Limited by an Israeli nautical cordon, fishermen catch fewer, smaller fish. Policed by the Israeli navy, every sailing risks their boats, even their lives. And they can’t sell up, because, unsurprisingly, there are no takers
It’s no job for the fearful. The life of a Gazan fisherman isn’t quite the poetic reverie suggested by the picture of sailing off into the Mediterranean Sea early each morning. It’s a life of hard graft – punctuated by the risk of your boat being confiscated or worse: Losing your life to the Israeli gunboats that patrol the water.
The beautiful fishing boats decorated with big white lights inside the Gaza seaport give the impression of content authenticity; you might almost be excused confusing the photogenic fishing boats with a relative degree of prosperity for the fisherman. That’s far from reality.
In Gaza, fishing is a risky business with low financial returns. The small fishing zone Israel allows Gazans to enter doesn’t offer enough fish for an adequate salary, and barely covers the cost of the diesel and oil required for the boats’ engines and generators.
Gaza fishermen’s catch on display on shore. November 2017.
Gaza fishermen’s catch on display on shore. November 2017Mohammed M
You need to be brave to do the job, too. The fishermen must sail towards the outer limits of Gaza’s six-mile fishing zone in the early evening and getting out by dawn and not stay longer or further lest they’re picked up by the Israeli navy patrolling the sea. Even without crossing the sea borders, fishermen are regularly harassed by the Israeli navy.
It’s common to be shot at or arrested by Israeli gunboats when they’re out on the water. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 126 incidents were recorded during the few last years, two of which ended in Mohammed El-Hissi and Muhammad Baker being shot dead.
I met with Othman Ahmed, who used to have a comfortable life as a Gazan fisherman but now wants above all else to get out.
“In the past, everything was different. We could catch dozens of kilos of fish and make a lot of money every night,” Othman told me.
For Othman, there’s never a good fishing day now, not least since Israel decreased the fishing zone around Gaza last year to 6 miles from shore. He and his fellow fishermen mostly catch in those shallower waters, are relatively tiny fish like small sardines that are mostly forbidden to be caught in other countries, to protect the fish lifecycle and maintain a healthy fish population.
Othman used to fish freely wherever and whenever he wanted. He used to cross the Egyptian and Israeli nautical borders, and no navy would stop him.
“When we used to fish up to 12 miles from shore, we could let the small fish survive to catch the bigger fish. Now we even sometimes do not find the small ones,” Othman laughed, wryly.
Despite Othman stating he’d been attacked by water cannon and by live fire several times by the Israeli navy deep in Gazan waters, his boat is still functioning. He’s physically capable of working the boat, together with his assistants, who include four of his sons. But what’s pushing him out of fishing is the amount of diesel it consumes.
As well as its engine, his boat has a big generator producing enough power for searchlights that attract fish around the boat. The diesel of the generator costs between 1500-1700 Israeli shekels ($420-480) per night.
“Sometimes I don’t even catch that much fish to cover the diesel costs, and sometimes diesel companies refuse to fill my generator with oil because I do not pay them regularly,” he said.
Othman’s brother was killed by an Israeli navy cruiser in 2013 when he was fishing close to the outer limit of the fishing zone. His deceased brother’s boat is now being fixed up so other family members can get it back to sea.
Every Gazan dreams of a better future, but Othman’s dream is very specific. “I hope someone rich buys my two boats so I can find another job,” he declares.
“Maybe he’d even can buy me?” he added, his humor tinged with bitterness.
Um Abed’s 55-year-old son, who serves as her caregiver, just had surgery on his foot and couldn’t help her go to the bathroom or change her clothes, so he called me. I knew he needed my help, so I visited their house. (In Palestinian culture, women often are called “Um”—mother—and then the name of their oldest son.)
This wasn’t the first time I had dropped by to see the refugee family, but this visit was different. I entered the home that was empty of kids’ screams, unlike other Palestinian families who have a lot of children living in one house. Abed, her son, was lying on his bed moaning with pain, but he smiled when he saw I came. His wife was busy baking bread and didn’t have time even to say hi; she wanted was rushing to finish baking before the power shut off.
