The girl who became the only fisherwoman in Gaza

With an invalid father and a family to feed behind the blockade, 16-year-old Madeleine Kulab has learnt to brave dangerous waters. Catrina Stewart reports

As the waves pound Gaza's Mediterranean shoreline, Mohammed Kulab gives his eldest daughter, Madeleine, detailed instructions on how to navigate the choppy waters to bring in the night's catch of fish.

Mr Kulab scans the horizon for fishing boats as Madeleine and her two younger siblings drag the family's wooden skiff to the edge of the water."It's dangerous out there," he says. "Nobody's going out. But I gave them instructions, I told them what to do."

His children leap on to the skiff and start poling. There are a few wobbly moments, but soon they are clear of the breaking waves and heading for a distant buoy. Madeleine, 16, is Gaza's only fisherwoman. In an Islamist society where conservative values are closely upheld, she is defying tradition in more ways than one.

She has little choice. Her father is suffering from a form of palsy that has ended his fishing days. Her mother earns a meagre wage from textile work leaving the family dependent on UN food handouts. Her family needs the few kilograms of fish the children catch. "I was taught by my Dad when I was just a kid," says Madeleine. "He has depended on me since I was 13." It's a heavy responsibility for a young girl, but a necessary one. Since Israel imposed its land and sea blockade on Gaza three years ago to weaken Hamas, families have struggled to make ends meet.

The siege, largely economic in nature, has decimated Gaza's agricultural and manufacturing industries, at one time both major employers, and has prevented Palestinians from leaving the strip to find work in Israel. Unemployment stands at over 40 per cent, and more than 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants depend on food aid.

The situation has thrust Madeleine, whose dream is to be a fashion designer, into a role entirely dominated by men. She has not thrown off tradition entirely – even for fishing and diving, she dons a headscarf and modest smock that covers most of her trousers.

Every evening, Madeleine, her younger brother, Quaid, and sister, Ream, take the boat out to lay the nets for the night ahead. They collect them the following morning around 7am. During term time, they will set out even earlier.

It's strenuous work, and sometimes dangerous. The three of them lack the strength to right their boat should they capsize, and have to rely on the help of a nearby fisherman or wait for their father to swim out. As Madeleine's father waits patiently on the shore for their return, a passing fisherman says with amazement: "You sent her out in that? The waves are too big. How did she do it?"

Mr Kulab is used to the scepticism and disbelief that greets the revelation that his daughter is a fisherwoman along a coast where few female swimmers are ever seen. Moreover, Hamas has embarked on a campaign to enforce moral standards among the Muslim community, such as banning women from smoking water pipes in public and encouraging them to wear headscarves and loose robes.

Yet, the reaction of the Kulabs' acquaintances is rarely an expression of disapproval, but rather a note of concern for their safety.

Gaza's fishermen contend not only with the elements, but also with the wrath of the Israeli navy. If they exceed a three-mile limit imposed by Israel, they risk being shot at by Israeli gunboats. Relaxing after dinner in the hotels that line Gaza City's beachfront, it is not uncommon to hear the staccato bursts of machine-gun fire out at sea.

Without a motor boat, Madeleine and her siblings don't venture that far out. They fish with nets left overnight, but professional fishermen motor out in the evening for the whole night, using their lamps to attract shoals of fish, such as sardines. But it's a far cry from the old days. Mr Kulab, whose father fled in 1948 from his home in the Israeli town of Ashkelon a few miles up the coast, remembers a time when they caught fish such as red mullet and grouper.

"There were a lot of fish then, big fish that you could really make money out of. We used to bring back 15 or 20kg of fish," he says, adding that at that time the industry was dominated by only a few families. As economic opportunities dry up, more and more Palestinians have turned to fishing as a way to survive. "Now everybody is a fisherman," he says.

As a consequence, Gaza's shallow waters have rapidly become depleted from overfishing, and fishermen use tiny-meshed nets to ensnare baby fish, a practice that is frowned upon. Last year, the catch amounted to just 40 per cent of the levels a decade previously, according to UN figures. This year it will be even less.

Under the Oslo peace accords, Palestinian fishermen were allowed to fish up to 20 nautical miles from shore. That was later pared back to 12 miles, then to six, and now to three miles. There have been extended periods when Israel confined the boats to port altogether.

Israel eased its economic blockade last month to allow in many denied civilian goods, most of which were available at a price anyway, smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt. Human rights groups argue that life will only improve if Israel allows a revival of the economy.

Exports remain forbidden, and Palestinians cannot leave the strip to find work elsewhere. At sea, the restrictions remain in place, and Gaza's fishermen face additional pressures from the dumping of Israeli fish on the market and smuggled stock from Egypt.

Down at Gaza's main fishing port, a dozen or so men are sitting around, repairing their nets, donated by relief agencies. One man lifts up his leg to show off the scar from an Israeli navy bullet. The situation, they say, is desperate. Where once they would earn between 300 and 500 shekels (£50 to £80)a day, they are lucky now if they get 50 shekels. One man who had his nets confiscated by the Israeli navy says he is facing a $2,000 loss.

Even so, Israel's policy, which critics call "collective punishment," has failed to put a significant dent in public support for Hamas, even though many will grumble privately about the corruption. Fisherman Zaki Zharbouri, 53, argues that Hamas is as much a victim of the siege as the Palestinian people, and says he feels no rancour towards the movement. "Hamas here is under siege, just like us," he says. Everybody is just trying to get by, and so it is with some sympathy that they understand Madeleine's father motivation."In our area, you just don't see women. But I think it's a necessity. They want to survive," says Mr Zharbouri. "But sea work is tough."

As the skiff returns with the catch, a wave rocks the boat and Madeleine squeals as she loses her footing. Laughing, she falls down on to the nets. Was she scared out on the water? "Today it was pretty dangerous; the waves were really big." she says. "We were afraid, but we're used to it."

The family inspects the catch of a few dozen tiddlers and a couple of tiny crabs, but it's quickly apparent there's not enough to sell at market. The total catch, says Mr Kulab, would probably fetch only 15 shekels, so this time it will go to the family pot. "Today, we broke the siege." he says. "Now we're happy. We have our lunch today."

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