An Old Man And No Sea

On May 26, I was brought to the shore of the Meditarranean sea to meet two fishermen, residents of the Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. They spread blankets out on the sandy floor of their small shack for us to sit on and served tea with mint.

Yusef Mohammad Alberdawil has been a fisherman for fifteen years. His face is browned, wrinkled from years of sun, wind and salt. He wore the traditional long cotton gown worn by many men in the Gaza Strip. I asked him to tell me a little bit about his life and work and how things have changed over the years.

"Before the first Intifada [1987], although we were under occupation, the situation was much better because there were no restrictions for fishing. We used to be allowed to fish so far out that we would be in international waters. We used to take our boats all the way to Egypt. And we were rich. To be a fisherman, you could earn more than a worker inside Israel. But after Oslo, things changed. In the Oslo agreements we were only given permission to fish as far out as 12 miles. And that was only in restricted areas."

Yusef said that this change in policy greatly reduced amount, size, and variety of fish that he could catch. The Oslo Accords also affected his market. Under the new agreement, all commerce had to go through Israel, so he could no longer sell directly to Egypt. "The Egyptians used to come here to buy my fish. Now I can only sell to people in the Gaza Strip and sometimes to Israel."

And then since the Intifada started in 2001, Yusef’s fishing waters has been further reduced. The Israeli army has set up checkpoints on the sea, and they do not let fishermen out farther than two miles. If the fishermen try to exercise their rights under Oslo to fish farther out, the soldiers in the boats spray them with scalding hot water. If they further persist, the Israelis will shoot holes in their boats and sink them.

Yet, Yusef is still relatively lucky because he lives in the middle region of the Gaza strip and still has access to the coast line. Many fishermen in the southern part of Gaza can’t even reach the shore because Israel now controls 50 per cent of the Gaza coastline and this section is off limits to Palestinians.

Still, two miles from the coast, the pickings are slim and the new rules have made it impossible for Yusef to make any money from fishing. Instead, he lives off of an allowance that he receives from the United Nations. Monthly, he receives a little bit of money, bead flour, and canned sardines and tuna. Ironically, sardines and tuna are the two kinds of fish that Yusef used to catch the most.

Yusef knelt before me on the sand showing me one of his small cans of sardines. "I used to love to sit on my boat at night, shine my lights on the water, and watch the fish streaming under me. For me, that was the most beautiful sight in the world. And I used to love to hook a big fish and struggle to bring him in, just like the Old Man and the Sea. But now the only fishing I do is from a tin can."


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