Narratives: "I risk my life when I go fishing, but what choice do I have?"

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Mahmoud Mohammed Jarboa (52) is a fisherman from Beach Camp, Gaza City, and a father of ten children, seven sons and three daughters. Mahmoud relies on the income he and his sons make from fishing to support 21 dependents. For many years, Mahmoud has suffered from the restrictions placed on access to the Palestinian territorial waters off the coast of the Gaza Strip.

In the years since 1994, the area in which Israel allows Palestinian fishermen to fish has been gradually reduced from the 20 nautical miles provided for under the Oslo Accords to 3 nautical miles in 2009 as part of a naval blockade imposed through the use of live fire, harassment, and unlawful arrests and arbitrary detention. The severely limited fishing area, combined with a near total ban on exports, has brought Gaza’s fishing industry to the brink of collapse, bringing the number of working fishermen from approximately 10,000 in 1999 to less than 3,200 today.

Under the November 2012 ceasefire between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, the fishing limit was supposedly extended to six nautical miles. Fishermen began to sail further out to sea, resulting in somewhat greater yields of fish. However, attacks against fishermen continued, even within the previous three mile limit. Between 22 November 2012 and 28 February 2013, there have been 41 shooting incidents, resulting in 4 injuries. In addition, 42 fishermen have been detained in 11 arrest incidents. Furthermore, 8 boats have been damaged, and 8 boats have been confiscated.

In an online statement on 25 February 2013 the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) declared that fishermen could now access the sea up to six nautical miles offshore, and that farmers could now access lands in the border area up to 100m from the border fence. However, both references have since been removed from the statement.[1]

On 21 February 2013, Mahmoud’s son, Abdel Raziq (16), was fishing with four other men when Israeli forces attacked them within 3 nautical miles of the Gaza Strip. Abdel Raziq describes the events of that day: “I got up at 6 in the morning and we sailed out to sea at 7.30. Four of my friends and relatives –Mustafa, Hanafi, Abdullah, and Mahmoud – were with me. Just after we had breakfast at around 11 o’clock, two Israeli gunboats surrounded our boat and began shooting straight away. They did not give any warning before they started firing. Yelling at us in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew, they ordered us to strip off our clothes and jump into the water, but we refused. We knew they wanted to arrest us and take us to Ashdod in Israel. The soldiers kept firing in our direction. Some of the bullets struck the side of the boat, and shrapnel hit me in my right shin. My cousin, Abdullah, was also injured in his left ankle. We were both in a lot of pain.”

The injured man’s brother, Mustafa, acted quickly, as Abdel Raziq explains: “My brother, Mustafa, threw himself towards me and lifted me up so that the Israeli soldiers could see the blood. He cried out to the soldiers, “Look at him! He is bleeding!” One of the soldiers started shouting at another, I think it was the captain. They began arguing, so we took the chance to turn our boat around and sail away. We were afraid and we wanted to escape.”

When the fishermen reached the shore, they immediately brought the two injured men to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. The doctor who examined Abdel Raziq advised him that the piece of shrapnel was located between two arteries in his shin. “He told me that there was a risk he would cut one of the arteries if he tried to remove the shrapnel. He said it was better to leave it there, and that it would come out by itself. It has been nearly four weeks, and the shrapnel is still there. It does not hurt too much, but if there is any pressure on it, it is painful.”

Abdel Raziq only began fishing with his family around five months ago, and it was the first time that he was on a boat when it was attacked by Israeli forces. “I had never experienced this before, but I was not surprised. I was expecting it to happen someday. My father and brothers have been attacked many times before. Sometimes, they were forced to jump naked into the sea in the middle of winter, when it was cold and raining. They have suffered a lot.”

Abdel Raziq’s older brother, Mohammed (22), was killed in January 2009 after he was attacked at sea. On 17 January 2009, Israeli gunboats fired at 3 Palestinian fishermen who were fishing off the coast of the al-Sudaniya area. His father explains what happened: “Mohammed was 22 years old when he was killed. He was fishing at sea when Israeli soldiers shot at him. He was injured in his head and in both of his legs. He lay in hospital for eight days, but he died on 25 January 2009. Two days before Mohammed died, my wife discovered that she was pregnant. When the baby was born, we named him Mohammed, after his older brother who had died. God gives and God takes away.”

Whether the limit is set at 3 or 6 nautical miles makes little difference to Mahmoud. “It is the same. There is a lot of sand in those shallow waters. We need to go to 15 or 16 miles at least, where there are rocks. Many more types of fish live there and lay their eggs. This will benefit all fishermen in Gaza. At the moment, we are not sure where we can go. The Israeli soldiers do not apply the limit in a straight line, so you can easily go beyond it without knowing. When we try to fish, the Israeli soldiers chase us and shoot at us without warning. One of my sons has been killed and two others injured. Sometimes we are arrested, detained, and our boats are taken away for up to two years or more. I have no other source of income, and I have 21 people to feed. I know that I risk my life when I go fishing, but what other choice do I have?”

Mahmoud believes that the only hope for his family’s future is for the naval blockade to be lifted. “I need the Israelis to open the sea so I can go fishing. I hope for my children and grandchildren to have the life I used to have before the blockade. Then, everything was open – the borders and the sea – and fishermen could make a good living. People even went fishing for fun. We used to eat from the fish I had caught. Now, I catch barely enough to sell for income. My four-month-old granddaughter is sick and needs to see a doctor, but I cannot afford it. When I look at her, I feel helpless and I start to cry. I can barely feed my family. I can stand going without food, but the children cannot.”

Abdel Raziq has not returned to sea since the attack. “For now, I just go to the port to look after our boat. It has many holes in it since the shooting, and will cost 600-700 shekels to repair. We cannot afford to fix it. I will start to fish again when I am fully recovered. I have no other work, and I love fishing.” But his son’s return to fishing will be a source of anxiety for Mahmoud. “The only thing we are looking for, besides a good life, is security. I feel afraid when my sons go fishing. I am afraid every minute of every day that they are away, I am afraid that I will not see them again. My hope is for a secure life for every fisherman and for every Palestinian.”

Israel’s attacks against Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip, who do not pose any threat to the security of the Israeli naval forces, constitute a flagrant violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. The fishing exclusion zone, maintained through arbitrary arrests and attacks, constitutes a measure of collective punishment, which is prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The right to work, including in just and favourable conditions, is provided for under Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as under Article 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Moreover, Article 11 of the ICESCR recognises "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions."

[1] Nonetheless, the COGAT Monthly Report for November 2012 still states: “Following operation "Pillar of Defense" (November 14-21), a ceasefire was agreed upon; as a part of it and [sic] the fishing area in Gaza was increased from 3 miles to 6.”