Ceasefire opens up deeper waters for Gaza's fishermen

For the first time in years Gazans can fish farther off their coast and catch more fish, thanks to the terms of a new ceasefire with Israel.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Fisherman bring their daily catch to the market near the Gaza City port as buyers gather to bid for fish early in the morning in this file photo.

For the first time in more than three years, Gaza fisherman Mushtaq Zedan took his boat out Saturday to the deeper, more abundant waters that were off limits to him under the Israeli blockade.

"It was like a dream when I reached the six mile limit," says Mr. Zedan, a father of four who inherited his fishing job from his own father, of his first trip out past the three-nautical-mile limit set for Gaza fishermen by Israel more than three years ago, which kept him in shallow, over-fished waters. "Fish are always in the deep water," he says, explaining why his catch has been paltry in recent years. "But after the new procedures, we can catch more fish and life will get better again." 

Today's catch included about 88 pounds of Black Seabream and other fish, far more than the usual haul in recent years. "I never had the chance to catch this much fish in the past three years. I think life will smile once again," he says. 

Zedan's increased fishing territory is one of the first manifestations of the truce between Israel and Hamas last week that ended the eight-day Gaza conflict, which killed six Israelis and 166 Palestinians. Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade since the Islamist group Hamas took control of the tiny territory in 2007. Though somewhat eased in recent years, it still limited the goods that come into the territory, prohibited most exports, and limited movement in border areas, including in the waters near Gaza's shore and the farmland near the border fence with Israel.

According to Hamas, the terms of the ceasefire include Israel lifting the blockade on Gaza by opening the border crossings to movement of people and goods, both on land and at sea. In the first sign of this, in recent days fishermen and farmers have reported that they have ventured farther out to sea and closer to the border fence than previously allowed. 

Hamas has claimed the terms of the Egypt-brokered ceasefire are a victory for the group, which maintains an armed wing that battled Israel in the recent conflict. And with restrictions already beginning to ease, most Gazans agree, and are keen to see the ceasefire hold. 

Mukhaimar Abu Saada, professor of political science at Gaza's al-Azhar University, says it is likely the ceasefire will hold for now because it benefits all parties. "Hamas needs stability in Gaza to start the reconstruction process that Qatar is going to finance," he says. "Hamas also needs to use the Arab support it got during the Israeli offensive and translate this support on the ground" by turning from military actions to its political role, bringing stability to the people instead of war and destruction, he says. 

Border still blocked

Yet one key part of the ceasefire agreement has yet to be implemented: the easing of Israel's blockade on imports and exports and the movement of people through border crossings, which Israel says is necessary for its own security. It is yet unclear how or whether Israel will follow through on what Hamas says was a term of the agreement. A Hamas delegation is in Cairo today to discuss the terms of the ceasefire, through Egyptian mediators, with the Israeli side. Opening the crossings to increased traffic is one of the items on the agenda, says Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas's political leadership, who lives in Cairo. 

He says discussions will have to take place about each specific crossing and what changes will be made, indicating that there may not be an across-the-board easing of restrictions. He indicated that he did not expect substantial changes to the restrictions on exports, which have virtually killed Gaza's manufacturing sector, which had provided many jobs in the territory where unemployment is rampant. There may be an increase in the agricultural exports, which already take place, he said.

Brighter future for fishermen

Extending the distance Gaza's fisherman can trawl off the shore of the coastal enclave makes a significant impact in their livelihood.

In the past decade, their territory has been steadily and drastically curtailed. After the Oslo Accords, signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993, Palestinian fishermen were able to fish up to 20 nautical miles offshore. That was reduced to 12 miles in 2002. In 2006, when Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the fishing zone was reduced to six miles offshore. And after the war in Gaza in 2009, the fishing zone was reduced to three miles offshore. Thousands of fishermen have abandoned their trade as the shallow waters near shore were overfished.  

In recent years, fishermen began buying fish from Egypt to sell in Gaza, a business Zedan calls "perilous and costly." Though he's thrilled about the new waters that are now open to his nets, he has to repair his fleet of fishing boats, which have been sitting idly in the harbor for years, before he can get back up to speed.

