Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gaza: Of Seas and Sorrows

Gaza fishermen ready their net before a day at sea. (Photo: Shuaib Abou-Jahl)

Two days before the Israeli onslaught on Gaza this weekend, the strip’s fishermen told Al-Akhbar’s Doha Shams how a once-thriving local industry has been decimated by draconian Israeli restrictions and the neglect of both Fatah- and Hamas-led administrations.

Gaza – A glorious sunrise signals a final end to days of stormy weather. The gusting winds gradually begin to die down and then stop completely, as though taking a break along with everyone else after a hard week’s work.

There is a fair amount of early morning activity on the beautiful sandy beach. A group of young people are seated in a circle, a man strolls along the shore accompanied by a young child, and some boys kick a football about. A pleasing sense of calm, gentle weather, and pure air. The sea is indeed Gaza’s lung.

A donkey pulls a cart over the sand. Donkeys and horses abound in Gaza, as conveyors of both passengers and goods. There are carts and horses wherever you go. They are even depicted on traffic signs to alert motorists that they may be crossing. These are no short-term expedients. If the fuel crisis in Gaza persists, horses and donkeys may soon become Gazans’ only means of transportation.

The fuel shortage means there are fewer “service” taxis operating. They use the same system as in Lebanon: several passengers per taxi, but only traveling along certain routes. The previous evening, I saw masses of people gathered at roadsides waiting for cars to pick them up. Whenever one stopped there would be a rush toward it.

Meanwhile, electricity was cut off at the hotel for a second six-hour stretch. The owners had to shut shown their generator due to lack of fuel. The affable elderly waiter, known as Uncle Rasmi, says he, too, spent a long time waiting by the roadside for a car to take him home the previous night.

One horse-drawn cart has the licence plate of the owner’s former car fixed to the back of it, along with a “P” for the country designation Palestine. At least some can make fun of the fuel shortage and blockade. Gazans share much of their Egyptian neighbors’ sense of humor.

At the port, among the fishing skiffs there are larger boats with roofed decks made of wood and palm fronds, like little shacks. They remind me of the boats that take tourists on trips from the port of Tripoli to the nearby islands.

But are there any tourists here? There is a Tunisian couple staying at the hotel, who arrived via the Rafah crossing from Egypt. Its partial reopening after the revolution eased the blockade of the Gaza Strip. At least there are no Israelis around since it was liberated from their hated military presence. Maybe we should have all seized the opportunity and come in large numbers to provide support. Solidarity tourism? Why not? There was plenty of it in South Lebanon after liberation. And it still thrives in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, where tourists go to see the tunnel dug by the Bosnians in 1994 when the city was under siege.

How about here? I want to see Gaza’s tunnels, but it turns out that we need permission to visit them – from the interior ministry, no less! Indeed, even to enter a hospital as a journalist you have to have permission from the health ministry. I could fall ill to get around that. But there’s no getting around the interior ministry as far as the tunnels are concerned.

The relevant official is never available to speak on the phone. We decide to go to the ministry to try in person. We are received cordially, but told that the minister and deputy minister are both away, and our permit will need the approval of the Higher Security Committee, so it will take a couple of days at least. So much for that.

On the waterfront

So we head back to what has been termed the “three-mile aquarium.” It could also be called a holding pen. This is Gaza City’s closest front line with the enemy.

Entering the port also requires a permit. But there is a security checkpoint there which, after negotiations with my guide, allows our taxi in.

Fishermen, or a few of them at least, are busy mending their nets in the warm winter sunshine. We ask one of them, Muhammad, a teenager sitting on the deck of a boat with his lean legs dangling over the side, about Gaza’s only fisherwoman, Madeleine Kallab. She took over the trade from her disabled father in order to keep her younger siblings fed.

“She’s out roaming,” replies another boy, Akram – meaning out at sea. I find this surprising, as it is 11am by now, and not the time for fishing. The boys confirm this, saying that fishermen set out early in the morning and are usually back by eight.

So had they come back from fishing themselves? The boys trade smiles, and Muhammad swings his legs in amusement. With a cheeky grin he explains that they’re being punished, and have been banned from “roaming” today by the port police. Why? “We went out to sea last night without registering our names with security.”

Shortly afterwards, we see the boys with two security men. They ask us for a press card. I show them one and explain I’m here at the government’s invitation. So he allows us to wander about.

Two fishermen approach carrying plastic boxes containing fish, barely enough to cover the bottoms of the containers. I ask about their catch, and one replies with obvious exasperation: “some sardines, a couple of octopuses, a single bream, and a medium-sized palamida.” Is that all? Another adds: “All his efforts won’t earn him 30 shekels (about US$10), but his fuel costs alone are one million.”

Boys take their vessel to the beach with the aid of a horse. (Photo: Shuaib Abou-Jahl)
Nobody here is quite sure why people refer to 100 shekels as a “million.” I must remember to ask the Palestinian Monetary Authority in Ramallah if I get a chance – it has yet to respond to questions we sent it days ago.

There is a marble plaque at the port honoring the aid flotillas that have broken the Israeli blockade and managed to reach Gaza without being apprehended by the Israeli navy. This is where youngsters hang out to look for odd jobs to earn some money.

Suddenly, a boat appears, which at first seems to be gliding over the sand. Closer inspection reveals a harnessed horse on the far side, struggling to haul the heavy load with the assistance of some young men with rolled up trouser-legs who push the vessel from behind.

