Gaza fisherman tests waters in legal fight over Israeli blockade
GAZA CITY - Gaza fisherman Jihad al-Hissi is used to rough waters but he now faces a new storm.
An Israeli court may seize his boat after he breached the limits of the enclave's fishing zone.
The issue is crucial for thousands in the blockaded Palestinian territory of 2.3 million people, where fishing in the Mediterranean Sea remains one of the few economic lifelines.
Hissi, 55, with square shoulders and a scruffy beard, told his story at Gaza's dock early one morning as fishermen sold their overnight catch of sea bream, prawns and sardines.
For now he has his boat, but its fate is uncertain as Israeli authorities argue before a Haifa court that it should be permanently taken away.
The vessel, used to catch gamberi prawns off southern Gaza near Egypt, is named the "Hajj Rajab", but its owners have erased the name from its yellow hull.
"I don't want the Israelis to spot us and seize my boat," said Hissi, who had a violent encounter with an Israeli naval patrol boat more than a year ago.
Israel says its land, air and sea blockade of Gaza is needed to protect it from rocket and other attacks from Hamas and to prevent arms smuggling to the Islamist militant movement.
Palestinians argue it is an effective siege that has crippled Gaza's economy and further impoverished its people, while the fishing limits deny it crucial protein.
Last year's incident came on February 14 when Hissi's vessel ventured beyond the maritime zone that Israel declared in 2007, the year Hamas seized power in Gaza.
Jihad's brother Nihad, who was at sea that day, said that "100 meters beyond the area, we were surprised by three Israeli boats with commandos.
"They attacked our boat... tied us up and arrested us."
The boat's cabin is still damaged from the water cannon blasts and the rubber-encased bullets fired by the Israeli forces that day.
Israel, in documents presented to court, accuses Hissi of having "repeatedly violated the security restrictions imposed by the Israeli army in the maritime zone adjacent to Gaza".
The Israeli non-government group Gisha has helped defend Hissi and in September secured the boat's return, but Israeli authorities now demand the court "permanently confiscate" the vessel.
The fishing zone allowed by Israel currently extends only to the heavily fished areas between six and 15 nautical miles (about 11 to 28 kilometres) off the Gaza coast.
Hissi argues this is less than the maximum of 20 nautical miles agreed in the 1990s under the Israeli-Palestinian agreements in Oslo.
But he also admits to going even beyond that from time to time, in search of shrimp which nets around $21 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) and can make the difference between profit and loss.
The legal fight is closely watched by thousands of fishermen in Gaza.
If Hissi's boat is permanently confiscated, this would spell "a serious threat to the thousands of fishermen in Gaza, because it aims to put an end to fishing," charged Nizar Ayyash, president of the union representing the 4,000 fishermen in Gaza.
The court battle comes amid a rise in Israel's temporary seizures of fishing boats suspected of smuggling or breaching the fishing zone.
Last year saw 23 boat confiscations, the highest number since 2018, according to the Palestinian non-governmental group Al Mezan.
The group also recorded 474 security incidents involving Gaza fishermen last year, the most in five years.
Gisha lawyer Muna Haddad argued that the case was "outrageous" and came amid "an unprecedented escalation in targeting those fishermen".
Haddad accused Israel of misusing provisions of international law on armed conflict regarding the seizure of enemy ships by imposing them on civilians.
In the court documents seen by AFP, Israel claims Hissi "abused" legal protections and that his crew had "threatened" the safety of soldiers during the maritime seizure.
Israeli military officials assured AFP they wanted to support Gaza's economy -- but without compromising Israel's security.
"We fish to survive," said Hissi, whose family once lived in Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv, before fleeing to Gaza during the 1948 war.
"And we will continue to fish even when our profits are low. I don't know how to do anything else in life anyway." - AFP