HUFFINGTON POST

A Night At Sea With The Fishermen Of Gaza

Israel has expanded Palestinians' permitted fishing zone, raising hopes for the poverty-stricken mariners.
Palestinian fisherman Mohammed Abu Owda prepares to lift fishing nets with the ship's levers on April 3. Photo
Palestinian fisherman Mohammed Abu Owda prepares to lift fishing nets with the ship's levers on April 3. Photographer Jehad Seftawi accompanied him and his brother Raed on their father's boat.

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.”

Palestinian fishermen organize their fishing net to make sure that nothing is stuck in it before they throw it back to the se
Palestinian fishermen organize their fishing net to make sure that nothing is stuck in it before they throw it back to the sea. It was the first night of fishing after Israel expanded the permitted fishing zone beyond six nautical miles since 2006.

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

Palestinian fishermen opening their fishing net in the early morning on the deck of the ship. They returned to shore disappoi
Palestinian fishermen opening their fishing net in the early morning on the deck of the ship. They returned to shore disappointed with the catch, as the new fishing zone did not live up to their hopes.

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.”

Raed Abu Owda prepares to lift the fishing nets with the levers of the ship. 
Raed Abu Owda prepares to lift the fishing nets with the levers of the ship. 
Palestinian fisherman Mohamed Nowaije collects crabs in the early morning on the deck of the ship. 
Palestinian fisherman Mohamed Nowaije collects crabs in the early morning on the deck of the ship. 
Palestinian fisherman pull out fishing nets using mechanical levers.
Palestinian fisherman pull out fishing nets using mechanical levers.
Palestinian fishermen collect and sort fish during the night on the ‪‎Gaza‬ seas.
Palestinian fishermen collect and sort fish during the night on the ‪‎Gaza‬ seas.
Mohammed Abu Owda collects useful materials from a broken fishing net they found in the Gaza sea.
Mohammed Abu Owda collects useful materials from a broken fishing net they found in the Gaza sea.
Mohamed Nowaije collects fish on the ship while out at sea.
Mohamed Nowaije collects fish on the ship while out at sea.
The fishermen collect and sort fish on the deck of their ship while at‪‬ sea.
The fishermen collect and sort fish on the deck of their ship while at‪‬ sea.
Palestinian fishermen take a rest while the captain of the ship, Raed Abu Owda, tells stories about his experiences
Palestinian fishermen take a rest while the captain of the ship, Raed Abu Owda, tells stories about his experiences on Gaza's seas.
Mohammed Abu Owda takes a rest in the captain's cabin at midnight before they lift the nets again.
Mohammed Abu Owda takes a rest in the captain's cabin at midnight before they lift the nets again.
Palestinian fishermen sail around their fishing nets to protect them from other ships.
Palestinian fishermen sail around their fishing nets to protect them from other ships.
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