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Gazans struggle to reel in a livelihood

One man alone used to employ more than 2,000 fishermen to bring in Gaza's daily catch, but Israel has reduced the areas in which Palestinians may fish, curbing the number of accessible fish.

By Staff writer / May 17, 2013

Mounir Abu Hasira holds up a big fish that he says came from the Red Sea via tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. Egyptian fish are much larger than those found in Gaza's overfished waters.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM

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Gaza City, Gaza

Mounir Abu Hasira’s name is synonymous with fish in Gaza, where his grandfather once owned more than 50 percent of the fishing boats and employed more than 2,000 workers to bring in the daily catch.

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Christa Case Bryant is The Christian Science Monitor's Jerusalem bureau chief, providing coverage on Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as regional issues.

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But since Israel reduced the permitted fishing zone from 20 miles to 12 miles to 3 miles – progressive steps taken with the outbreak of the second intifada, the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and Hamas’s violent takeover of the tiny coastal territory in 2007 – even Gaza’s scions of fishing can’t earn a living on the sea.

The number of working fishermen has dropped from 10,000 in 1999 to less than 3,200, according to a website advocating an end to the blockade. 

Today 80 percent of the fish being sold at a seaside shack along the main drag in Gaza City comes from Israel or Egypt, says Mr. Abu Hasira, who now only fishes for fun. He still trades in fish though, holding up a big sea bass from the Red Sea that is more than twice the size of one caught here. 

With so many fishermen fighting for a livelihood in such a narrow corridor of water, the fish they are able to catch are much smaller. They are also caught younger, meaning they don’t have as much of a chance to breed before being harvested. Thus the population continues to dwindle.

As part of the November 2012 cease-fire with Hamas that ended eight-days of intense fighting, Israel agreed to double the fishing corridor to six miles. But after Gaza militants fired a volley of rockets into southern Israel in March, it was reduced to 3 miles again. Palestinian fishermen frequently complain of harassment by Israeli naval forces, especially as the fishermen approach the boundary of the zone. 

The anti-blockade website lists 11 Palestinian fishermen who have been killed in the last five years. Detailed reports are given in about half the cases; all but one blame Israeli gunfire, though in one case Israeli forces were shooting at suspected militants in diving gear nearby.

“Now most fishermen are waiting for aid,” says Abu Hasira. “One thing growing in fishermen is to be patient, so they are waiting.”

Abu Hasira made the decision not to wait, and left commercial fishing to open a fish restaurant, which is renowned as one of Gaza’s best. That enabled him to send his daughter to university.

“If I had been a fisherman, I couldn’t have afforded it,” he says.

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