Abed asked me to see what his mom needed, so I went to her room. She was holding onto her walker while sitting on the edge of her bed. Silence filled that room. She seemed deep in thought, with no one to share what occupied her.
Although she didn’t know me well, she asked me to come and sit in front of her.
“I came here to see how I can help you, my grandma.” I said. (We Palestinians call all elderly ladies grandma and old men grandpa.)
She thought before replying, then said, “I want someone to talk to!”
I had never asked about her age, but I know she has lived in this home since before my own father was born. And during the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, she refused to leave—even when all of the other residents in the area evacuated out of fear of being bombed.
I looked at her face full of wrinkles, where I could read the history of Palestine and the Nakba (meaning catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes to make way for the creation of Israel, in 1948). I looked at her fallahi (peasant) dress, reflecting the Palestinian traditions and customs.
Then I asked her—just how old is she? Um Abed responded that she had never known her exact age. However, based on the history of Palestine, I guess that she is more than 107 years old. I wanted to ask her son, but I felt it was not a good time since he was in pain. I also knew Um Abed was not educated—she had probably attended only elementary school. But she is smart in the ways that count. Then Um Abed began to talk.
“I was raised in Bayt Daras town, and my husband married me because I was the most beautiful girl in town,” she recounted.
Bayt Daras was a Palestinian town located 32 kilometers northeast of the Gaza Strip, which was ethnically cleansed during the Nakba. Um Abed was born during the Ottoman era, before the First World War. She told me her father was the most well-known villager in the town—a man rich in land—and she was very proud of him.
“But sadly, we were forced by Israeli troops to leave our home during the Nakba,” she said. “The first day we left our home, it was like the Day of Judgment. I held my first son (who now is deceased) while we escaped, but he fell from my hands!”
Her infant son was lost during the evacuation for several hours. Fortunately, she found him crying among some cacti and other plants. “I was crying when I lost him…I was crying when I found him,” she recalled
Her family didn’t know where they were heading, but they ended up settling in the Gaza Strip. Um Abed’s family hoped, however, that they would return to Bayt Daras after the catastrophe’s end.
“My father refused to stay in a refugee camp because he knew we would go back to our home and farm after the end of the war,” Um Abed explained. Of course, they were never allowed to return.
I asked if she still has the key to her old home and she said she does, but it’s hidden away in an old box. Silence filled the room.
“All of this happened because of November 2nd!” she suddenly said.
I was surprised, since not everyone knows this date. The “Balfour declaration?” I asked.
Answering with a yes, Um Abed said she remembers hearing villagers talk about the declaration in the roads, farms, mosques and markets.
“Everyone was angry, but we were weak,” she sighed.
This declaration was a statement made in a letter dated November 2, 1917, from the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a representative of the British Jewish community. It was published in the media seven days later.
The British began to consider what to do about the future of Palestine, which it controlled, immediately following their declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914. What would become World War I had reached a stalemate, with two of Britain’s allies (the United States and Russia) not yet fully engaged. The UK needed broader support, and the Jewish community was large. On February 7, 1917, the UK’s Sir Mark Sykes met with the Jewish Zionist leadership. This and other discussions led to Balfour’s request, on June 19, that a draft declaration be prepared with an agreement to cooperate. The document, promising a Jewish homeland on Palestinian land, was discussed by the British Cabinet during September and October of that year, with input from the Jewish community but no representation from the Palestinians.
Specifically, the letter read:
“His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” [Note the part I bolded; that clearly has been violated many times over!]
“Once we heard about the declaration, we knew the future of Palestine and the Palestinians was in danger,” Um Abed so softy I could barely hear her. She couldn’t say more without crying. I muttered that one day she will go back and have a look at her old home. I didn’t know what else to say, but did I really believe it? I don’t know.
Um Abed’s generation is dying off, but her son and all of the rest of the children who followed have not forgotten. They will share these memories with their children. They have a right to return to their villages and farms. They still have the keys. And they will pass them from one generation to the other. And although I am a native of Gaza, their story is still, in essence, my story. All Palestinians are refugees in the truest sense of the word, until we have equal rights and independence.