to work is one of the few terms to be implemented before the election, Haniyeh said. He pointed out that this should have been changed as from Monday. The Israeli government announced that the fishing zone was being extended up to six nautical miles (approximately 11 kilometres) in the nearest section of Gaza’s territorial waters to the nominal border with Israel as far south as the fishing port west of Gaza City, a distance of around 12 kilometres. From the port south to the Gaza Valley, about 10 kilometres, the zone was apparently extended up to 12 nautical miles, then from there further south to the Palestine-Egypt border — a distance of around 20 kilometres — the zone was to be up to 15 nautical miles from the coast.

However, despite the Israeli and Palestinian announcements that the fishing zone was now expanded, the fishermen did not believe it. As far as they are concerned, it was a move made purely for publicity purposes.

“We prepared ourselves and our equipment to sail further than five nautical miles on Tuesday,” fisherman Wael Salah, 49, told MEMO, “but we could not do that because the Israeli gunboats were still there and prevented us from sailing in the ‘expanded’ area.” He said that the Israeli navy fired at the fishermen when they were about 10 nautical miles off the coast. Territorial waters stretch up to 12 nautical miles, but fishing vessels in other countries are normally allowed to fish beyond that zone in international waters.

“When we sailed about 10 nautical miles,” explained Salah, “the Israeli gunboats opened fire and ordered us to go back. Knowing that we could sail in this area up to 12 [nautical] miles, we carried on, but they approached us and used water cannons against us, trying to sink our boats, so we fled south.”

READ: 4 Palestinian fishermen arrested by Egypt off Gaza coast

Bahjat Abu Odeh, 55, said that he left his nets behind in the rush to get away from the Israeli attack. “It was like a dream. When we were told that we could sail up to 15 nautical miles, we were happy because we know that we can get an abundant catch which would be enough to make a profit which would compensate for some of our previous losses. This time, though, we not only lost our profit, but also our equipment.”

According to Zakaria Baker, the head of the fishermen’s union, the Israeli occupation authorities insist on preventing Palestinian fishermen from reaching the best fishing grounds, which lie in the northern zone between the nominal border and the port. He reiterated that the fishermen did not catch enough fish to cover their costs, and stressed that the Israeli navy is continuing to attack the fishermen and their boats.

“On Tuesday, we recorded three cases where the Israeli navy opened fire, and also used water cannons, to damage fishing boats and sink them,” he explained. “All of the cases were recorded within 10 nautical miles of the coast.” The fishermen did not exceed the limit proscribed by Israel. “As such, before we speak about expanding the fishing zone, we have to speak about protecting the fishermen.” Although he did not give details about how this could be done, he insisted that there must be protection. “Furthermore, the Israeli occupation authorities must allow necessary equipment to be imported so that the fishermen can renovate their boats and replace lost and damaged nets, baskets and other essential kit.”

Six of Salah’s brothers and 14 other fishermen work with him. He pays $2,000 for the fuel used on every working shift. What’s more, he has to pay up to $700 for the daily wages of his workers. He believes that the Israeli government prioritised its security arrangements when it decided on the expansion of the Palestinian fishing zone.

“I am sure this is what has happened,” he told me. “If they are really interested in helping us, they should have demarcated clear lines and allowed us to sail unhindered. However, they just made some propaganda to reflect a positive image about their commitment to the truce reached with the Palestinian resistance groups.”

VIDEO: Palestine marine forces rescue 6 Egypt fishermen

Palestine Press reported on Wednesday that the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth claimed that the Israeli navy will change its tactics along the maritime border with Gaza’s territorial waters. It also said that the navy is going to increase the number of gunboats and replace the current fleet with larger ships capable of firing missiles.

While press reports about the easing of the restrictions imposed on Palestinian fishermen are welcome, the changes need to be seen in practice. At the moment, that does not seem to be happening.

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