Fishing is not a picnic in Gaza under Israeli siege

As the sun sets, Palestinian captain Mohammed al-Nahal takes the helm of his rickety boat, departing from the fishermen's port in Gaza on a night fishing trip off the besieged coastal strip of Israel.
The task is fraught with danger. The nine crew members, all from the same family, are clinging to rusty metal rods, some preparing nets for fishing.
The boat is advancing towards the west at sea despite the high waves, while it is dragging five small boats behind it. On the horizon, the sun fades and the moon twinkles in the sky.
At about seven in the evening, the boat comes to rest about three miles (5.5 km) offshore. The captain begins by instructing, "Leave three boats here, come on, come on guys."
While the lights of Gaza City glow from afar, the young fisherman Youssef and others jump like frogs about three boats that they stop at varying distances in the Mediterranean Sea.
After completing the task and throwing the nets, Youssef and his colleagues return to the boat, which is four meters wide and 15 meters long, and resumes its course westward.

Captain Mohamed, 28, complains of his daily concern and fear that he will not be lucky enough to catch enough quantities to cover the costs of fuel needed to operate a boat. "If we get 200 kilos of sardines, it will be a great catch, but we may come back empty-handed, nothing is guaranteed here," he says.
Thousands of families live off fishing in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is widespread, with youth unemployment reaching more than 50 percent. Fishing accounts for about 7.5 percent of the sector's GDP.
Israel imposes a strict blockade by land, sea and air on the Strip, which is home to more than two million people, and has been controlled by the Islamic movement Hamas since the summer of 2007.
Five months after the end of the last war between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Hebrew state now allows a fishing area off some of the Strip’s beaches to about 15 nautical miles.
But Mohammed and his family do not venture more than six miles. "We don't have a boat, we don't have an engine that we can go further with, and the deeper we go into the sea, the more fuel costs," Mohammed says.
In May, Israel and Hamas reached a truce brokered by Egypt and other parties, after 11 days of the fiercest military confrontation between the two sides in years, during which 260 Palestinians were killed, including more than sixty children and fighters, and 13 people on the Israeli side, including a child, a girl and a soldier.
Despite the calm, incendiary balloons continued to be launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israeli territory, which Israel responded to with limited air strikes on the coastal strip, and reduced the fishing area for Gazan fishermen.
For fishermen, however, the Israeli blockade is not limited to restrictions on the fishing area monitored by Israeli forces in the air and at sea, but also on the import of fishing equipment.
Nevertheless, Gaza's fishermen are adapting to the conditions of the siege.
Muhammad, who inherited the profession from his father and learned to ride the sea at the age of nine, succeeded in replacing the boat's malfunctioning engine with the engine of a Swedish Volvo truck.
"We use truck engines for boats, but they don't work effectively," he says. He continues that Israel "has opened for us fishing for a distance of 15 miles, knowing that our boats cannot sail for this distance."
Around nine at night, crew members lie on shabby foam mattresses to rest, while Youssef, 22, throws his fishing rod as he sits on the edge of the boat.
He says, "I have been fishing since I was 14 years old. I go out to fish every day with my brothers when the sea is open. I feel that something is missing from me when the sea is closed to fishing."
As his dangling legs crash into the sea waves, he adds, "the fish has become less, all the boats go fishing in a limited area, and the fish are fleeing because of the boat noise."
Suddenly after midnight the fishermen turn off the lights and jump on two small boats to catch the nets they left at the three lamp-lit boats.
The captain leads his team toward the illuminated island, calling out, "Hurry up, hurry up, we must get to the market early." The smell of sardines mingles with the stench of fuel exhaust from boats returning to shore.
As soon as they arrive, one of them turns off the lights, while others pull the net with cries of joy when it is heavy i.e. laden with fish.
Muhammad and Youssef pull the net while singing “Hey she is this, my love, Shilo Shell”, while some sardines fly out of the net. Then, the fish are transferred to dozens of plastic boxes on the boat.
As the day dawns, the tired fishermen and their captain, Mohamed, arrive at the port with scales covered in fish, but they are happy to catch about half a ton of baby sardines.
In the port, the morning begins with the rhythm of the various fish auctions, as wholesalers compete to buy fish for their restaurants or for export to the West Bank.
The auctioneer who runs the auction repeats as he displays the boxes in front of customers, “30, 40, 50, 55 shekels for this box,” then shouts, “Sold out” as the bidding stops.
Although the spoils of the voyage exceeded the captain's expectations and were sold within a few minutes for 3,000 shekels (800 euros), profits are limited after deducting the cost of fuel and the fishermen's cheap fare.


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