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The Fishermen of Gaza

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 17.06.2006:

By Arturo Avendaٌno

The year he turned 103, his great granddaughter Dina was born, bringing the number of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to 132. “They are an ocean of life,” asserted with a steady voice Mohammad Abdallah Arafat Abu Hassira, a man of the sea who was born in Gaza in 1901 and who witnessed the last days of the Ottoman Empire in historical Palestine.

“The Turks took a lot of men to fight in their Empire’s wars. I remember that time as a black period in my life, a life of hunger and difficulties,” said the centenarian in his neighbourhood of cramped houses and narrow streets, where most of the people living there are Abu Hassira’s family. They look at their father, grandfather or great grandfather wearing the traditional black linen cape’s abaya, as he continues, “After the Turks, the British came here. Soldiers in red horses brought food to distribute among the people, but shortly afterwards they started to act as occupiers, banning the export of oranges, which at that time was the most important Palestinian product. I started working when I was a child, loading barley on British ships ? just like my father. First they paid me a quarter of a man’s salary, later half a salary; after that I received a full salary and by then I was the chief of the fishermen.”

At that time fishermen did not have boats. They fished with nets from the seashore and the boats were used to transport cargo to and from the ships coming from abroad. There were sailing or rowing boats with a capacity of four to ten people. There were few fishermen in Gaza at the time.

Abu Hassira remembers that in 1948, when the first refugees arrived, he was in Khan Younis hunting “fer” birds, the kind that traverses the sea during the migratory season. The refugees came in a bad condition and had no place to sleep. He took some to his house and others to the mosque. There, with the sails of the boats they divided the space into small rooms for the refugee families that came from Jaffa, Ishdud and Asqalan, called now Ashqelon by the Israelis.

When the Israeli army entered Gaza in 1967, Abu Hassira and his colleagues were loading oranges at the port. With the Israeli occupation, the sailing limits were changed. Nowadays it is not possible to go further than Der El-Balah, where the settlements of Gush Katif are, which is less than half of Gaza?s shoreline. During Turkish times the sea was open, from Ras Annaqura, next to Lebanon in the north to Port Sa?id, Egypt, in the south.

In the village of Der El-Balah, other fishermen confirm Abu Hassira’s words about the sea’s limits, and start relating stories and events in a confusion of jumbled voices. Nizar Ayyash has been working the sea in front of Der El-Balah for 36 years and where he lives with his nine children in the family?s house that is shared with his brothers. Ayyash relates that, “Until today, Israeli fishing restrictions are from three to six nautical miles, where fish is scarce. There, I can only fish sardines.”

In the Oslo agreement of 1994, Gaza’s fishing limits were established at 20 nautical miles, but in practice Israel restricted the area to 12 miles. “Fishes migrate or try to find deep waters of 200 metres, where they feel more comfortable and it would seem that the biggest fishes look at us, fishermen, as if the nautical siege were a net that catches us,” continues Ayyash. It is already three years since a complete ban on fishing towards the border with Egypt, off southern Der El-Balah and off the coasts of Rafah and Khan Younis was imposed.

In Mawasi, whereas the gardens of Gush Katif’s settlements are irrigated and well maintained, fishermen’s boats remain buried in the sand, neglected and dried-up by the scorching sun, like a ruin in the desert that is abandoned for unknown fears. It is also a place where boats are painted in a macabre jumble of colours: yellow for Gazan boats, which cannot trespass the waters to Der El-Balah, where its green-coloured boats indicate that they cannot sail southward to Rafah or towards the coast of Gaza city. Within the same restrictive system, Rafah has been assigned the colour white and Khan Younis orange. By these colours Israeli coast guards can identify the area from which a Palestinian fisherman is coming, and hence know if he is ‘trespassing.’

“When you go out to sea,” relates Adnan Al-Aqra’, a 45-year-old fisherman, “the Israeli navy confiscates the boat or the outboard motor, or destroys the nets, dousing you with high-pressure water in order to arrest you or shoots at you with machine guns. Then they tell you, over the loudspeaker, to take off your clothes, jump into the water and go swimming to the patrol?s boat. At that moment, you feel confused, between life and death, between what you can expect at the bottom of the sea and what could happen on the surface. There, they arrest you and take you to Ashqelon, where you are detained, and after one week or more, they release you after paying a fine.”

The fishermen have a notebook where they write down all these outrages. In that notebook one should write that in Gaza, “the difference between life and death is just a matter of habit,” notes Kayed Hammad “Abu Omar,” who works on an emergency project of food distribution for fishermen. He believes that the ultimate reason for the violence against fishermen is to terrorize them so that they leave the sea free for military actions. He then wonders what will become of the 3,500 fishermen and their families, who directly or indirectly live from fishing in Gaza. There are families whose breadwinners are all fishermen: 22 of them in the family of Jamal Al-Aqra?. Mohammad Basalah, who has been fishing in the sea of Gaza for 30 years, notes wryly, “We live by the sea but we cannot live off it.” Gaza’s main street is becoming the place where people of the sea go up to the city looking for jobs, while people of the city descend to the sea hoping to find possibilities for survival.

In the sea of Gaza, the launches and boats are known as “hasaka shanshula.” They are built by self-taught experts of this artisanal tradition, where the principal tool is the vitality of their memory. With similar passion, the Gazan artisans talk about the techniques of boat building, relating many stories as they sit in circle on the seashore.

They do not work with computers or precise tools, except for their memory. The boats are built as a symbol of life. Perhaps one day, these boats will be able to sail the way they did in Abu Hassira’s time: from Gaza to Lebanon in the north and to Egypt in the south.

Arturo Avendaٌo is an expert in international cooperation, working in Palestine for the last six years. He has worked on ECHO’s emergency project for fishermen and in the health sector.


This Week in Palestine

September 2004

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