GAZA – Mohamed Riyaleh is a fisherman, but he has not eaten fish for more than 40 days and neither has his family.
Every morning he goes down to the Port of Gaza, inspects his boats and, when he has the fuel, ventures out into the sea while remaining within the boundary imposed by Israel in the Mediterranean, where there is hardly enough catch to survive on.
It was not always like this. Before Israel’s maritime restriction, he used to sail freely, and Riyaleh and his family were well off, like many other fishermen.
Today, they are anything but affluent. Gaza’s prosperity is now just a memory.
The present is uncertain and future alarming. If the situation is not reversed, next year will be unlivable, warns the United Nations.
Fishing is among the sectors most severely affected by the Israeli blockade on Gaza that has placed restrictions on its people and their access to resources for more than a decade.
It also reflects the deteriorating condition of its two million inhabitants, trapped in an area of 367 square kilometers (around 142 square miles), where the new generations are worse off than their parents and grandparents were.
Halima, Mohamed’s mother, confirms this, sitting in her modest house at the Shaati refugee camp.
During what she calls happier days, she would get up early and go down to the port with her children, where she would clean the fish caught by her husband to sell them in the market.
Inside the house, some of the 54 members of the family – most of them barefoot minors – mend nets and try to be of help, so that the 15 licensed fishermen can go out to sea, although they usually return empty-handed.
Halima’s parents worked in the fields. They cultivated their lands in Hamama, an Arab village 20km from Gaza that was among the 500 villages that were totally or partially destroyed by the war that erupted following the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the opposition to it by the surrounding Arab nations.
The Riyaleh family was among the thousands of others who took refuge near the coast and picked up their lives with the help of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), created to aid the 700,000 people that lost their homes.
“In the year 2000, the number of people receiving food stamps was 80,000. Now it reaches a million people,” said UNRWA spokesperson in Gaza, Adnan Abu Hasna.
Up to 90 percent of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have had to rely on some form of humanitarian aid.
As a Gazan, Abu Hasna not only has statistics but also memories of a better past, like that of having found work in the Strip a day after graduating in engineering from Egypt.
Today, his daughters have emigrated to Spain and Belgium.
The refugees and their descendants currently make up around 1.5 million of the total population of Gaza – families that to start from zero 70 years ago and today still live in poverty, said Mahdi, one of Mohamed’s brothers.
CONTROL OF THE WATERS
Mohamed underlines the innumerable number of times Israel has changed the so-called maritime border.
The latest occasion being in March, in reprisal for a rocket fired by militants that fell on an Israeli house.
The maritime border was reduced to three nautical miles, where Mohamed complains they find no catch.
Depending on the situation, Israel increases it to nine nautical miles – but only on certain stretches –, although very few people venture that far due to fear of a possible response from the Israeli navy.
One day, Mohamed, in desperation out of having to always return empty handed, defied the sea boundary: “They surrounded me from the north, south and the east. They shot at the boat, injured me and humiliated us. It was very difficult to escape. Now there is nothing nice about fishing.”
On grounds of security, Israel limits the area for fishing, which it surrounds with its warships, leaving only 36 kilometers of the coast navigable for the people of Gaza.
“For many years, the army has operated against security incidents in the maritime zone next to Gaza, including attempts to enter Israeli territory, and the crossing and smuggling from Egyptian waters,” the army explained to EFE. “These regulations exist to prevent infiltrations and terrorist activities,” it said, referring to some regulations that are classified.
Mohamed does not understand that. For him, it is unimaginable having a border in the high seas, where all the fish are.
And even more than the dissuasive fire – one shot killed his uncle – he is afraid of their boats getting confiscated, taking away their livelihood.
One of the vessels lies stranded since it was returned 25 months after confiscation, with bullet holes and without its engine.
Another one still remains with the Israeli authorities. “If a boat violates the security provisions in certain circumstances, it could be seized,” claims the army.
“Only last year, four fishermen died and 30 were injured. Moreover, 70 were arrested, 20 vessels were confiscated and huge losses were recorded in the sector: approximately six million per year,” said Zakaria Bakr, member of the fishermen’s committee of the Union of Agricultural Workers, who reports that more than 95 percent of the Israeli attacks have taken place between two and three nautical miles.
Israel not only imposes a blockade at sea but also restricts the entry of fishing material, spare parts, engines and fiberglass, “enough to say that since 2012 no new boats have been made.”
It also controls the land border and limits the import of items, such as cement, and bans goods with double use, such as fertilizers with potassium chloride content higher than five percent, which it considers could be used for “terrorist purposes.”
Gaza also does not control its skies. The only airport in the Strip was operational for barely two years between 1998 and 2000, and currently it cannot use its airspace.
The Strip was administered by Egypt between the armistice of the Arab-Israeli War in 1949 and the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel took control of Sinai, Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.
It withdrew from Sinai following a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and from Gaza in 2005.
But they remain surrounded. The blockade of Gaza – termed as “collective punishment” by the UN – came in 2007, after a violent five-day struggle between sympathizers of the Islamist movement Hamas and those of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which ended with the expulsion of the latter group from the enclave on June 14.