"Now I'm using my light boats. As you can see most of the big boats here need to repaired. This will cost me a lot of money, but I will be able to fix them if we catch more fish," he says. Two of his boats need repairs after being shot by Israeli naval vessels three years ago when they sailed, under cover of night, into the no-go zone in search of fish.

And while he can go farther than he has in three years, he is still well within the limit set in the Oslo Accords. Abu Marzouk says that Hamas has insisted that fishermen be allowed to fish up to 20 nautical miles offshore, the Oslo limit, but that Israel has refused, agreeing only to six miles. That issue is also on the agenda for the Cairo discussions, he says, adding that Hamas insists on the Oslo limit.

Farming the fence

Farmers who are now able to visit their land near the border fence are equally happy. On the eastern edge of the Gaza Strip, Nabil Abu al-Qumboz managed Saturday for the first time in five years to reach his farm, which borders Israel.

"I felt both happy and sad. I felt happy because I finally managed to walk on my land, and felt sad when I found it totally destroyed," he says. Mr. Abu al-Qumboz's land is located in the buffer zone, a strip of land along the border that has swallowed about 30 percent of Gaza's agricultural land. Until the ceasefire, Israeli soldiers stationed along the border often shot at anyone who entered the buffer zone. 

"This land used to be like paradise. It used to be green and clean, now it is barren and deserted," says Abu al-Qumboz. "But I will cultivate it and make it more beautiful than before." 

The farmland was his only source of income for his family, he says, and he is eager to regain it. "When Israel banned us from reaching [this land], we lost that source of income and life became very miserable. I hope this truce will continue because war only brings destruction and poverty." 

On Friday, Israeli soldiers fired at a crowd of protesters who neared the border fence, killing one man. And one man was reportedly wounded near the border yesterday by Israeli fire. But farmers have reported greater freedom of movement in several areas, and Hamas deployed police near the border Saturday to prevent clashes that would break the truce. 

Helping the truce hold

Abu al-Qumboz is hopeful that the ceasefire will hold, and says farmers will work to keep it from being violated, for their own good. "Now all farmers can work on their lands and I think they will not let anyone to ruin the truce because this is against our interests. We don't want to get frustrated once again."

Fortunately for Abu al-Qumboz, Hamas is not likely to break the ceasefire soon, according to Dr. Abu Saada. "Hamas also knows the eruption of a new round of violence with Israel may cost it a heavy price. The next confrontation will be on the ground, and Hamas realizes that Israel can reoccupy Gaza," he says.

On the other side, Abu Saada says Israel will be reluctant to anger Egypt, which mediated the truce, by immediately breaking it.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings against autocrats and the Islamist governments that have come to power, some of Israel's neighbors are now taking bolder stands against Israel's actions in Gaza. Egypt is one of only two Arab nations with a peace treaty with Israel. Yet Israeli officials have not indicated they intend to allow normal trade through the border crossings. And Egypt is reluctant to open its pedestrian crossing at Rafah to goods unilaterally, for fear Israel could then close its crossings and shift the burden of Gaza's humanitarian needs onto Egypt. 

If Israel does not ease passage of goods and people at the crossings, it may be difficult for Hamas to keep support for maintaining its end of the bargain. Abu Marzouk warned that there would be no ceasefire if Israel did not live up to its side of the deal. 

Ceasefire seen as victory

Though the status of border crossings has not yet changed, most Gazans view the ceasefire as a victory over Israel. Muhammed Dahman, a jobless engineer, believes that the truce is the best achievement in the history of the Palestinian struggle.

"The ceasefire is a great success. The bloodshed on both sides will stop at least for a long period of time. It's a good chance for unemployed young people like me who will have job opportunities when the process of reconstruction starts. Finally Gaza will live in peace like the rest countries of the world," he says. 

Not everyone is thinking of peace, however. A Hamas fighter, who refused to give his name, says the truce is a chance to rest and prepare for the next battle.

"We need this truce to get well prepared for the next battle – the battle in which we will sweep Israel and restore our lands. Now Israel and the whole recognizes Hamas as a big power in the region," he says. "Peace? Peace is a good thing, but not with an occupier. The truce is just a moment of rest for us to continue our fight against Israel."

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