Majed Fadel Hassan Baker (53) is a fisherman from the Gaza Strip. Having been a fisherman since the age of 10, he has borne witness to the sharp decline of the fishing industry in the Gaza Strip in recent years. Majed’s weathered skin shows evidence of a life outdoors.
Life as a fisherman in the Gaza Strip is one of the most dangerous seafaring jobs in the world. This is not due to adverse weather conditions, or because their catch resides at unreachable depths. The greatest danger for fishermen in Gaza is posed by Israeli gunboats.
The closure of the Gaza Strip has been in effect since the early 1990’s, though has seen a sharp increase since 2007. While trying to provide for their families in the face of great economic turmoil resulting from the Israeli-imposed closure they are often attacked, and harassed, through random acts of violence and acts of vandalism against their boats. Imprisonment is also a concern, even when sailing well within the fishing limits. The Israeli soldiers have a history of destroying fishermen’s boats, and in turn their livelihood, affecting not only the fishermen but also their families who often depend on them as their sole source of income.
After the 2012 November offensive, codenamed ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, one of the terms of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was the extension of the fishing limit from 3 to 6 nautical miles. However, in March 2013 Israel again reduced the fishing area to 3 nautical miles. Regardless of where the boundary is set, Israel continues their attacks on fishing boats deemed to be too close to the limit. “They fire if you come close to the limit,” explains Majed.. Sometimes, even fishing boats that are clearly within the nautical mile limit are attacked. Already constrained by the fluctuating limit, fishermen also face the threat of injury or death as they attempt to make a living.
Majed lost his boat in October 2012, when he set sail to try his luck at catching some fish. “It is hard to find good fish within the limit. Fish only come this close to land when it is time to lay their eggs. Before the closure, when the limit was around 12 miles, we could catch 30-50 kilos of fish every day. Now, I cannot catch enough to cover the cost of fuel for the generator and maintenance for the solar panels. Most of my equipment was designed for deep sea fishing. It is useless at 3 miles.”
“In October, I was sailing with two of my sons within the limit. We were attacked without warning by two Israeli gunboats. They fired at the generator and destroyed it, and then warned us that we were past the limit.” Majed pointed out that they had been within the limit and, moreover, that the Israeli forces had fired upon them before issuing any warning.
The aggression against Majed and his crew did not end after the engine was destroyed: “The soldiers then made us strip and swim to their gunboat. They bound our hands and feet, blindfolded us, and tied us to the boat.” The crew was taken to Israel on the Israeli gunboat, and their fishing boat was towed behind. After a number of hours of detention, the crew was released at Beit Hanoun (‘Erez’) border crossing, where they crossed back into the Gaza Strip.
“Now they want me to pay in transportation costs for them to bring my boat back to Gaza. I am already $5,000 dollars in debt for the engine and solar panels. (Many fishermen in Gaza have installed solar panels, which charge during the day so that they may illuminate the sea at night in the hope of attracting fish) If I don’t pay for my boat to be returned, I will have to buy another one. I don’t have any money. How can I pay? I refuse to pay. They are the ones who did the damage. They are the ones who fired without warning and took my boat. Why should I pay for what they did? They have no right to ask for money.”
It would cost the same to buy a new boat as it would to transport his boat home and repair its engine. However, Majed cannot afford either option. “There is a saying in Gaza: ‘Whatever you take from the sea, the sea takes back from you’. Now, the only way I can make money is if a friend allows me to go with him on his boat to fish but, because there are few fish within the limit, it is not enough. I have 14 people in my family who all look to me to provide for them. How can I?”
Since April 2012 until February of 2103 PCHR has documented 7 cases whereby the Israeli officials have attempted to charge Palestinian fishermen for transportation costs for them to get their boats back. On the 8th of October, one day after the incident the PCHR launched several complaints in regard to this form of extortion, demanding a serious investigation and the returning of the boat. PCHR then received a response saying that an investigation is under way by Israeli officials. On the 23rd of May 2013 PCHR received a response from the Israeli prosecution stating that they are ready to hand over the 7 boats including the one mentioned in the narrative.
The conditions dictate that the owner of the boat must sign a contract that they will not exceed the fishing limits. They also state that the transportation is undertaken by a third party loading company, so the fishermen are responsible for the costs. The boats will also be returned as they were captured, minus the engines as they exceed the Israeli imposed limitation of a 25 horse power engine, so are therefore deemed illegal. Currently the owners of all the boats have refused these conditions as the transportation and cost of a new engine is generally more expensive than buying a new boat altogether.
When asked how he felt after the incident, Majed seemed frail as his eyes began to well: “I was… I am depressed. Fishing is my life. I know nothing else. I have no education and no other skills. I have been fishing since I was 10 years old. Now I live in poverty as I cannot find other work. If the closure carries on and the Israelis keep acting so aggressively, there is no future for me, or the entire fishing industry in Gaza. I want to ask Israel, ‘Why Palestine? We want our freedom and dignity back. Why are you stopping us from doing what we love?””
Majed explains the poverty trap that fishermen are in which, in turn, results in a bleak outlook for the younger generations: “There are not enough fish, so we must take our children out of school to help us fish, as we cannot afford to pay for workers. This means they get no education, which means that they cannot get a good job when they are older.”
Israel’s attacks against Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza Strip, who do not pose any threat to the security of the Israeli naval forces, constitute a flagrant violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. The fishing exclusion zone, maintained through arbitrary arrests and attacks, constitutes a measure of collective punishment, which is prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The right to work, including in just and favourable conditions, is provided for under Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as under Article 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Moreover, Article 11 of the ICESCR recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”