Hamas, considered a terrorist group by several countries (including Israel, US, and the EU), had contested the 2006 elections and won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Against the threat of international sanctions, the Islamist movement agreed to form a unity government with Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
Following street clashes between the two parties, PNA lost control of Gaza, which since then has been governed de facto by Hamas with an iron fist. Following the skirmish, Israel immediately reduced its fuel sales to the Strip, prohibited all exports, permitted import of only five types of food products and restricted fishing area. The blockade had begun.
The Strip has lived through a singular history within the Palestinian entity. It was at its Jabalia refugee camp that the First Intifada (1987-1991) broke out and spread to West Bank, around 115km away, to which the people of Gaza today do not have access.
They also cannot freely visit East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel.
In November 1995, the assassination of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv by an ultra-nationalist Jew stalled a peace process started by him.
The Second Intifada (2000-2005), a mainly armed uprising that involved suicide attacks, killed any remaining hopes of reigniting Rabin’s peace initiative.
This period also witnessed the launch of rockets from the enclave towards the adjacent Israeli communities, and since then, they have been met with repeated fusillades and airstrikes by Israel, which has conducted three massive military operations on Gaza – 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014.
In the last operations, 2,252 Palestinians died, including 1,462 civilians and 551 children. Tragically, when the bombs fall, the Palestinians have no place to flee.
Israeli airstrikes have sunk five boats belonging to Mohamed, who no longer has any track of his losses and what he missed out on. “The median income of fishermen was 1,500 shekels ($416) a month and now is less than 400 shekels, not even $100,” says Zakaria Bakr.
Fishing was the most productive sector after agriculture. Today it is the epitome of a devastated economy.
Last year, the World Bank warned that it was on the verge of collapsing, with more than half the population without a job and a 70-percent unemployment rate among the youth.
The irony is that having money does not make much of a difference. “Whether you have a million dollars of one dollar, it is the same, you are driven to despair, it will never help you.
If, for example, you are sick and cannot travel (for treatment), what is the use of money?” asked the UNRWA spokesperson.
The families of the refugees now also face cutbacks from the United States.
In 2008, the administration of President Donald Trump reduced its contribution towards the UNRWA by $300 million, bringing it down to $60 million.
This year, it has not contributed a single dollar. For Abu Hasna, Gaza has all the elements that “destroy human ability.”
The last sign of desperation was demonstrated in the so-called Great March of Return at the border.
Since the protests began in March 2018, at least 183 Palestinians – 32 of them minors – have been killed by shots fired by the Israeli army.
A UN committee monitoring the situation considers these could amount to “war crimes” as the victims were unarmed and did not pose an imminent threat to the soldiers positioned on the other side of the border.
The movement, called initially by the civil society, has been exploited by Hamas.
The Israeli response considers that the Islamist movement uses the platform to carry out attacks against them.
Young people on crutches are a common sight on the streets of Gaza.
There are among the 6,000 wounded – according to the UN – by the Israeli army gunfire during these protests.
Some have had to go through amputations due to lack of proper treatment at hospitals lacking the necessary resources.
A POSSIBILITY TO LEAVE IN 200 YEARS
The Port of Gaza, like town squares, is where Gazans flock to during their leisure hours.
Sitting on benches facing the sea, the Palestinians appear to relax.
It is the closest they come to a weekend break, something they will probably never get to enjoy.
The number of leave permits issued by Israel in 2018 did not exceed 9,600, which, statistically, leaves each Gazan one chance to leave every 200 years, according to the UN.
The blockade of Gaza restricts not only the movement of goods but also of people.
They cannot emigrate, plan a honeymoon in a distant country or visit their family members living in other parts of the Palestinian territory.
Only journalists, humanitarian personnel and institutional delegations get permits to access the Strip.
Thus, the realities of this enclave are built on legends and a distorted view from within and without.
For the new generations, the only reference to Israel is created by airstrikes from their planes and gunshots from their navy.
Israel controls every aspect of their lives even though they are not really present.
For a large section of the world, the identity of two million people is reduced to the Islamist movement Hamas.
In reality, Gaza still retains a part of its earlier social dynamism.
The Strip has women’s soccer teams, a younger group of people that speak English, poets, rap artists and a Christian minority that sometimes gets permission to introduce altar wine for mass.
However, all their enthusiasm hits a roadblock caused by lack of more basic facilities: they only have six hours of electricity supply every day and 95 percent of the water is not fit for human consumption.
The progressive deterioration of Gaza, fueled by internal decisions that restrict the arrival of aid, has sparked a recent and unusual uprising against the authorities, bringing out thousands of people on the streets in the so-called “Revolution of the Hungry,” violently repressed by Hamas. “We want to Live!” was the banner under which protests were organized by youth movements.
Meanwhile, the older generations that are full of grievances and weariness, such as Halima, appear to be losing hope: “The Arabs are against us, the Jews are against us, the world is against us, Egypt is against us, God is against us. Why don’t they put us in front of a tank and shoot us all at once? We are dead while still living.”