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Fishing pier, Gaza strip. Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem
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Plunged into despair: How Israel's policy affects Gazan families that depend on fishing for a living

On 12 August 2020, Israel reduced southern Gaza’s fishing range from 15 to eight nautical miles, officially because explosive-laden balloons had been launched from Gaza into Israel. On 16 August 2020, Israel banned access to the Gaza sea, and on 2 September 2020, reopened the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles. This further restriction of the permitted range joins various forms of collective punishment imposed on Palestinian fishermen since Israel began its blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Israel has arrested fishermen and seized their boats, banned the import of raw materials used for repairs, and fired at boats that it claimed sailed beyond the permitted range. To date, Israeli gunfire has killed seven fishermen and wounded hundreds. The restrictions have led to the near-collapse of the Gazan fishing industry: there are currently  less than 4,000 fishermen, as opposed to 10,000 or so 20 years ago. Those remaining suffer from perilous working conditions imposed by Israel and live with their families in abject poverty.

The following testimonies were given to B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd by wives and mothers of Gazan fishermen and fishmongers. Describing their painful reality and uncertain future, the women talked of constantly fearing for their loved ones and of the financial hardship created by Israel's restriction of their livelihoods – which is set to worsen due to the pandemic.

In a testimony she gave on 5 August 2020, Intesar a-Sa'idi (52), a mother of six from a-Shati’ Refugee Camp in Gaza City, described the financial hardship and personal tragedy that befell her family:

Intesar a-Sa'idi. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem.

When my husband Marwan and I got married in 1984, he was already a fisherman. It's his only profession. My sons and their uncles are also fishermen. At first, our finances were fine and my husband's job didn't seem too risky. At that time, the Israeli military didn't shoot or arrest fishermen or confiscate their equipment. Fishermen were allowed to go quite far out and there were lots of fish. My husband earned well, 2,000 to 3,000 shekels (~600-890 USD) a week, so I had no reason to worry. He worked on his own rowboat and when our boys, Khader and a-Sayed, were young, he would take them out to sea and teach them the trade. I was calm and didn't really fear for their lives.

Things changed when the blockade started. The restricted fishing range made things much worse for us. Now, fishermen have to risk their lives to put food on the table. I'm terrified my husband and children will be shot or arrested or have their equipment confiscated. Four times, soldiers arrested them and released them the same day but took away their gear. Every time I heard there'd been a shooting at sea, I was in a panic until I found out my boys were okay. To make sure, I'd go to the port and wait until I saw them get off the boat safe and sound, and only then I'd go home.

In 2012 my husband stopped fishing because of back problems, and since then my two sons have been the family’s only providers. Both are married with children and we all live in the same house. Our financial difficulty forced me to sell my gold jewelry and borrow from relatives. To this day, we owe money and can't pay it back.

In 2017, the military arrested Khader. We didn't hear from him and only found out he was under arrest 10 days later. They tried him and sentenced him to 16 months in prison. They said he’d gone beyond the fishing range several times and that they'd finally caught him. I suffered a lot while Khader was in prison. At first, I cried day and night. I couldn't sleep and knew no joy. On visiting days, I’d cry beforehand, during the visit and afterwards. It was a very rough time.  

When they arrested Khader, they confiscated his rowboats and gave them back useless – just the wood, without the gear.

After Khader was released and went back to work, a disaster happened. About a year and a half ago, on 20 February 2019, he was out fishing. That night, we heard that the military had chased some rowboats and taken one to the port of Ashdod. My son a-Sayed told me that Khader had been arrested, but I had a feeling that he’d been hurt. I was in the dark for four days. The other fishermen were released, but not Khader. Finally, I learned that he'd been hit in the right eye by a rubber bullet and lost his sight in both eyes, and was hospitalized in Israel. When they brought him to a-Shifaa Hospital in Gaza, I saw him for the first time and broke down crying.

Since then my life's been a tragedy. My heart is full of sorrow for Khader, who is a prisoner in his own home. He's unemployed and can't support his family. His financial situation is truly tragic. He doesn't receive any benefits or support, other than small donations from generous people. His medication costs about 150 (~45 USD) shekels a month.

