Amid Israeli Blockade on Gaza, a Fishing Fleet Limps Along

GAZA CITY, Gaza — Not far from the edge of the port in the Gaza Strip is its ship graveyard: two rows of stranded fishing boats that even Gaza’s ingenuity cannot save.

Engines and propellers have been removed. The once-shiny blue, green and yellow paint on more than two dozen fishing boats is peeling. The fiberglass of some seems to have eaten away.

The ships began piling up in Gaza 15 years ago after Israel, with the help of Egypt, imposed a land, air and sea blockade on the small Palestinian coastal enclave in 2007. The blockade severely restricts the movement of Gazans out of Gaza. of the strip and limits imports or prohibits them altogether, including medical equipment and construction material.

For Gaza’s fishermen, the blockade has prevented them from buying engines, propellers, fiberglass and many other items needed to repair boats and keep a fishing fleet running. It has damaged a vital but dwindling part of the strip economy while limiting the supply of a significant but increasingly unaffordable part of the local diet.

Repairs and maintenance that were once easy and affordable became too expensive or scarce, causing some fishermen to simply give up and dump their unsalvageable boats in the graveyard.

“This is a war against our livelihood,” said Miflih Abu Rial, a fisherman and fishermen’s union official, standing on the bow of one of his family’s boats, which has been sitting in the graveyard for years.

Gaza and industry officials warn that if Israeli restrictions are not eased, the strip’s fishing sector could completely collapse in the coming years as more and more boats are withdrawn from service.

Israel says the blockade and restrictions are for its security and are intended to prevent Hamas, which controls Gaza, and other militant groups from using “dual-use” items, items that Israel says can be used for both civilian and military purposes. military.

“Some items serving the fishing industry are defined as dual-use materials,” the Civil Administration, the Israeli authority that carries out civilian policy in the occupied territories under the command of the armed forces, said in a statement.

Israel’s blockade has devastated the Gaza economy, where poverty is widespread and unemployment hovers at 50 percent. Palestinian officials and human rights groups have long argued that the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s two million residents in the densely populated enclave.

“The fishing sector is now running at 50 percent capacity and every day it is declining,” said Jehad Salah, head of the Gaza fisheries directorate. “When they ban equipment needed for maintenance, they are forcing people out of this industry.”

A program initiated by the United Nations to allow the shipment of maintenance and repair materials has finally been launched after months of negotiations, a UN official said.

The agreement allows individual fishermen to place orders for dual-use materials needed to repair their boats. Each request must be approved by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. Once approved, the fishermen can place the order, and the United Nations will oversee the importation and distribution of the materials.

Only a few dozen have had their orders approved so far.

On November 13, the first batch of materials entered Gaza, the first since 2007, a shipment that included 500 pounds of fiberglass, 1,100 pounds of polyester resin, and a total of 70 pounds of blue, white, and yellow paint.

Next month, motors will be allowed in, Salah said. He added that he was withholding judgment on the show’s success.

The Israeli civil administration said the materials will be brought in under strict security and supervision.

For the fishermen in Gaza, the negative effect of the blockade is manifold. In addition to limits on the entry of goods, the naval blockade restricts how far into the Mediterranean fishermen can go, and therefore how much and what type of fish they can catch.

Fishermen risk being shot and detained by the Israeli coast guard or having their boats confiscated if they get too close to the limits of permitted fishing zones. There have been more than 300 episodes of shootings this year, according to the United Nations, with 14 fishermen injured. At least 47 have been detained by Israel.

With little relief from the blockade, Gaza’s ships hobble along, semi-functioning thanks to a mix of used parts salvaged from other ships, modified car and truck parts not made to be in the salty sea, and the occasional contraband item. But the black market mostly dried up after Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on smuggling tunnels between his country and Gaza.

In June 2016, the brothers of Mr. Abu Rial, the fisherman, were on one of the eight boats owned by his family when he was captured at sea by Israeli forces. The ship was returned to them almost two years later, but required extensive repairs to bring it back to seaworthy condition. The relatives did not have the money nor could they find the necessary parts, so the boat was deposited in the cemetery.

Now Mr. Abu Rial, 44, a third-generation fisherman, uses another aging boat with an engine that has been on its last legs for the past two years. Sometimes the mechanic has to fix it three times a week. Other times, Mr. Abu Rial goes weeks without fishing because the motor doesn’t work.

Recently, he had to sell some of his wife’s gold jewelry to pay the bills.

“After I fix the engine, I just pray it lasts a week or even a day,” he said, standing outside his family’s warehouse at the port. Inside, the walls are covered with graffiti scrawled by his children, who from time to time visit the port to start the family business. A rusty refrigerator placed on its back is filled with old and spare boat parts.

Further down the harbor, along a breakwater built from the rubble of previous wars in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, Methat’s ship Redwan Bakir has been moored for years.

“The Israelis took it for three years and returned it to me without nets, without motor and without lights,” he said. “He hasn’t moved since he came back.”

Mr. Bakir’s brother and 11 other fishermen were on the boat in 2016 along the northern fishing limit when they were fired upon by the Israeli coast guard, which also fired water cannons at the boat, he said. The boat was confiscated and the 12 crew members arrested. Ten of them were released the next day and Mr. Bakir’s brother was detained for 18 days before being released. Another man was jailed for five years.

For decades, the boat supported five families who could earn up to $1,000 a day fishing.

Bakir, 57, the father of four daughters, would have cost several thousand dollars to fix. So he tied him up and left him.

In the murky green waters nearby, Mr. Bakir watched as a group of young men learned their trade, worked to untangle fishing nets, and prepared to head out to sea. But it is not clear how long this industry can survive here.

Now, Mr. Bakir sets out in a 20-foot-long flat-bottomed boat with a 20-year-old engine that breaks down as often as it runs. And instead of using nets, he relies on a rudimentary combination of equipment: fishing rods, plastic bottles, and multiple baits.

On the sand next to his boat lies a small banner from a past solidarity protest: “Long live Palestine,” it says, and “End the occupation.”

With a dwindling number of working motors in Gaza, an increasing number of fishermen use paddle boards to continue their trade. On any given morning, men can be seen standing on wide two-person boards, laden with nets, heading out to sea.

“Stand-up paddle boarding is something new, but it is very dangerous,” said Mr. Salah, director of fisheries.

Ashraf Al-Aawoo, 47, had been using a paddle board for months after his boat broke down.

But one spring day he and a companion found plenty of fish. The net was filled with fish, but the paddle board could not support the weight and sank.

Mr. Al-Aawoo, deeply tanned from a lifetime in the water and in the sun, had to swim more than a mile back to shore with his fellow fishermen.

The Gaza coast guard pulled the paddle board out of the water.

Even if he had the money to repair it, there is no fiberglass in Gaza to buy, Al-Aawoo said.

Frustrated, he dragged the plank from the sandy shore to the harbor entrance and left it on the roadside as a statement, a single burial ground for another ship from Gaza.