Gazan merchants say the move amounts to collective punishment, since Israel imposed the ban following a smuggling attempt of fish from the West Bank into Israel. 'My responsibility is to bring the fish to the West Bank. I’m not responsible for what they do with the fish there,' says one fisherman
Israel imposed a ban on fish and seafood export from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank earlier this week, a move Gazan fishermen and merchants fear will inflict a harsh blow to the Strip’s economy and the livelihoods of thousands of families.
Israel imposed the ban on Monday following a smuggling attempt of some 20 tons of fish from the West Bank into Israel. The merchants say the move amounts to collective punishment, because Israel and the Palestinian Authority, not Gaza’s fishermen, are responsible for preventing smuggling from the West Bank.
Some 5,000 fishermen work in the Gaza Strip as well as some 500 employees in fish farms and packaging. Abu Yazan, owner of a Gazan fish farm, told Haaretz that all the workers are directly affected by Israel’s move, on top of the loss of hundreds of thousands of shekels every week for the fish not going to market.
“As a merchant in Gaza, my responsibility is to bring the fish to the West Bank. I’m not responsible for what they do with the fish there,” he said. “I can’t be responsible for smuggling attempts from there across the Green Line [into Israel].”
Abu Yazan said the fish exported from Gaza come from three sources – the sea, fish farms and imported fish from fish farms in Egypt. Some 80 tons of fish are exported every week in two batches via the Kerem Shalom checkpoint to the Bitunya checkpoint near Ramallah. From there the fish are taken to West Bank merchants, who market them in Palestinian towns. A small portion of the fish are marketed to Jordan and other states.
Workers in the industry said that unlike other goods, fish and seafood cannot be stored for an appreciable length of time: One week after the fish are caught they can no longer be sold. They said the Gazan market is too small for the amount of fish the industry there provides, and that the fish can only be sold within Gaza for low prices.
Some of the fishermen who spoke to Haaretz said that since the ban was imposed, they’ve had to throw fish back into the sea or sell them for half or quarter the potential price in the local market.
Israeli sources told Haaretz that the ban followed warnings of attempts to smuggle fish into Israel, which could be a health hazard. “The fish are moved from the West Bank to Israel without any veterinarian supervision, and with no way to prevent low-quality fish being sold in Israel,” one source said.
He said Israeli officials plan to investigate the matter and that if the Gazan authorities and fishermen’s organization act to prevent smuggling and operate in keeping with health regulations, the ban will be lifted.
The Israeli human rights organization Gisha said the ban on fish exports is an illegal, punitive measure that Israel has imposed for the second time since mid-August, dealing a fatal blow to the livelihood of the merchants and fishermen.
In August, Israel banned fish marketing from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank for more than three weeks, after seizing a truck in Gaza that was carrying fish in violation of transport regulations regarding merchandise from the Strip. Israel destroyed the 13 tons of fish it took from the truck.
“Israel’s marketing ban and its restrictions have a drastic impact on Gaza’s merchants and on the thousands of families who make a living working in the fishing industry, as well as on the entire Gaza economy,” Gisha said. “This impact is well known to Israel, yet it proceeds as though it has no responsibility and legal obligations toward Gaza’s residents as an occupying force, and chooses not to take them into consideration.”
Gazan fish merchants have recently asked the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry and officials in the United States to let them export fish directly to Israel, pledging to adhere to all the requirements of veterinarian inspection. They are still waiting for an answer.
“Israel has an interest in protecting its fishermen and fish farms, so it won’t allow us to sell on the Israeli market,” one merchant said. “On the other hand, they punish us for the acts of merchants on the West Bank. We’re stuck in the middle.”