Abeer Ayyoub
December 3, 2012 - 1:00am

Sardines, shrimps, guitarfish and crabs were on display throughout the crowded fish market overlooking the Gaza seaport. "Local and fresh," a man hollered, before being interrupted by a customer asking about shrimp.

Mushtaq Zidan, a fisherman and trader for more than 30 years, was clearly excited with the new phase the fish market is witnessing. "The six-mile [zone] can't even be compared to the three miles," he said, referring to the new fishing limit settled upon last week following the cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza. "Although everything is more expensive now that the market is flourishing," he added.

Since 2007 - when Hamas took over Gaza by force, a year after it captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit - Gaza fishermen were unable to venture more than three miles into the sea. Consequently, Gaza fish traders could only get around 20 percent of their wares from local fisherman, and found themselves forced to import most of their fish from Egypt.

Zidan said that he stopped working during this period, except for the very small quantity he used to fish for himself. "I have customers who have been dealing with me for more than 25 years. I can't give them a lower-quality [product] than the one they used to get from me," he explained.

In his opinion, Egyptian fish don't even compare with locally-caught ones in terms of freshness.

A few meters behind the market, in a very different atmosphere, Tareq Kaskeen was pulling his 10 fishing nets into his boat at the seaport. "This is all I got today," he said disappointedly, pointing at the only guitarfish he had caught. He said he would take it home to have for dinner with his family, instead of selling it. "I saw a big shoal of guitarfish, but when I wanted to get closer, Israeli gunships started firing warning shots in the air," he related.

While he belongs to a family in which everyone fishes for a living, Kaskeen said his brother abandoned fishing when Israel started imposing limitations on the number of nautical miles fishermen can venture off the coast. "He found a job in UNRWA where he can feed his sons better," he noted.

Kaskeen was not the only pessimistic person around. Khaleel Abu Sam'aan, a fish trader, shared his disappointment. "Before the six-mile limit, we used to buy fish from Egyptian fishermen in large quantities at a low price, but no more. Now we have to buy from the local fishermen - a small quantity for a very high price," he said.

Kaskeen said he believes the fishing might only stay this good for a week or so, before the fish stocks within the six-mile zone are depleted. "Only a 20-mile zone will make a real difference," he said.

Meanwhile, despite the cease-fire, the Israel Navy has been arresting fishermen. On Thursday, Israel arrested two fishermen and towed their boat to Ashdod. A day earlier, it arrested five fishermen at sea. Four of them were released shortly after, while the fifth, Mohammad al-Hessy, was detained in Ashdod.

Al-Hessy later related that he and his four colleagues were forced by soldiers to strip down to their underwear before being arrested. "They confiscated my boat, took my cell phone, blindfolded me and tied my hands together until we reached Ashdod," he said. He was released the same day and returned to Gaza through the Erez checkpoint, but still has not got his boat back.

IDF sources confirmed that the arrests took place, adding that the equipment would be returned to the fishermen in the coming days.

The IDF Spokesman's Office responded that "The Navy continues to protect Israel's naval borders. Boats that exceed the area allowed for sailing are dealt with by naval forces in accordance with procedures."

Nizar Ayyash, head of the fishermen's union in Gaza, said the arrests were the result of the fact that Gaza fishermen are not equipped with modern navigational equipment that can accurately measure the distance from the coast, and have no way of knowing when they cross the six-mile line.

"Israel can still force them to turn back, without arresting them," he said.

The borders of the fishing zone have changed a number of times since the signing of the Oslo Accords, which set the zone's limits at 20 nautical miles. Over the years, however, Israel has tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, fishermen have only been allowed to venture out to a maximum of about three nautical miles.

Fishermen from Gaza often receive the support of international volunteers, who accompany them on their fishing trips. Rosa Schiano of the International Solidarity Movement said that she accompanies the fishermen even after the limit was raised. "Six miles is better, but it's still not enough," she said. "The Oslo agreement set the number at 20 nautical miles and fishermen have the right to this. They need to feed their families at least."

While the fortunes of Gaza's fishing industry have risen and fallen over the years, its fishermen are loath to leave the profession. "Fishing is all we can do," said one. "Just like a fish, if I leave the sea, I'll no longer be able to live."


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