Mel Frykberg
The Christian Science Monitor
July 1, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel's naval blockade of the waters off Gaza – part of a wider Israeli effort to seal off the tiny coastal strip controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas – is devastating a key Gazan industry and source of food: fishing.

Citing security concerns and fears of arms smuggling, Israel has progressively tightened the blockade over the past 15 years to a zone that today extends only three nautical miles (NM) from shore. Once a thriving enterprise, Gaza’s fishing industry is now on the verge of collapse. Fishermen are cut off from the heavily populated shoals, and have seen total catch and total revenue drop by rougly half in less than a decade.

Mohammed Hassuna of the southern Gaza city of Rafah was recently arrested by the Israeli Navy even though he says he was within the 3-NM zone. Most boats are fitted with GPS to ensure they stay within the zone.

"We were suddenly surrounded by gunboats and naval boats. They started shooting at us and around us. I was very scared," says Mr. Hassuna.

Hassuna says that and his crew were forced to strip down to their underwear and swim in frigid water to the navy gunboat where they were handcuffed, blindfolded, and their feet chained.

"They took us back to Ashdod port and we were kept like this for the entire day and not allowed toilet facilities or given any food," says Hassuna.

Eventually Hassuna, a father of five, and his crew were released but his boat had not been returned a week later when interviewed by the Monitor.

"I don't know how I will support my family now," says Hassuna. Other fishermen in a similar predicament have had to take legal action to get their boats back but most can't afford this.

Israeli rights group B'Tselem released a report about the continual shooting at, abuse of, and humiliation of Palestinian fishermen and challenged the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) over the issue.

The IDF responded that their actions were in the name of security only. But human rights organizations argue that Israel is collectively punishing Gaza's civilian population as a means of pressuring its Hamas leadership.

"A balance between security and the humanitarian situation has to be established," says Mike Bailey of Oxfam, which helps Gazan fishermen and farmers with short-term employment relief.


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