Gaza Is a Battleground for Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli Fish

I am going to try to keep this blog post just about fish.

When I was in Gaza in the summer of 2009, my parents took my fiance-at-the-time and me to a fish restaurant on the outskirts of Gaza City. My family home did not have power then, and my mom could not serve anything in the dark. My father, bored at the time, suggested to treat us to a fish dinner at Al Hindy restaurant in the middle of the affluent Al-Nasir neighborhood. Knowing my fiance's expensive taste, I thought this place might stink.

CHECK. The place did stink, in a good way as the fish aromas filled the little shop from all the grilling outside. As we arrived they escorted us into the family section of the restaurant, and my father asked the chef to make this a dazzling meal. Hearty Shrimp soup followed, warm bread rolls and a local fresh salad. Then came a popular Gazan seafood dish: tomato chilli pepper mixed with lots of small shrimp stewed to perfection. Frankly, I was surprised by how delicious the dinner was. I did not realize that many of those top Gazan chefs who used to cook in five-star Israeli restaurants and hotels are no longer able to cook for their affluent Israeli cumstomers. So instead, those chefs are now cooking for the spoiled minority in Gaza.

That was a dinner for the ages, and my fiance and I talked about it and reminded my father of how great the food was later that night. I think the check added up to about 30 dollars per person, a reasonable price in the States, but an obnoxious one in Gaza which was under a vacuum-sealed siege at the time. The restaurant had many offerings that I did not think came from the local seashore: crabs, jumbo shrimp and lobsters, among many others. I was bewildered by all the variety the Al Hindi restaurant was able to offer then.

A few days later, I learned that fish had jumped to the top of the list among the smuggled items that tunnel operators bring in from Egypt, which has impressive shores on both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Sardines are the first things that come to the minds of many Gazans when they think fresh seafood, as it's an affordable and abundant seafood for most of Gaza's middle class families.

Most of Gaza's fishermen will complain about the restrictions in the Gaza sea. They are currently only allowed to fish about three miles away from shore, though according to previous treaties, Gazan fishermen should be allowed to go up to 12 miles in the water. Fishermen face a lot of harassment in the water from various Israeli navy boats who rule the water. For example, in a 2009 report (PDF) 55 fishermen were detained in addition to three foreign national activists. According to the same report, the Israeli navy also confiscated a number of boats and fishing equipment from many fishermen. A restricted maritime means lower supply and increased price. Take for example, the sardines that used to cost about a dollar for a half of a kilo when in season, now would cost about five dollars just for one kilo.

Mahmoud Al-assi, the head of a local group that helps fishermen by providing low-cost fishing gear and boat maintenance, was under the impression that the summer of 2012 would be much better. His hopes came from a talk that the Israeli occupation might allow fishermen to go 6 miles into the water. Of course, none of that happened. According to Tayseer Abu Hasyrah, who has a seafood restaurant on the Gaza beach, only 10 percent of the fish are being caught compared to before the siege. While this might be good news for the fish, it's bad for the consumers and fishermen who are being attacked while making their livelihood.

To respond to the shortage in seafood, tunnel-smuggled Egyptian fish cover for some of the shortage, as do fish from Israel or frozen seafood that Israeli business are happy to dump into Gaza. So, the food that does not sell well in Israeli markets can be sent to Gaza where it might be sold at premium just for having passed through Israel. Meanwhile a lot of fish rot in the sea because they are not being caught by fishermen and, thus, rob the local economy of a God-given resource in an attempt to score political points in a ridiculous game. The Gaza fishing industry estimates their loss of income at 10 million dollars that they could be making if the Israeli navy allow them to fish in peace.

While Gaza continues to struggle with a number of humanitarian crises like lack of power and electricity, my dad has not made any recent trips to that seafood restaurant.