Gaza City– Under a sea blockade, the coastal Gaza Strip has now become a seafood importer. Its desperate fishermen–cut off from plentiful fishing grounds by Israeli patrol boats–have turned to sneaking into Egyptian waters in tiny motorboats to buy their catch and bring it home.
Others bring in fish by land, in ice-packed plastic foam boxes pulled through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. And even though the Mediterranean is right on Gaza’s doorstep, locals are creating fish ponds to provide Gaza’s 1.5 million people their key source of protein.
"People are searching for any solution," said fisherman Adnan Abu Rialeh, 50, who sailed toward Egypt’s Port Said three times in the past month to buy sardines.
"If we could only go and fish in our sea, I could make some money and put it in my pocket," he said.
Gaza’s 3600 fishermen are not allowed to go out further than 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometers). If they cross the line, they risk coming under fire from Israeli gunboats.
Five fishermen have been killed, more than 20 wounded and dozens arrested in attacks on boats, said the Israeli human rights group Gisha.
The permitted zone is overfished and can’t sustain the fishermen, said Nizar Ayyash, head of the fishermen’s union. "It’s not a sea for fishing, it’s a pool for fishing," he said.
The sea blockade is part of the closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt. Access to Gaza was severely restricted after the capture of an Israeli soldier in 2006, and the blockade was further tightened after the Islamic militant Hamas seized Gaza in 2007.
Israel says the blockade helps keeps weapons and militants out of Gaza. Most of the weapons come through hundreds of smuggling tunnels, but Israel says it has also intercepted seaborne shipments.
Last month, several explosives-filled barrels were sent into the Mediterranean from Gaza and washed up on Israel’s shores. The barrels were detected, causing no injury. In April, a fishing boat rigged with explosives was detonated close to a navy boat.
"The sea is still a prominent factor in the terror arena," said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman.
The fishermen say they’re not engaged in politics, and that Israel is destroying a way of life that once provided 5000 jobs and made up four percent of Gaza’s economy.
At dawn on a recent morning, men in waterproof overalls silently unloaded boxes of Egyptian sardines from a boat in Gaza City’s small harbor. At the nearby fish market, most of the sardines on offer were Egyptian imports, said Mohammed al-Hissi, an activist in the fishermen’s union.
He said 30 Gaza boats returned from Egypt that morning, carrying several tons of sardines compared to a local catch of just 200 kilograms of shrimp, 300 kilograms of crabs, and 500 kilograms of assorted fish.
Abu Rialeh, a fisherman since childhood, said the trips to Egypt began about a month ago, with just a few taking the risk. Now, dozens make the dangerous journey every day in small motorboats hugging the coast to avoid Israeli patrols.
The journey can take six to 12 hours in each direction, and so far the Egyptian authorities have looked the other way.
But even the door to Egypt is closing. Abu Rialeh said he won’t be making another trip into Egyptian waters because the fuel costs are eating up his profits.
The Egyptian fish are also reaching Gaza in other ways.
On a recent evening, Palestinian workers hauled four plastic foam boxes with sardines packed in ice through one of the smuggling tunnels running under the border with Egypt.
The boxes were hoisted by a homemade pulley, then loaded into a truck for the drive to Gaza City, 45 minutes away.
Perhaps the only low-risk way of supplying fish these days is to grow it.
Several fish farms have popped up in Gaza in the past two years to fill the shortage created by the blockade. One of the farms is run on the lands of a former Israeli settlement.
The farm is part of a 300-acre complex Gaza’s rulers hope will one day become a full-fledged movie studio.
However, film-making is expensive, and the fish farm — along with citrus plantations and a recreation area — is covering the costs.
The farm sells 60 kilograms to 300 kilograms of fish a day, said Abedelsalam Nasser, the head of the future media city.
He said the farm is turning a profit, and more pools are under construction.
While fish farms may be the way of the future, the fishermen yearn for their ancient trade.
"The best time for us was when the sea was open to us," said Abu Rialeh, hanging around the fish market. "If the sea was open, you wouldn’t see me here."