On the beach of Rafah city, Palestinian fisherman Ali Bakr sits next to his nets, which he no longer uses because of the restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities.

Bakr, who is in his sixties, is not exaggerating when he describes the state of the Gaza fishermen as “tragic” because of the rarity of catches in the area where they are permitted to work. 

Israel tightly restricts maritime activities off the coast of the occupied Gaza Strip, a thin slice of territory home to some two million people.

Fishermen must contend with arbitrary limits on how far they are allowed out to sea before coming head-to-head with the Israeli navy. Since May, the zone has fluctuated from just 16 nautical miles to as tight as six nautical miles (11 km).

The Islamist movement Hamas, which governs the strip, has welcomed delegations from Egypt, the UN, and Qatar in recent months in the hopes of reaching a sustainable accord with Israel to ease the siege. 

But these efforts have faced regular setbacks, most recently during a border flare-up in May, when Palestinians deployed incendiary balloons and rockets and Israel responded with air strikes. 

A wave of incendiary kites flown from Gaza into Israel can be enough to snap back restrictions on the fishermen.

And fishermen like Bakr have paid the price.

Give a man a fish

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner released a McKinsey-style paper titled, ‘Peace to Prosperity’ last month, floating vague investment, trade, and entrepreneurship opportunities for the Palestinians of the occupied territories.

But for the fishermen of Gaza, it is not the lack of a trade, inherited from their ancestors, or resources that evades them, but limitations imposed by Israel.

In recent days, Israel returned the boats of 21 Gaza fishermen after being ordered by a court to do that, Haaretz reported. But they were missing their motors and nets, so repairs are out of budget and reach for most amid a dire economy and severe restrictions on imports.

According to the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, 95% of Gaza’s fishermen live under the poverty line, and the number of registered fishermen has dropped from 10,000 to just 4,000 over the past decade.

Approximately 200 fishing vessels have fallen out of use entirely due to the lack of funds to repair them, according to the monitor.

Fisherman Moataz Basala, who supports a family of 10, told Asia Times that he and his brothers face regular harassment from the Israeli navy and have suffered damage to their equipment. 

“At the start of the year, the Israeli occupation detained six of my family members and confiscated three of our fishing boats. 

“It comes to a point where fishing isn’t worth the hassle,” he told Asia Times. “Fishermen put their lives on the line, constantly afraid of being shot or arrested or having their boat confiscated and their equipment destroyed.”

Basala says that while he used to be the one selling the fish to consumers, now things have gotten so bad that instead of going out to sea, he buys fish from other merchants and sells them for 20 shekels (less than $6) a day.

A small pond

The head of the Fishermen syndicate in Gaza, Nezar Ayash, told Asia Times: “The policy of shrinking the fishing space in Gaza’s sea is an aggressive one, and an Israeli violation against the fishermen of the strip.”

According to Ayash, yearly catches have dropped a third over the past decade, from 4,000 tons to just 2,800 tons. The average income for a Gaza fisherman is 500 shekels ($130) a month.

Last year, several fishermen were killed in Gaza, and dozens were wounded by gunfire from Israeli naval vessels. Dozens of others have been arrested by Israeli authorities.

The fishermen committee head in Gaza, Zakareya Bakr, told Asia Times: “Spring and summer are the high fishing seasons in Gaza, especially for sardines. This is when fishermen make most of their living and it’s the season they look forward to all year. Israeli authorities purposefully forbid fishermen from going into the water in this time of the year specifically, knowing full well that they are depriving fishermen from their main source of income.”

Israel insists its blockade is necessary for security purposes.

But Bakr insists the Israeli assaults are unwarranted. 

“The Israeli army shoots in the direction of fishermen constantly, which leads to loss of their nets and keeping them away from their place of work and enduring catastrophic losses, in addition to confiscating their boats and arresting them,” he said. 

The Oslo Accords signed between Palestinians and Israelis in 1993 and the economic protocols that followed, grant Gaza fishermen the right to sail 20 nautical miles out to sea, but has never been applied.