Gaza Fishermen Anxious About Future
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm John Ydstie.
The Israeli army announced today it has evacuated 20 of the 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan is proceeding well ahead of schedule. The Israeli withdrawal is already raising hpes among Palestinians for a better life. These hopes extend to the Mediterranean coast, where Gaza's fishermen await permission to return to their old fishing grounds. The Israeli navy has sharply restricted access to those waters during the intifada. NPR's Peter Kenyon filed this report.
PETER KENYON reporting:
As the sun comes up over Gaza's makeshift harbor, a horse-drawn cart slowly makes its way along a breakwater that gently arcs into the sea.
(Soundbite of cart)
KENYON: Close to shore, skiffs bob in the water. Further out along the breakwater, larger ships are tied to what pass for docks here, rusting metal skeletons haphazardly overlaid with soggy, splintering boards. The captain of the 52-foot trawler Baha(ph) watches his crew prepare the ship for another day on the sea. A trim man with dark hair and a thick mustache, Mohammed al-Hizi(ph) has been fishing these waters for 35 years. He learned to fish with his father and grandfather. He says they were originally farmers who occasionally fished when the family lived in Jaffa, but they turned full time to the sea when they became Gaza Strip refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
(Soundbite of crew working)
KENYON: Hizi watches young boys skillfully negotiate the treacherous dock as they carry last night's catch of shrimp and fish up to the waiting carts and vans. He estimates that 90 percent of the fleet has suffered substantially since their fishing grounds were essentially cut in half. He points to other boats sitting idle in the harbor.
Mr. MOHAMMED AL-HIZI (Fisherman): (Through Translator) We have about 40 ships, big ships, and now they only work for two months in certain seasons. And they don't work the rest of the year because there's no place for them. We are fishing in a pool.
KENYON: The fleet used to visit Egypt to the south and Jaffa, Haifa and Akka to the north. Now the fishing grounds are restricted to some of the waters off Gaza itself. They're barred from the waters off the Israeli settlement bloc to the south, and the boats can only go six nautical miles offshore instead of 10.
European consultant Seamus Dunne with the International Management Group says the daily catch is down by nearly 10,000 pounds a day, and that's not the worst news. Dunne says the Mediterranean's sandy, flat bed means fish have to breed close to shore where they can find coral, rocks and other hiding places. That's right where the Gaza fleet has been penned in. When fisherman like Hizi drag the sea floor with their heavy trawling nets, they're not only catching these spawning fish and young fry; they're scraping up the coral and plankton along the bottom, severely damaging the spawning beds. If the fleet isn't allowed to fish farther out, he says, one of the few economic avenues left to Gazans could be lost.
(Soundbite of engine)
KENYON: As his crew revs the engine of the Baha, Hizi says someday he'd like to meet with Israeli fishermen again, as he used to do in his early years on the sea.
Mr. AL-HIZI: (Through Translator) Because we used to go to Haifa and Akka and used to talk to them all the time. We've had very good relations with them. Even we used the same things. We learned from them a lot. All these boats are designed and are built similarly to the Israeli style, and even the nets--we've learned making them from them.
KENYON: The discussions on fishing areas aren't nearly as prominent as the talks on border crossings and other issues. Israeli officials were reluctant to discuss the matter while the evacuation is ongoing. But Palestinian and European officials who have attended talks say the Israelis seem determined to maintain control over the ocean out of concern that radical groups might attempt to smuggle weapons or people in or out of Gaza by sea.
With Hamas vowing to continue its armed fight, it's a real concern, Israeli officials say, especially after Palestinians take control of the southern section of the coast and can operate that much closer to Egypt.
(Soundbite of waves; crowd noise)
KENYON: As Mohammed al-Hizi prepares for another day on the water, he says he'll pass on his knowledge of fishing to his sons, just as his father did for him. He hopes they'll be able to earn a real living from the sea and not simply compete for the last fish in the small pool he's allowed to work in today. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Gaza.
(Soundbite of waves; children playing)
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