When Israel's navy last month expanded the area where Palestinians are allowed to sail off the coast of the Gaza Strip, fishermen hoped for the catch of the decade.
Photographer Jehad Seftawi accompanied some of them on April 3 as they ventured more than six nautical miles off the coast for the first time since 2006.
“The fishermen were feeling excited and curious,” said Seftawi, who works for a Palestinian media nonprofit called the Institute for Middle East Understanding. The sailors held great hopes of becoming active in Gaza’s fish markets again, he said.
Expanding the fishing zone to nine nautical miles should add 400,000 shekels (about $106,000) to the annual revenue of Gaza’s fishing industry, the Israeli military estimates.
Gaza’s 4,000 fishermen, many of whom come from generations of mariners, hope that will bear out. More than half of them currently live below the poverty line.
“We fishermen can’t work in anything but our fishing profession,” Mohamed Nowaije, 28, told Seftawi, according to a transcript of a video the photographer took on the trip. “All our families are fishermen. From fishing, we learn the job of our fathers, and to be with our father and brothers.”
After 18 hours at sea, they returned disappointed. The waters within the nine-nautical mile limit did not prove as fruitful as they had hoped. The new fishing zone extends south of Gaza City, and fishermen say a lot of it too sandy for much fish life. The area quickly became crowded as Gaza’s fishermen, many of whom use large trawlers, vied for space.
“I found nothing on this trip -- three, six and nine miles are all the same,” 32-year-old Raed Abu Owda, who was been working at sea since he was 11, told Seftawi as they sailed back to port. “This space is not enough for thousands of fishermen in Gaza with their boats.”
Neighboring Egypt and Israel tightly restrict the borders of the Gaza Strip, a stretch of land that is about 25 miles long and is run by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
Israel’s military says the blockade is necessary to keep weapons from reaching Hamas, with which it has fought several deadly wars. On Wednesday, Israel and militants in Gaza exchanged fire in the first major violent flare-up since the 2014 war that left over 2,200 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead.
The blockade has exacerbated hardships for the 1.8 million residents of the isolated and war-battered enclave. Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world, and almost 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.
The boundaries of the fishing zone around Gaza have shifted several times in recent years. Under the 1991 Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles off Gaza, but this was never implemented. Since Hamas came to power in 2006, Israel has restricted the zone to between six and three nautical miles at various points.
Israel enforces the fishing limits with force: Palestinian human rights groups say the country detained over 70 fishermen and opened fire on fishing boats more than 100 times last year.
“We sail in the sea to fish for anything we can find,” Nowaije told Seftawi. “If we don’t find anything, we live on the hope of making a living from our fishing in the days to come.”