When someone sees us collecting sea-shells, he directs us to a pebbly section of the beach further along, saying we’ll find more of them there. There are some boys there, loading pebbles onto a horse-drawn cart. “A cargo of pebbles is worth 20 shekels. We take them to Shujaiyeh where there are stone crushers, about five kilometers from here,” explains one as he leaps onto the cart and the driver urges the horse on.

Struggling to survive

Where is the Fishermen’s Union? The uniformed young port policeman points to a pale blue prefab, in UNRWA colors. Behind decrepit desks sits the president of the union, Hani al-Amoudi, and the secretary, Amjad al-Sharaqi (Abu Ismail).

Several of their fellow fishermen are seated around the room. On the walls are pictures of fishing boats damaged or destroyed by the Israeli navy, and portraits of martyred fishermen.

I put my questions to the president, but he doesn’t mind Abu-Ismail or any of the others volunteering to answer, often all at once.

Abu-Ismail explains that the union was established in 1998 after Israel stepped up its harassment and abduction of Gaza fishermen. Many were arrested and detained in the port of Ashdod.

“They started kidnapping fishermen and trying to tie them up,” he says. “Trying to recruit them as spies on their own people. After they were freed, we met with them all and explained the importance of having a union that could stand up for their rights and obtain lawyers for them. They were persuaded and the union was set up.”

How are conditions for fishermen today? “They live below the general line,” replies Mufleh Abu-Reyaleh.

“He means the poverty line,” the president corrects him, then adds, “Fishermen have suffered badly for the past seven years, ever since the abduction of [Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The Israelis reduced the area in which fishing was permitted. It was limited to 12 miles after the first intifada, and then it was reduced to three miles.”

The union’s former secretary, Khaled Abu-Ameireh, interjects to object to the use of word “abduction.” The current secretary replies: “you in the government say one thing, we say another.” The Hamas-Fatah split strikes again. Two different political lexicons.

Back to the fishermen. The Israelis frequently confiscate the boats or motors of fishermen who they detain and then release. A total of nine have been killed by being shot at by Israeli naval vessels within the three-mile limit. Forty suffered permanent disabilities that prevented them from working, meaning they lost of the use of a hand, arm, or leg.

The three-mile limit imposed by the Israelis is a calamity for the 3,700 fishermen trying to make a living in Gaza, the president says. It is even illegal under international fishing conventions, because the shallow inland waters are the fish’s spawning grounds. The Israelis, says Amoudi “are in effect exterminating the fish stocks off the Gaza coast.”

Mufleh, who brings us a cup of coffee he has prepared for us, says fishermen’s families now cannot survive without the help of food vouchers provided by UNRWA. The agency also used to provide a monthly unemployment allowance of 1,000 shekels (US$300) as compensation for fishermen being unable to work due to the occupation. But that was discontinued.

The fishermen, who used to supply about 50 percent of Gaza’s needs, also face a problem due to the importation of cheap fish from Egypt via the tunnels.

“The government doesn’t prevent that, on grounds of providing sufficient supplies to the citizens – as though those who live off fishing are not citizens,” says Amoudi. He reckons that some 50,000 people in Gaza make their living from the sea, not just fishermen but retailers and transporters, suppliers of equipment, boat mechanics, and others.

With costs of fuel, which usually has to be bought on the black market, and other inputs much higher in Gaza than Egypt, local fishermen cannot compete with the smuggled fish. They have to lower their prices to match it.

As result explains Mufleh, “before the tunnels,” a fisherman could make a decent profit from a 10 kilogram catch. Now, it does not even cover the fuel and other costs of the trip. “We would be better off not going out at all,” he says, while adding with a smile, “But we can’t...we don’t know how to sit still. We like to roam, even at a loss.”

Amoudi speaks movingly of the difficulty his members, most of whom have large families to feed, clothe, and educate, have making ends meet – and how he personally feels when he cannot afford things for his children.

This adds to the stresses of life under constant threat of being detained or shot at by the Israelis, or having his boat – and thus his means of livelihood – confiscated.

“It’s continuous worry. The family is always worried if I’ll return or not. My work has become exhausting. I have started to hate it due to the lack of income and the excess of fear.”

Abu-Ismail adds that in addition to taking pot-shots at them with their machine guns, the Israeli patrol boats often approach the fishermen merely to hurl curses and insults at them, employing the foulest language. How do they respond? The president shrugs his shoulders: “That’s what’s become of us: no respect at sea or on land.”

Why not on land? He is quick to answer that neither the present nor the previous Palestinian government has ever cared about their plight. “As Palestinians living in the Gaza strip we have no rights whatsoever. Even when fishermen are shot by the Israelis, nobody does anything about it. We set up a union to defend us, but however hard it tries nothing gets done.” Fishermen’s families have meanwhile been reduced to penury. Meat is something they taste once a year, on Eid al-Adha, and even then in modest quantities, he says.

He suddenly raises his voice, as though making himself heard to anyone who might report his words to the authorities: “If anyone has ever treated us with respect, let them come and say so, and if anyone has given us anything, let them come and say.”

Silence prevails over the formerly talkative gathering. There is a sense of old, cold anger in the air. Nobody replies or adds anything. One man gets up and leaves. The president turns and says: “3,700 fishermen. If you sit down with each and every one of them, they will all tell you the same thing.”


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