They can silence us.
Put bullets through our hearts
and bury our bodies beneath the ground
so our wounds won't speak.
They can silence the olive trees.
Cut them down
burn their bodies,
until even their smoke recedes.
They cannot silence the sea.
They cannot stop the sea
from sharing our ancestors' history.
They cannot stop the sky
from giving Gaza another sunrise.
— Lina Abojaradeh, from “You cannot silence the sea”
Gaza has a strong potential for exports since it is situated in a prime location near the Suez Canal and in between three continents. However, for the first four years of the siege, Israel completely banned all exports from the Strip, devastating the economy. According to The Majella magazine, prior to the blockade, the textile industry employed 37,000 workers; and yet by 2011, that number had dropped to 1,500. Similarly, the furniture sector employed 12,000 people before 2007, whereas in 2011 employees totalled only 2,500.
Subsequent export allowances to Europe have helped, but by far the biggest demand for Gaza’s products is in the occupied West Bank and Israel.
Meanwhile, Palestinians wanting to access the sea need to request a permit from Israel and those who obtain a permit are restricted in the distance they are allowed to venture from shore. Before Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza, Palestinian fishermen were completely prevented from accessing 85% of the Palestinian maritime areas recognised in the 1994 Gaza Jericho Agreement, and subsequently they were granted access to only 30%, or six nautical miles. As a result, the area near the coast is markedly over-fished.
These restrictions have nearly destroyed the fishing industry. Today there are fewer than 4,000 fishermen in Gaza, as compared to 10,000 back in 2000. Due to the lack of job opportunities in the Strip, many of Gaza’s young fishermen have unrelated university degrees, but the number is still very low as the fishermen work under high personal risk every day while at sea due to Israel’s aggressive policing of the illegal siege.
Indeed, according to a report published by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), from September 2009 until the end of August 2013, Israeli attacks led to the death of two fishermen and the injury of 24 others. Meanwhile, during the same period Israel also arrested 147 fishermen, confiscated 45 fishing boats and destroyed or damaged at least 113 boats, as well as a considerable amount of fishing tools and equipment.
“We were fishing when Israeli boats attacked us and shot at us. We were wounded, and the soldiers made us take off our clothes. They handcuffed us and blindfolded us, and then our boat was tugged to the Israeli port of Ashdod while we were in it.”
— Hassan Mourad, a Palestinian fisherman in Gaza
Israel also regularly targets Gaza’s port when conducting its frequent military campaigns. During the summer 2014 assault on Gaza, Israel destroyed a brand new complex of offices and storage rooms that was donated by Qatar and inaugurated in 2012.
In another episode, The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont describes how Israeli forces bombed four young boys playing on Gaza’s beach, writing that: “In the space of 40 seconds, four boys who had been playing hide and seek among fishermen's shacks on the wall were dead. They were aged between seven and 11; two were named Mohammad, one Zakaria and the youngest Ahed. All were members of the extended Bakr family.”
Israel also destroyed Gaza’s Ark during the 2014 military campaign, a vessel purchased from international donors that was being refurbished by Palestinian workers in the port of Gaza to export Palestinian made goods from the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip with the help of the international community, thus challenging “the blockade from the inside out.”
Since the July 2013 military coup in Egypt, Gaza’s fishermen have also faced pressures from Egyptian forces strictly patrolling the southern borders of the sea.
PCHR reports that altogether about 65,000 persons, including those individuals who work in the fishing industry and their dependents, are currently affected by the “buffer zone” restrictions at sea. According to The Electronic Intifada, the fishermen in Gaza have suffered an 85% loss in income due to Israel’s continued siege. The UN reports that at least 95% of Gaza’s fishermen now receive international aid as a result.
When Israel agreed to once again extend the sea “buzzer zone” to six nautical miles after the summer 2014 military campaign, still far short of the 20 nautical miles agreed in the Gaza Jericho Agreement, many Palestinians expressed a collective sigh of relief. However, one month later a fisherman told The Irish Times that: “For a couple of days, people were happy, because there was so much fish in the market. They assumed we were going farther out, but it was only because no one had fished for two months. Now it’s just like before: there’s not enough fish. The Israelis shot at us two days ago, because we went 10 metres beyond six miles. They escorted us back to the four-mile line.”
As The Guardian notes, the Oslo accords did permit the construction of a seaport in Gaza, in addition to the airport. The newspaper states that: “In the late 1990s, a $73 million contract was signed with European partners. The second intifada put paid to that too, as Israeli tanks and bulldozers razed early work on the site, just south of Gaza City.”
Hamas also demanded for a seaport to be opened for the movement of people and goods during the negotiations to end the summer 2014 military campaign. While today the seaport remains a dream, as always, Palestinians are determined to obtain their rights.