Khader's in a bad emotional state. He doesn't like to go out in his condition, stays at home all day and doesn't sleep at night. He's very tense. It would have been better if the bullet had hit another part of his body. It's very hard to lose your eyesight, especially for a guy who's only 32. Of everyone in the family, I'm the one most affected by Khader's situation. I'm the one who cares for his needs and provides for his children. All fishing gave him was trouble and heartache. The riches of the sea stayed in the sea, and I was left with pain over my son who lost his eyesight at sea.

Today, my son a-Sayed (33) works as a hired fisherman and sometimes rents a boat. We make 500 shekels (~150 USD) a month at most – not enough for such a big family. I get a welfare benefit of 1,800 shekels (~530 USD) every three or four months, and even that's not enough to repay our debts.

The problem is that the economy in Gaza is in such bad shape that there are no other lines of work available. When my grandchildren play, they imitate their fathers and build small rowboats and net-making machines. They say, “We’re going out to work!” or "Watch out for gunfire.” I look at them and say, “Don’t take up this trade. I don’t want to lose you! I’m more scared for you than I am for your fathers.”

I hope the situation gets better and we see brighter days. I hope God will give Khader his eyesight back and that his mental state will improve.

Nura Nu’man (22), a mother of two from a-Shati’ Refugee Camp in Gaza City, described fearing for her husband Muamen (31), a fisherman, and the family’s financial troubles:

Nura Nu’man. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem.

When Muamen goes to work, I worry that he won't come back. I relax only once he's home.

In early 2018, Muamen went fishing and didn’t come back for a long time. I feared for his safety when I learned from other fishermen in the family that the military had arrested him. I was terrified and cried. The military was also holding his brother at the time. I was scared Muamen wouldn't come home. My son Muhammad was only seven months old.

For three weeks we didn't know where they were holding Muamen, and I barely slept or ate. Finally, he was released. When he walked in, I couldn't believe my eyes. I started laughing and crying at the same time. I hugged him and was so happy.

After the arrest, he went back to work despite the risk. It's his only profession. Between 2013 and 2017, the military confiscated three family boats. So far they've only given one back. Last year, Muamen's brothers bought a boat and he started working with them – five brothers in one boat. Every weekend he gets 150 shekels (~45 USD), but it isn't enough for the four of us, especially since the kids are young and need diapers and milk every day. My life revolves around loans and debts to family and friends. My mother-in-law gets 750 shekels (~220 USD) from the Welfare Ministry every three or four months and divides it among her sons. My husband uses every bit to pay off our debts. Sometimes, he takes loans to buy nets and paddles, and when he sells fish he uses the money to pay off the debt.

When I hear soldiers opened fire at fishermen, I immediately call my brothers-in-law to check on Muamen and can't breathe easy until he's home. He's also scared of being arrested or killed. That makes me even more nervous. I ask him not to talk like that and to come back safe and sound, God willing.

Sometimes I tell Muamen that I hope he takes up a different line of work, because of the danger he faces at sea and from the Israeli military. I ask him to look for another job and leave the sea. But he says the situation in Gaza is bad and that there's no work besides fishing. He asks me to be patient and hope for better days.

I pray to God to keep the Israeli military away from my husband and from the other fishermen. I pray for our finances to improve so my little sons can have a secure future. I pray for my husband to stay safe and sound and not get hurt.

‘Ula a-Sa'idi (36), a married mother of nine from a-Shati’ Refugee Camp in Gaza City, spoke about the difficulty of depending on fishing:

‘Ula a-Sa'idi. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem.

My husband Ahmad (42) has worked as a fisherman since we got married 18 years ago. It's a demanding job and even though all my relatives are fishermen, I don't like it because it's very dangerous. But it's our only income, so we have to live with the risk.  

We're in a financial crisis. After the blockade started, my husband's income dropped to 700 shekels (~210 USD) a month. Now, even though he works hard, we make 500 shekels a month at most. That's a pretty low income and isn't enough for our needs. I used to get a benefit of 1,800 shekels (~530 USD) from the Welfare Ministry every three or four months. After four years, it dropped to 700 shekels. That's not enough to live on and sometimes isn't even enough to cover our basic daily needs or buy new holiday clothes for the children.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, things have grown even worse because the economic situation in Gaza is bad and people are buying less fish. There are fewer foreigners in Gaza so there are fewer large events and orders.  

