Fishing for Survival in Gaza City

In the 1990s, Palestinian fishermen were able to sail 20 nautical miles to catch a diverse haul of seafood. Today, the tensions between Israelis and Hamas have limited their fishing range to three miles from shore, where biodiversity is scarce.

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Aug 18 2014, 3:00pm

As the sun peeks over the Eastern Sea in Gaza City, fisherman Feres al-Hessi and his nephews change out their nets for a second morning run. Their first was unsuccessful, and all they can hold onto is the hope that they might get lucky a second time. Between fuel for the small boat, and feeding their families and the community, a lot of weight rests on al-Hessi's shoulders to make a living.

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Fisherman Feres al-Hessi

In Cairo, Hamas and the Israelis are in postwar talks, and one of the main contentions is simply giving fishermen room to catch more and more variety. Hamas is demanding fishermen be allowed to go out to sea 12 nautical miles. Right now, they can only travel up to approximately one mile out. If the Israeli Navy catches them out past their limit, fishermen say that they will be detained or shot.

Before the treacherous month long conflict, some fishermen were able to go out up to five miles, but it decreases every time tensions rise with Israelis.

At the end of the day, al-Hessi knows that he needs to keep going. Seven days a week, he takes his boat out to look for fish, the main food source in the Gaza strip. But with such a short distance available to them, they are only able to catch sardines. Sometimes bigger fish swim a little closer to shore, but it is rare. Every fisherman out on the water is competing for the same lot.

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Fishing boats in the Gaza City harbor

As we set out on al-Hessi's boat, the sun is getting brighter and hotter. The fisherman are barefoot, and the small vessel carries heaps of fishnets and leftover fish guts. We spot other fisherman out for their morning rounds. It's a friendly rivalry, one that often results in the fishermen helping to point each other in the right direction, but they will also set out to get the array of sardines before the next fisherman and the boats cluster in the same areas in such a short distance from shore. Sometimes, as the Fares' nephews tout, the "fish are sleeping" and there is nothing to be found.

After a couple of hours at sea—unsuccessful in their second efforts—al-Hessi's crew casts the net out twice as a last ditch effort to collect the fish they cannot even see below the water's surface. They've watched, waited, and chased, but now, they're just relying on hope alone.

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al-Hessi and his fishing crew

What they bring in is only a bucket's worth of small sardines, one larger fish, and a crab that got caught in the net. They release it.

Before the war, al-Hessi says they would take their fish to the market in an area where traders would come and negotiate prices with them. Traders then sell to restaurants or private buyers. On a day with a big catch, al-Hessi could earn nearly a thousand dollars, but lately, there are too many days where he is barely able to make $100, which covers fuel for the boat, but not meals for his family.

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Fishermen with a catch of sardines

The market has changed and the fisherman cannot go when there is nothing to sell. Al-Hessi's nephews take the small amount of fish he is able to muster and go directly to a trader who can pay for the small catch of sardines. There isn't enough for him to take back to his wife to prepare for their family.

Since there is no fish left, we follow al-Hessi back to his home, which is only a couple of miles from the marina. The hollow corridor leads us into an open space apartment—simple, clean and small with mattresses on the floor, a few patio chairs, plus a TV with Hamas messages running in the background.

Photo by Ashley Gallagher

For one fisherman, the biggest catch of the day.

Em-Abed al Hessi, Fares' wife, says she hates the small fish but prepares them because that's all there is. When Fares arrives home, she has falafel and hummus to offer her husband. It's not much, but it'll do after a long morning on the water under the hot sun. She offers the plastic chairs, brings us tea, and proudly smiles when her children peek around the corners to giggle at the foreigners in their living room. The couple tells us they were married young and have six children. Em-Abed says even the children feel sad when her husband cannot bring home enough fish and there is little to eat. They wish they had fish to prepare and show us.

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The change over the last 20 years in the water has made a significant impact on al-Hessi's life. In the 1990s, Palestinian fishermen were able to go out 20 nautical miles to catch a diverse mixture of seafood. Today that has all changed—and conflicts between Israelis and Hamas have restricted his fishing abilities even further.

It's not an easy life. Al-Hessi says if he can go out further into the sea, he will be able to catch bigger fish and use his larger boat to provide more financial stability for his children. His face is bittersweet. Life as a fisherman is all Fares al-Hessi knows, having spent 20 years in a boat, taking after everyone in his family before him. For as difficult as it is, he and his wife both have hope that Hamas will be able to deal with the Israelis so they can give their children everything. Until then, the search for sardines continues.