Another Front In Mideast Conflict: Fishing Rights In The Mediterranean

Aug 17, 2014
Originally published on August 17, 2014 2:07 pm

Down at the Gaza city harbor, a little after dawn, merchants wait with horses and carts and scales to weigh the morning's catch of fish.

But when they come in, the fish are small and few. One man scoops his catch up by the handful, tiny fish slipping through his fingers. Even the cats look hungry.

One of the merchants, Mohammad Belah, tells me that a few years ago, it wasn't like this.

"A fisherman used to bring 100 or 200 boxes in the past, but now if he's lucky he brings 10 or 20 boxes," he says.

He adds that people like him are hardly able to earn a living, and that the problem is the limits Israel places on Gaza's fishermen.

The tiny strip of land lies along the Mediterranean Sea, but Israel's navy enforces a blockade on Gazan boats that over the years has gradually shrunk and now forbids sailing more than 3 nautical miles from shore.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent arms being shipped to Gaza, or attacks being launched on Israel by sea. Palestinian officials say the blockade is illegal.

Now, after a month of conflict in Gaza, Israelis and Palestinians are using a cease-fire to try to thrash out a peace deal in Cairo. One of the issues at stake is fishing rights in the Mediterranean.

Like most people in Gaza, Belah is watching the talks closely. He calls the militant group Hamas "the resistance."

"I support the resistance," he says, "because the resistance wants us to be free and to live like other nations, and I will be sad if they come back from Cairo talks without bringing any solution for us."

The U.N. says that in 2000, when the boats could go 12 miles out, there were 10,000 fishermen in Gaza. Last year, it counted a third of that number and reckons it's because there are far fewer fish to catch in the restricted zone.

I travel down to the harbor at Rafah in the south, and meet Rashad Farhat, head of the fisherman's syndicate there. In a storeroom surrounded by fishing nets, the thickly bearded 60-year-old says he's been part of this fishing community since he was 14 — but it has changed.

"Some quit, and some are now agricultural workers, but they don't make money; it's like 5 shekels [about $2] an hour," he says.

Farhat says the fishermen are so desperate that they fish during the summer months when they should let the small fish grow, and this overfishing is depleting stocks.

Some analysts, like Mouin Rabbani from the Institute for Palestine Studies, think there is a movement for the sea — and land — blockades of Gaza to end.

"There seems to be a growing realization internationally, including among Israel's key allies in the U.S. and in Europe, that the status quo of basically Gaza being sealed off from the outside world is untenable," he says.

But the talks in Cairo have been going on almost two weeks, and both sides speak of wide gaps in positions. In one month of conflict, Israel lost 64 soldiers, and says it must maintain security measures.

Down on the Rafah beach, Khalil Najjar, a fisherman, is mending his nets. He says at the moment, the Israeli military actually enforces a 500-meter boundary, and has fired warning shots near fishing boats. I ask: What if the peace talks end up with nothing for the fishermen?

"Then the war should continue," he says. "So what? I don't mind if another 2,000 or 3,000 people die. We need our rights."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. After a month of conflict in Gaza, Israelis and Palestinians are using the cease-fire to try to work out a peace deal. One of the issues at stake is fishing rights in the Mediterranean. This might seem like a small thing amid all the bloodshed, but NPR's Alice Fordham in Gaza discovers that for many people there, it means everything. Some would even restarts the war on that issue.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Down at the Gaza city harbor, a little after dawn, merchants wait with weighing scales and horses and carts to buy the morning's catch of fish. But when they come, the fish are small and few. One man scoops his catch-up by the handful, tiny fish slipping through his fingers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATS MEOWING)

FORDHAM: Even the cats look hungry.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The merchants bid for the boxes of fish, sling them on the scales and take them off to market. One of them tells, Mohammad Belah, tells me a few years ago, it wasn't like this.

MOHAMMAD BELAH: (Through translator) Fishermen used to bring 100 to 200 boxes in the past, but now, if he's lucky, he brings 10 or 20 boxes.

FORDHAM: He says people like him are hardly able to earn a living. And that the problem is the limits Israel places on Gaza's fishermen. The tiny strip of land lies along the Mediterranean Sea, but Israel's Navy enforces a blockade on Gazan boats that has gradually reduced over the years and now forbids sailing more than three nautical miles from shore. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent arms being shipped to Gaza or attacks being launched on Israel by sea. Palestinian officials say the blockade is illegal. And they're using the peace talks in Cairo to try to extend the fishing rights. Like most people in Gaza, Belah, the merchant, is watching the talks closely. He calls the militant group Hamas the resistance.

BELAH: (Through translator) I support the resistance because the resistance want us to be free and to live like other nations. I will be sad if they come back from the Cairo talks without bringing any solution for us.

FORDHAM: The U.N. says that in 2000 when the boats could go 12 miles out, there were 10,000 fishermen in Gaza. Last year, it counted a third of that number and reckons it's because there's far fewer fish to catch in the restricted zone.

I travel down to the harbor at Rafah in the South and meet Rashad Farhat, head of the fishermen syndicate there. We sit in a storeroom surrounded by fishing nets. And the thickly bearded 60- year-old says he's been part of this fishing community since he was 14, but it's changed so much.

RASHAD FARHAT: (Through translator) Some quit and some are now agricultural workers, but they don't make money. It's like 5 shekles an hour.

FORDHAM: That's about $2. He says the fishermen are so desperate that they fish during the summer months when they should let the small fish grow and that this overfishing is depleting stocks. Some analysts, like Mouin Rabbani from the Institute for Palestine Studies, think there is a movement for the sea and land blockades of Gaza to end.

MOUIN RABBANI: There seems to be a growing realization internationally, including among Israel's key allies in the U.S. and in Europe, that the status quo of basically Gaza being sealed off from the outside world is untenable. And that unless this is dealt with in some form, not only is the situation within the Gaza strip going to continue to deteriorate particularly in light of the humanitarian catastrophe that Israel has created there during its latest defensive, but also in the longer term.

FORDHAM: But the talks in Cairo had been going on almost two weeks, and both sides speak of wide gaps and positions. In the month of conflict, Israel lost 64 soldiers and says it must maintain security measures.

Down on the beach, I meet Khalil Najjar, a fisherman mending his nets. He says at the moment, the Israeli Army actually enforces a 500 meter boundary and has fired warning shots near fishing boats. I ask what if the peace talks end up with nothing for the fishermen?

KHALIL NAJJAR: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Then the war should continue, he says. So what? I don't mind if another 2,000 or 3,000 people die. We need our rights. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.