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by Luisa Morgantini*
IN GAZA STRIP THE SEA IS A HUGE ISRAELI CHECK POINT
All Palestinian fishermen, re-asserted their right to fish and their right to live, demonstrating on 16thJune with their boats against the Israeli siege
The sea in Gaza is blue, but also green due to pollution because in many sites sewage waters run freely into the waters after passing visibly through the streets of Gaza city and other cities in the Strip and ending up in the sea. No waste water decontamination treatment systems exist because they have been destroyed by the Israeli raids or are out of use because spare parts cannot get through the embargo decided by the Israeli Authorities, resulting in serious consequences for the environment and the local economy.
But the sea in Gaza has always been a great natural resource and could also become a resource for tourism. After the Oslo Agreement, Palestinians hoped that Gaza beaches would be crowded, many hotels have been built, and restaurants and cafés opened. But these expectations were short-lived: hotels have been almost abandoned and tourists cannot of course travel to Gaza. Palestinians citizens in Israel, who the Palestinian tourism targeted, are prevented from entering Gaza since the borders are in the sole hands of the Israeli Government and all Israeli citizens are prohibited from travelling to the Strip or to the West Bank.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS, THE WORST
In the '90s, when boats of fishermen could sail 12 miles off the coast from the Strip, fishermen could land, trade and export almost 3,000 tons of fish per year. During those years, the growth in the fisheries sector resulted in the drowning of thousands of Palestinians who were prevented from travelling to Israel in order to work because of the closures of crossing points and who started to look at the sea for their survival, following the example of several fishermen's families, many of whom came from Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, from where thousands and thousands Palestinians moved to Gaza after the 1948 war.
During the first Intifadah, travelling to Gaza was easy: I always used to take delegations to eat excellent fresh fish in a restaurant named Salam, Peace. That restaurant is still there, but the fish is disappearing and sardines can no longer be easily found.
In fact, fishing in Gaza has been decimated, especially over the last five years, due both to military restrictions imposed by the Israeli Authorities and a ban on seafaring which prevents fishermen from sailing more than 3 miles offshore, regardless of the fact that the Oslo Agreements limited to 20 miles the maximum distance from the coasts and that 12 miles were decided by the Bertini Agreement, signed in August 2002 by United Nations and Israel.
In 2007, about 500 tons of fish were fished in total by the 3,500 professional fishermen working along the Gaza Strip's 40 kilometres of coastline; among those fishermen, only 700 are currently still employed in a sector that created jobs for at least 40,000 people, including mechanics, fishmongers and thousands of local families, who today can hardly survive in an economy squeezed by the siege.
The small boats usually leave the coasts in the darkness of night and come back to harbours at six a.m., where trucks are waiting for the cargo to transport it to the markets: 70 plastic packing boxes of fish and sardines can be sold for about 3,500 shekels, but at least 2,000 shekels are used to cover the costs of oil and gas for lamps, and these prices have soared as a result of the fuel cuts recently decided by the Israeli Authorities.
Often, in order to make up for the shortfall of the 40,000 litres of fuel and gas needed in the high fishing season, fishermen use cooking oil for engines, and therefore the waters of the Mediterranean Sea bathing Gaza are covered with smelly oil slicks.
The few remaining pay-offs are shared between the entire ship's crew and that can change depending on the boats, but on average it amounts to about 75 shekels per employee, almost 15 euros for one night's work.
But today there a fewer and fewer fish in the sea just off the coasts of the Strip because pollution and excessive exploitation have altered the waters that are now barren: they need to go 20 miles offshore to encounter, in springtime, huge shoals of sardines migrating from the Delta of the Nile River to the seas of Turkey, while less than 6 miles offshore it is already difficult to encounter big movements of fish.
According to the PCHR, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Israel in reality has never allowed Gaza fishermen to reach the 20 mile limited fixed by the Agreements. Gaza fishermen denounce the fact that they cannot take to the sea for 2.5 km off the coasts without the risk of being targeted by Israeli fire, of seeing their nets and their boats destroyed while Israeli patrol ships force them to go back to land: a situation which has been repeated over and over again since 2003 but which has deteriorated in the last years with Israeli rockets and helicopters being used against fishermen.
According to the Rafah Fisherman's Syndicate, in the southern Gaza Strip, Israeli military ships patrol the sea 24 hours a day, seven days a week, under the pretext of "security" and of the fight against arms smuggling. In 2007, more than 70 Gaza fishermen were arrested, their boats destroyed, together with their nets and fishing equipment. For months, thousands of fishermen were prevented from leaving the harbour.
BET'SELEM'S STORIES OF ABUSES
In a report, the Israeli organization Bet'selem collected and published some stories about these fishermen.
On 1st January 2007, Isma'il Basleh went to sea with his brother Samir and his friend Aymen al-Jabur. They were fishing when they saw an Israeli warship approaching and it stopped about thirty metres from them and started to fire into the air. The captain of the Israeli ship ordered Isma'il to follow him for 6.5 km, then to stop and turn off the engine, take off his clothes and swim in the freezing water to their ship.
But the Israeli ship kept moving further and further away and Isma'il nearly drowned. The rest of the story talks about bound arms and legs, about threats and intimidations, being prevented from sleeping, and degrading and inhuman treatment.
Adnan al-Badwil also described his misadventure at sea. He was with his brother until five a.m., they had just recovered the nets on the boat with the fish they had caught, when they heard shooting out of the darkness. The boat was hit and started shaking a lot, and both of them fell into the sea. They were injured by shell fragments and hospitalized for three days.
But despite the risks to their lives, fishermen in Gaza continue to take to the sea and try to poach the 3 km off limits in order to survive. Today they can use only rowing boats, because fuel is no longer available in Gaza - not because, like us, the price of fuel has spiralled, but because Israel doesn't allow refuelling in Gaza therefore continuing a siege that represents a collective punishment for the entire population.
THE SITUATION IS UNBEARABLE
On Monday 16th June, fishermen in Gaza took to the sea with the Palestinian flag and called for an open sea and for the right to fish, the right to live, the right to freedom.
The "End the Siege" campaign (http://www.end-gaza-siege.ps/ ), made up of women and men, physicians, professors, intellectuals and Palestinian human rights activists who organized the demonstration, also launched an appeal to the world in order to organize, on the same day, initiatives on the seas and on coasts worldwide in solidarity with Gaza fishermen. That appeal has been taken up by some Italian fishermen, who are currently struggling against the high price of fuel and in particular solidarity with fishermen in Gaza has been expressed by Lega Pesca, the oldest and largest organization of Italian cooperatives representing more than 400,000 fishermen, and some fishermen of Pozzuoli, close to Naples, have sent to the "End the siege Campaign" their photos claiming "End the siege on Gaza. Right to live, right to fish".
On the same day, during the opening of the Plenary Session in Strasbourg, the President of the European Parliament, H.G. Pöttering, remembered the urgency to end the siege: "While we are here today- he stated- fishermen in Gaza Strip have taken the sea with their boats. Because of the siege an horrible pollution is overextending all around, threatening the daily life of fishermen who are protesting against the siege. They are demonstrating for the right to fish, to live, for freedom and for peace. Our EP delegation promised to support the fishermen. Therefore, in the name of all of us, I would like to express the solidarity of the European Parliament with all these fishermen".
*Vice President of the European Parliament