There's still a catch for Gaza's boatmen

By Andra Jackson
December 28, 2005

PALESTINIAN fishermen sit around idly on sand-choked nets amid boats banked up on al-Malawi beach.

They have waited five years to reclaim this beach in the Gaza Strip, but now they have to wait even longer to reclaim their livelihoods.

Fishermen from the nearby Khan Yunis refugee camp and the town of Rafah had been unable to set foot on the beaches since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. The Israeli Army had sealed off and occupied the dazzling Mediterranean's shore.

They were not allowed in even to move their boats and shelter them from the weather.

A total of 650 fishermen lost their income overnight, says the head of the fishermen's syndicate, Fourad al-Amoudi.

"They (the Israelis) liked this area here and stopped us from fishing because they wanted to build a settlement here and told us to leave, but we refused," Mr Amoudi said.

In retaliation, the army stopped him from entering agricultural land he owned in nearby al-Mawasi and he was forced to take out loans to feed his family, he said.

Other fishermen were supported by their families, but they all did it tough.

"We couldn't afford to celebrate feasts or buy clothes for our kids and we were dependent on relief from independent aid organisations," Mr Amoudi said.

"This miserable situation led us not to educate our kids, because we couldn't afford books or uniforms. The experience had a bad psychological impact on mothers and children."

To add to their woes, the Israeli Army reduced the number of Palestinian policemen at the police station by the beach to three. They were prevented from wearing uniforms or carrying guns, Mr Amoudi said.

The police were virtually powerless when Israeli tanks surrounded the station and the fishermen's sheds were broken into. Ten motors for the fishing boats, worth $A5500 each, were stolen and had not been recovered, Mr Amoudi said.

"We can't afford to buy new motors," he said. "In addition, some of the settlers came here and demolished some of the boats." Mr Amoudi also claimed that fishermen's nets were stolen when Israeli settlers living nearby attacked the harbour.

When the fishermen returned to the beach after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in September, they found most of the remaining boats had rotted under prolonged exposure to sun and water.

"All the big boats were dysfunctional," he said. "Their motors have seized."

Crucial iron pins holding parts together had rusted, as had most of the 12 tractors used to haul the fishing boats.

So far the fishermen have managed to repair two of the tractors and some of the smaller boats. Eager to resume work, some have borrowed money for new nets and gone back to sea.

They have brought back the first late catches of the season, which normally begins in June with migrating sardines and includes the tuna-like bellamedi.

But even this harvest is restricted.

Pointing to a patrolling Israeli naval vessel on the horizon, one fisherman said: "Even this season when we tried to fish, the Israeli boats came and shot at us."

Mr Amoudi estimates it will take three or four years for the fishermen to rebuild their infrastructure, especially as most are in debt.

"We call on all people around the world to help the people of Khan Yunis to rebuild their fishing structure so they can go back to sea and feed their families," he said.

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