My husband works on his brother's boat with him. He goes out to sea at around 3:00 P.M. and gets back after 3:00 A.M. When he goes fishing I pray to God to keep him safe, away from the soldiers and their gunfire. I can't relax until he gets home or calls me. When he's at sea I'm very anxious, especially when I hear the sound of shooting at fishermen. I get nervous and call him right away to make sure he's okay. My kids also get anxious when they hear gunfire, wondering which of the fishermen was arrested and hoping it wasn't their dad. I try to calm them down and tell them to be patient, and that their dad will come home. When my husband is late, my son Anas (9) walks to the port of Gaza port to wait for him because he's so worried.

Fishing is the worst profession for a wife. In winter my husband suffers from extreme cold, so I worry about that, too, as well as the dangers of the sea and mostly the shooting at fishermen. Whenever someone tells me that soldiers opened fire at fishermen, I feel I'm about to lose my husband. I pray to God to bring him back to us safe and sound.

The military arrested my husband several times, most recently in 2018. In 2007 he was held for half a year. They also seized two of our boats and four engines and are holding them at the port of Ashdod. Usually, the military doesn't return the boats and engines it takes.

I hope our situation improves one day. I wish they would give us back our boats so my husband could have his own boat, and that they'd expand the permitted fishing range. I want to live in dignity, secure my children's future and satisfy their needs and wishes. I hope they won't become fishermen. It's a tough, dangerous job.

‘A.M. (49), a married mother of nine from a-Shati’ Refugee Camp in Gaza City whose husband is a fish merchant, related in a testimony she gave on 9 August 2020:

I got married in 1989. My husband has been working in fishing since he was 12. He worked with his father, who was a fishmonger, and with other relatives. I have nine children, ranging in age from six to 29. We live by the coast and many people in our family work in fishing.

In our first years of marriage, there were plenty of fish and there wasn't much competition. My husband would go to the fish market at 3:00 A.M., bring home a large quantity of fish, clean them and take them to the market. Usually, he'd sell them all within two hours and come home. We had a good income of about 3,000 to 4,000 (~890-1,190 USD) shekels a month.

It went on like that for years, and we enjoyed a high standard of living. We bought our own home and I had everything I needed. I even bought myself gold jewelry. We raised our children at a time when our finances were great. They lacked for nothing. We lived happily and comfortably.

About 13 years ago, when Israel started its blockade on Gaza, things changed. Business suffered, the fishing zone was limited and sometimes fishing was banned altogether. Fish became scarce and costly for the merchants and the consumers. People used to buy four or five kilos in summer, when fish were plentiful. Now they only buy one or two kilos.

Sometimes, my husband has to bring some or all of the fish back home. He stays at the market through the afternoon or evening, trying in vain to sell them. The power shortages make it impossible to keep the fish refrigerated, and sometimes they go off.  

Since the blockade started, our finances have deteriorated. My husband doesn't own a stall in the market, so he rents a space a meter or two wide for about 10 shekels (~3 USD) a day. My children work with him selling fish, but our total income doesn't exceed 1,500 shekels (~445 USD) a month for a family of 14. Two of my sons are married and one has children, but we all live in the same house. Although we're a large family, we don't get a welfare benefit as my husband is self-employed. To pay off debts and pay for my children’s weddings, I sold all my gold jewelry and 250 square meters of land I'd bought. One of our sons dropped out of university because we couldn't keep paying the tuition. Since the coronavirus crisis started, the situation has become worse: restaurants and hotels hardly ever buy fish because they're closed for long periods and Gaza has no visitors because the crossings are closed. The crisis has really hurt my husband's work at the market.  

It's very tough not being able to meet my children's needs. I couldn't buy them clothes for the holidays and for the start of the school year. They have to use last year’s clothes, backpacks and even shoes. My heart aches because I really wanted to give them new things! But we can't afford it and every time they ask for something, like going on a trip, I put them off again and again. It hurts, because I'd like to see their eyes filled with joy.

The situation is depressing and suffocating, but I know there's no other work for my husband or for our children. I hope our situation improves.