The Palestine Entries: A fisherman’s daily struggle

// Entry #8

“They were shot in the stomach! Two months ago, two brothers. But they survived, all praise be to God.”

He is a fisherman and I am an amateur journalist – so amateur, in fact, that I forgot to ask for his name. But he told me his story, and he made me promise to tell it to you.

The Gaza Strip is home to unemployment rates reaching upwards of 55 percent. Although the siege is virtually hidden from sight, its tight stranglehold on the territory’s trading routes severely restricts Gaza’s economy and the establishment of new jobs. Those who are employed, however, aren’t necessarily better off, particularly those that take to the sea well before the sun rises every morning.

Although the Gaza Strip borders the Mediterranean Sea, fish is not the staple food item it once was prior to Israel’s blockade. The fish still exist – they just can’t be caught. During the Oslo Accords, Palestinian fishermen were allowed to fish within a 12 nautical mile zone from the coast of the Gaza Strip. Today, under heavy Israeli military restriction, Palestinian fishermen are only allowed to operate within 3 nautical miles of the coast. According to my interviewee, there is not enough fish in this zone to feed a city, much less provide the fishermen with the means to support their families.

I asked the fisherman to describe a typical working day. Early in the morning, before the city awakes, and sometimes even before the night ends, fishermen set off into the sea and pray for a large catch. Their boats are no larger than average-sized canoes, but with motors hanging from the back. Lining the edge of the 3 mile zone are Israeli Navy patrol ships that monitor the fishermen and ensure that the zone is not breached from either side. The low density of fish within the tight zone forces fishermen to travel slightly beyond the permitted 3 miles, and this leads to frequent encounters with the patrol ships, or tarradaat, Arabic for ‘things that force you to leave’.

My fisherman, at least seventy years old, became visibly angry and, on his own, decided to elaborate on these encounters.

When a fisherman travels outside of the zone, the tarradaat do one of two things. “Either they yell at you through a microphone and tell you to go away or they immediately shoot at you,” he told me. “The shooting happens more often.”

Keeping in line with the systematic and oppressive nature of the blockade, the fisherman explained that the Israeli military units aim for the motor, thereby immobilizing the fishing boat outside of the 3 nautical mile zone and causing further stress. “Why do they have to shoot the motor of all things? That’s $5,000 right there, just to replace the motor. You think we make enough to buy new motors?” He added, “just yesterday, the tarradaat destroyed two motors. It’s going to cost $10,000 to fix, so here we go borrowing money left and right.”

However, the shooting isn’t limited to just the motors. The fisherman recalled a story of a fellow laborer who traveled just meters beyond the permitted zone. “’You are 10 meters too deep’ [said the soldier through the speaker] so he shot the boat’s hull too. Couldn’t he just warn them? Water was quickly filling the boat.”

Other times, the soldiers shoot the fishermen themselves. Four months ago, Muhammad Mansour Bakr was shot to death while at sea. Two months later, Allam, age 12, and Yasser, age 18, were both shot in the stomach. The two brothers were taken immediately to a hospital where they received immediate emergency treatment. Had the Israeli soldiers disabled their boat’s motor, their father, my interviewee, would’ve watched them die just 3 miles from the shore.

But, as my fisherman adamantly assures me, he and three thousand other fishermen will not be deterred by the brutality. “They have this new tactic where they use a pump and spray the salty sea water through high pressure hoses at our faces. The salt burns our eyes,” he said, “but that’s the price we pay.”

He was kind enough to break it down for me. Each fishing boat seats four or five individuals. Staying within the 3 nautical mile zone brings in between five and ten kilograms of fish, enough for only 100 to 200 shekels, or about $50. After paying for gas and repairs, the profits are barely enough to cover the costs of just two meals.

“In other words, we have to travel deeper than 3 miles. We’re going to be shot at, we’ll need to make repairs, but we also need fish. We also need to make a living.”

Sami Kishawi

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