Gaza fishermen see shrimp-sized gains from Israel-Hamas cease-fire

The only change on the ground under the current cease-fire is the doubling of the fishing zone to six miles. But the daily catch is already less than half what it was last week.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Palestinian fishermen collect boxes of fish at Gaza's seaport in Gaza City on Friday, August 29, 2014. Some of the biggest cheer over the current truce with Israel was expressed by Gaza's fishermen, who were able to sail six miles offshore on Friday morning to cast their nets rather than the usual three, even as Israeli patrol boats kept watch, allowing them to return with full catches.

A week after Israel and Hamas agreed on a cease-fire after 51 days of fighting, the only tangible benefit Palestinians point to so far is the extension of Gaza's fishing zone from three to six miles. But even this meager gain isn't what it seems, say fishermen.

“This is a big lie from the Israelis that they opened [the fishing zone],” said Mahmoud Saidi, as traders milled around crates piled with shrimp and fish one morning this week. “Before the war, we were already going out to six miles."

Gaza’s last conflict with Israel in 2012 also ended with an agreement that extended the fishing zone to six miles, and fishermen say this was mostly honored by Israel's Navy until tensions spiked again with Hamas. And even a six mile zone is still a far cry from the 20 miles outlined under the Oslo Accords two decades ago and never implemented. 

Israel says its maritime blockade is necessary to stop arms smuggling to Hamas, which took control of Gaza seven years ago. Since then, Gaza's waters have become severely overfished.

Fishermen – some of whom used to spend as much as a week at sea – often end up catching immature fish closer to shore that haven't had a chance to reproduce and replenish the sea's stocks. They also fetch less at the market than larger fish.

The break for the war meant bigger catches when the boats headed out last week for the first time in nearly two months. On the first and second days, fishermen caught 20 tons, but that is already decreasing quickly.

At the edge of the wharf, Hajj Omar Habeel, the former president of the fishermen’s association here, muttered under his breath as he tallied the day’s catch with a pencil.

The total: seven tons. “After a couple of days, it will be nothing,” he says. 

Fish farm on ice

Before the war, Gaza investors were working on a $2.5 million fish farming project, which had been designed with input from Israeli experts and the Ministry of Agriculture. The farming was expected to yield about 1,800 pounds of fish per day, says Mounir Abu Hasira, a prominent fishing entrepreneur involved in the project.

“This war has turned things upside down,” says Mr. Abu Hasira. “Investors need two months to rethink everything.” 

Any investment in fishing is a risky business in Gaza these days. Abu Hasira says he lost $80,000 worth of nets, machines, and other equipment when a storage building at the harbor was damaged in the war. His fish restaurant also had to dump about $90,000 worth of frozen fish after losing electricity for 15 days.

“Even so, Alhamdulillah,” he says, praising Allah despite his troubles. “To lose money is less of a loss than to lose a human being.”

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