Who has the sanctions hurt but us?

Article / Written by Catrin Ormestad / 30 Jun 2009


Gaza City, 6 AM. The sun has just risen and the residents of the northern Gaza Strip are once again waking up to the sound of explosions. Every few hundred meters an Israeli naval ship fires a shell towards the beach, as it slowly makes its way along the coast.

Author - Catrin Ormestad / Title image credit: Catrin Ormestad

It is not aiming at anything in particular; the bombardment is merely a message to the Palestinian fishermen that they should stay in the port.

They are sitting in the shade, idle among their dry fishing nets. They are no longer allowed to exercise their right to fish freely and earn a livelihood. Ramadan Abu Amira, who has been fishing in the Gaza waters for 45 years, has not left the port for ten days. But he still remembers how he as a little boy used to fish with his father.

“We would follow the sardines all the way to Port Said in Egypt”, he says and caresses his youngest son Mohammad’s head. “Now we can’t even leave the port.”

At least 40,000 people in Gaza used to make a living from the fishing industry. Their numbers have been severely decimated by the Israeli authorities’ restrictions on their fishing rights as well as their prevention of fuel from reaching the Gaza Strip. According to The Guardian the fishing industry in Gaza produced an annual income of almost 5 million Euros in the 1990s. By 2007 that figure had halved. The average catch of fish was over 3000 tons a year in the 1990’s, now it is around 500 tons, due to the Israeli siege of Gaza.

The Oslo accords from 1993, whose aim was to create the outlines for an independent Palestine, states that the Gaza fishermen were to be allowed 20 nautical miles out to sea where they could catch the sardines as they migrate from the Nile delta up towards Turkey during the spring. Most fish are found at least 10 miles from the shore.

Yet Israel limits fishing to a few miles from the shore. In March 2009 they further restricted the access of Gaza’s fishermen to 3 nautical miles from the shore. Those who venture further are regularly attacked by the Israeli navy. Practically all the fishermen in the port have been shot at; some have been killed. Over 70 fishermen were arrested in 2008 by the Israeli forces.

Israel claims that since the disengagement in 2005 when it evacuated the settlements and withdrew most of the soldiers which used to patrol the streets and monitor checkpoints it no longer occupies Gaza. But the Palestinians – along with most of the international actors in Gaza – reject this claim since Israel still exerts effective control over Gaza, most notably the borders.

But instead of shouldering its responsibility as an occupying power to care for the well-being of the of the people of Gaza, under the provisions of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel has imposed harsh sanctions on the coastal strip. Israel claims they are aimed at the Hamas-run government of Gaza, but there is hardly anyone in Gaza who has been affected by the import and export restrictions. Poverty has skyrocketed and at least 80 percent of the populations are now dependent on food aid.

Everything is rationed, including fuel and electricity. According to the Fishing Syndicate in Gaza the fishermen need 40,000 litres of fuel and 40,000 litres of natural gas each day to operate throughout the high fishing season. The fishermen are entitled to fuel coupons from the Palestinian authorities but their rations hardly last for a day.

The blockade has also brought the entire water and sewage system close to a collapse. An average of fifty million litres untreated sewage flows into the Mediterranean Sea each day. The water authority, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), is Gaza’s biggest consumer of electricity but the frequent power cuts have forced them to rely on generators, which run on diesel. In order to operate their waste water treatment facilities they need at least 150 000 litres fuel per month. But they usually don’t receive more than a third of that amount. They also suffer from a shortage of pumps, spare parts and cement, materials which Israel no longer allows into Gaza. During the three weeks of Israeli attacks on Gaza last December and January much of the water and sewage infrastructure was destroyed or damaged.

On the beach of the Nusseirat refugee camp there is a lagoon of oily black water in the white silky sand. The waste water is spilling into the sea from a sewage lake on the outskirts of the crowded camp. The stench is almost unbearable and the beach is empty.

Munther Shoblak, general manager of CMWU, no longer lets his children go into the sea.

“I am not happy or proud that I pollute the sea or that I am wasting a water resource that should be treated and go back to the aquifer but I have no choice. This is not my blockade. I did not choose to stop the supply of spare parts and electricity to Gaza.”

International and Palestinian health care organisations have long been warning about an impending health disaster in Gaza. Tests have confirmed that the sea water is contaminated with dangerous levels of bacteria. But the sewage crisis also threatens Israel’s shores. The currant is going to the north, and eventually the contaminated water will reach Ashqelon and Tel Aviv. The outbreak of an epidemic is a very real possibility, according to Shoblak.

“Just imagine if someone has cholera or typhoid and they flush the toilet… Each day we face an environmental disaster. Each day when I come home I thank God that no-one died today because of the sewage. Still, when I hear that people have not received water for days I can’t look at the mirror. It is my responsibility.”

In the port of Gaza the fishermen are also suffering from the pollution. The sewage gives them skin rash on the hands and legs and they no longer let their children go into the water. The few fish they manage to catch are no longer safe to eat. Some of the desperate Gazans collect the dead fish that come drifting with the sewage and sell them as fresh.

“Who has the sanctions hurt but us?” says Ramadan Abu Amira.


Catrin Ormestad is a journalist working and living in Tel Aviv. She is one of few western journalists reporting from within Gaza.

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