Israelis let Gaza fishermen return to 'prison in the sea'

ISRAEL yesterday opened up the sea. 'Let there be fishing,' said the generals, and then there was. Out of their houses in Gaza City came hundreds of men with woolly hats and gumboots, heading towards the beaches, where rows of small blue fishing boats had been sitting idle for more than two weeks behind a tall barbed-wire fence.

A curfew imposed on all 700,000 Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, following a spate of violence, was also imposed on the beaches and waters off the Gaza coast.

The beaches at Gaza City, Khan Younis, Rafah and Jabaliya were locked up, sea patrols watched the waters and the fishermen of Gaza told to hang up their tackle.

Yesterday they were back. But with storms tossing the waves, they were none too happy. 'The curfew has brought bad weather,' said one fisherman, standing beside a small basket of wriggling Tuna. 'Now all the fish have gone to Israeli waters and there are none left for us.' It is a hard life at the best of times being a fisherman of Gaza.

First there is the question of permits. To get through the wire fence on to the beach the fisherman must have a permit, which he receives from the military authorities.

Once in the water, he may be stopped by a police patrol boat, and asked to show his permit. Then there are the fishing limits. Gaza City, Jabaliya, Rafah and Khan Younis have different coloured boats. Each coloured fleet has its own restricted area, usually set at 8km (5 miles) out to sea and a few kilometres down the coast. But, the fishermen say the Israelis do not follow the rules and arrest them inside the legal waters.

Riyad Sharafi, whose father and grandfather fished in Gaza, says he was stopped recently and showered with eggs and water by the Israeli patrol. A burly Palestinian, Mr Sharafi insists he was not fishing for any trouble. 'I was just stopped out there in the middle of the sea. They tossed their buckets on me then fined me 500 shekels ( pounds 110).' Another problem, he says is that fishermen are forced to compete in the restricted area. 'My brother is always making problems, trying to steal my fish,' Mr Sharafi says.

The fishermen would like the seas to be opened at 3am, so they can make a dawn haul. But Israel refuses to open up until 7am. The fishermen of Gaza fondly remember the old days, when the seas were never closed and the beaches never fenced.

'Before 1948 we used to be able to fish all the way to the Libyan shores and up to Lebanon,' Mr Sharafi said. 'We brought in massive hauls and there were thousands more fishermen then. Now look at it,' he said, pointing to the fence behind him and across to Ansar 11 prison, close by, where Palestinian prisoners are jailed. 'We fish in a cage. The sea is just like another prison.'