BETHLEHEM (Ma’an, June 5) — Israeli authorities are set to maintain a temporary expansion for the designated fishing zone in the southern besieged Gaza Strip for two more weeks, according the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli agency responsible for enforcing Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Israeli authorities announced on May 3 that the unilaterally-declared fishing zone in the southern part of the territory was temporarily expanded from six nautical miles to nine — without specifying when the temporary expansion would end — while the zone would remain at six miles in the north.
A month after the extension was announced, COGAT confirmed in a statement on Monday that the fishing zone would be extended for an additional two weeks, “in accordance to the decision to enlarge the fishing range in light of the fishing season that occurs during May through June.”
The English-language written statement said that COGAT’s decision was made “in accordance to security evaluations” and with “headquarter work that is meant to examine the ways of preventing abnormalities, especially during fishing season and in order to assist the growth of activity of the fishing branch that supports thousands of families in the Gaza Strip.”
COGAT wrote that “enlarging the fishing range in the past has raised the daily production by about 15 percent in comparison to 2015. The raise in produce is estimated at a yearly profit of one million shekels, in addition to a yearly income cycle of about six million shekels that the fishing branch creates.”
Preparations to temporarily expand the zone came after joint meetings between representatives of the Israeli Marine Corps, Gaza’s fishers’ union, the Palestinian liaisons office, and the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, according to COGAT.
Despite COGAT’s claims regarding the benefits of the expansion, head of Gaza’s fishers’ union Zakariya Bakr has said that it was unlikely to mean real change for Gaza’s fishers.
He told Israeli legal NGO Gisha that since the expansion only applies to the south of the Strip, a larger concentration of fishers is drawn to the area, depleting each fisher’s catch. According to Bakr, there are currently 3,750 fishers working on 1,270 boats in Gaza.
Fishers also reported to Gisha that while the expansion helped, it was not sufficient. The southern Gaza coasts are sandy, rather than rocky, meaning less fish can be found there, while the more ample and varied catches of fish are found beginning at 7.5 nautical miles off shore — causing overcrowding in a 1.5-miles area within the designated zone.
Furthermore, “any departure from the zone defined by Israel places fisher’s lives at risk,” Gisha noted. “Incidents in which fishers made a navigational error, or drifted outside the zone by mistake, ended with Israel confiscating their boats and/or opening fire at the fishers, resulting in injury, damage to equipment and even death.”
Gisha cited research by Palestinian human rights organization Al Mezan, which said that up until mid-May since the beginning of 2017, 14 fishers were detained by the Israeli navy, five were injured, and one was killed. Five boats were also confiscated.
Despite the hardships, “most of those working in the fishing industry are in no hurry to leave the trade, mostly because of the high rate of unemployment in the Strip, which means there is little chance of finding other work,” Gisha said in its report.
As part of Israel’s blockade off the coastal enclave since 2007, Palestinian fishers have been required to work within a limited “designated fishing zone.”
The exact limits of the zone are decided by the Israeli authorities and have historically fluctuated, most recently extended to six nautical miles from three, following a ceasefire agreement that ended Israel’s 2014 offensive on the Palestinian territory.
However, the fishing zone was technically set to 20 nautical miles according to the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s.
Israeli forces have previously expanded the zone for short periods of time, typically leading up to and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on May 27.