On a wintry morning in November last year, Ramez Bakr stood gazing out at the sea from a pier along Gaza's coast. His red-and-white keffiyeh bounced in the wind as he toyed with a string of prayer beads in his hand.
The pier is located a few hundred yards away from where Gazan fishermen sell their latest catch. Another 300 hundred yards farther on is Bakr’s home. He used to sail out daily with his two sons to comb the seas for fish. That was before the Israeli navy confiscated his two boats.
Over the years, fewer and fewer fishermen have been throwing their nets into Gaza’s waters, both because of restrictions that limit their activity to only a few nautical miles off the coast and because of the harassment, or loss of property, they face even when they play by the rules.
In principle, under the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in 1993, Palestinians can fish up to 20 miles off the coast. But in 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza, Israel imposed a land, air, and sea blockade and a blanket three-mile limit within which fishers could realistically haul in only stray sardines. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the policy has not only led to decreased fishing revenues but also depleted the amount of available fish. Only a year after the blockade, sardine catches had already fallen by 90 percent. After the latest cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, the fishing limit was extended to six nautical miles. However, an extra three miles is still far from enough for fishermen to make a living.
As a result, thousands have abandoned the industry. The number of people making their livelihood from the sea has fallen from 10,000 in 2000 to 3,097 in 2011. Given the limited supply, the demand for fish is high, but the fishermen are able to meet only about 20 percent of the needs of the 1.8 million Palestinian people.
THE SWIMMING PROCEDURE
Bakr sometimes tested his luck and ventured out past the six-mile limit in order to make a better and larger catch. Although he often monitored how far he went with the boat’s built-in GPS, and paid attention to the buoys placed by the Israeli navy, he knew that his best chance of making a living was at least ten miles away from the coast.
But that was how Bakr lost his two boats. They were confiscated the summer after the offensive. Some fishermen endure far worse. According to United Nations data from 2013, between June 2007 and July 2013, five Palestinian fishermen were killed for sailing out too far. And since the end of the conflict in late August 2014, Gaza's fishermen have faced a steadily increasing number of attacks from the Israeli navy. Oxfam noted that there were 77 reported incidents between early December 2014 and early February 2015, which averages more than one attack per day.
Over the past few years, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has collected dozens of testimonies from fishermen detailing abuse by the Israeli navy, particularly through a humiliating ritual called the “swimming procedure,” which B’Tselem described in a press release:
[The] fishermen were compelled to undress at gunpoint and swim from their boat to a navy craft, regardless of weather conditions. The fishermen were then brought aboard and taken to the port at Ashdod, inside Israel. The fishing boats were seized and towed away. At the Ashdod port, the fishermen were taken blindfolded and handcuffed to interrogation, and later returned to Gaza via the Erez checkpoint. Based on fishermen’s testimonies and data from their boats' GPS, some were apprehended this way even without having strayed beyond the military’s designated fishing limits.
A LUXURY PASTIME
Life had not always been this difficult for Bakr and his fellow seamen. The Bakr family once had a relatively stable, although humble, income. But now that Bakr no longer has boats of his own, to provide for his wife and six children, he has to buy and resell fish from the port. The prices are high; the price of sardines rose from about $2.50 per kilo in 2008 to $5.00 per kilo in 2012. But there aren’t that many on offer.
Every morning Bakr visits the fish auction, which begins at five o’clock after the boats are unloaded, except when the weather is too formidable for the fishermen to go to sea. It was there that I met Abu Khalil Owaida, a seaman with characteristically dry and weathered skin. He is one of the few still trying to make a living fishing from Gaza’s troubled seas.
In his late 50s, Owaida owns six vessels and employs several men, including his sons. But it seems unlikely that the trade will survive long enough for Owaida’s sons to take over the business. All sorts of obstacles—from fishing limits, to the general blockade, to the cost of upkeep—have turned fishing into an unsustainable line of work.
Every month, boat owners spend thousands of dollars replacing damaged gear, providing salaries to other fishermen, buying generators, maintaining the boat, and, of course, purchasing costly fuel. Strangled by the restrictions, fishing is increasingly becoming a luxury pastime.
The price of fuel is but one example of the inflated prices that Palestinians must put up with. In Palestine, a liter of gasoline is around $2.43. In Israel, the price is $1.79 per liter.
Given the cost of doing business, the margin of profit is usually fairly meager for fishermen.
“There is no way of improving our situation with these restrictions,” Owaida told me. “Every time we go to sea we spend at least $300 on fuel, manpower, as well as damaged gear and fish nets, and too many days we end up with only $100 worth of fish. Not only do we not make enough, but we also lose a lot of money.”
On top of the blockades, business has been hurt from consecutive rounds of war.
The boats sat unused in the port for almost two months during the summer offensive. No fisherman could venture out into the sea because it was packed with Israeli war vessels firing into Gaza. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says that fishermen lost around $3 million in revenue at that time, which amounts to 300 to 400 tons of fish.
“During the last war, we lost a lot in land and at sea,” Owaida lamented. “Our fishing material was almost all destroyed, as well as our jeeps. The damage was so great that I can't even account for the extent of all the financial losses.”
BEYOND THE BOATS
Even though Bakr can extract some income from the resale of fish, he is often forced to rely on the goodwill of family and friends. Lately, the only food that could be found in his kitchen was flatbread, which his wife bakes in a little electric oven, along with olive oil, sugar, and mint for tea.
Around half of all Gaza’s fishermen, who already experience high levels of food insecurity, depend entirely on the biannual sardine season for their income. The UN estimates that the fishing restrictions have reduced the volume of catch by about 1,300 metric tons between 2000 and 2012. Between 2009 and 2011, the average catch was 437 tons, but before the three-mile limit was imposed, the average was 1,817 tons. Further, in recent years, the sardine catch has declined in quality, consisting of undersized, juvenile fish. No wonder that, according to a 2011 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, poverty has risen 50 percent among Gaza’s fishermen. Close to 90 percent of them are either considered poor, earning $100 to $190 per month, or very poor, making less than $100 a month.
Still, for Bakr, losing his boats—and, with that, most of his family's income and his way of life—was the least of his losses. At the height of the offensive last summer, his 11-year-old son, Mohamed, was struck by an Israeli drone missile as he was playing football on the beach. Three of his nephews were killed too. “The problem are not the boats,” Bakr told me, still grieving. “What is terrible about the occupation is the killing of the children. The boats we can recover, but the children, no.”
The Israeli army claims the death of the four boys was a tragic mistake and that its own investigation of the incident found no wrongdoing. Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, wrote on his official Facebook page on June 11 of this year that “the incident took place in an area that had long been known as a compound belonging to Hamas’s Naval Police and Naval Force (including naval commandos), and which was utilized exclusively by militants.”
A few of the journalists who witnessed the deaths and surveyed the structures around which the children were killed dispute the allegations and say there were no militants hiding in the buildings at that time.
Bakr’s eldest son, Sayed, 13, survived the attack but was only yards away when his brother and cousins were struck by the missile. He saw everything and was seriously injured himself. Sayed sometimes plays with his siblings but most of the time is trapped in a deep state of grief. The boy hardly eats or speaks, and he stopped attending school.
As Bakr held his newborn, who arrived the day before Mohamed had died, and kissed the boy beneath a portrait of Mohamed, it seemed that I was seeing the last of Gaza’s seamen. Along with the rest of the population, they are increasingly bound by land, waiting for a political solution or just the next war.
VIOLETA MOURA is a photojournalist from Portugal. Her work includes photo essays and written pieces on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as of Portugal's economic crisis.