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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À Gaza, on importe même le poisson d’Israël

by Charlotte Bozonnet

In Gaza, Even The Fish Are Imported From Israel

Translated Friday 16 July 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Bill Scoble

The Israelis are authorizing the entry of some products to the Gaza Strip. But their strict selection and the restrictions imposed on so essential an activity as fishing are a brake on any economic development project.

The Gaza Strip, from our special correspondent.

“These come from Israel. The sardines at the back were caught last night. There are also some that are brought in from Egypt.” In front of his stall at the fish market, the Gaza fishmonger points out each type of fish according to its origin: a few white seabream and red mullet, are lined up on ice on the ground.

After three years of Israeli-imposed blockade, this coastal strip has managed the feat of becoming a net importer of fish. Some comes through tunnels from Egypt, but the bulk is imported ... from Israel!

In the port, a few dozen yards down from the fish market, most of the fishing boats are there. Ahmed Elass is seated with his family in the shade of a ramshackle windscreen, next to his nets. “Tonight, they fired at around 4 a.m.,” the fisherman explains. “They say we have the right to go out three miles, but in reality, as soon as we go beyond two miles, they cause problems.” In the course of the years, the authorized area for Gaza fishers has shrunk away to practically nothing. Of the 20 nautical miles in the 1993 Oslo Accords, the limit shrank to 10 miles at the time of the second Intifada (begun in 2000) and then shrank to 3 miles today.

A relationship that is as inhumane as it is cynical.

At that distance, the nets take only small fish, mainly sardines, and fewer and fewer of them, because after all these years of restrictions, the coastal waters have been over-exploited. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the catch fell by 47% between 2008 and 2009. “At four shekels a kilo (47¢ a pound), you still have to subtract the cost of diesel fuel and the nets,” sighed Ahmed, who shares the meager results with his two brothers.

Like him, the 3500 Gaza fishermen are having a very hard time continuing to work and, whereas the sea should be the driving economic force in the Strip, it is imports of fish from Israel that are skyrocketing: Four tons in November 2008, 32 tons in October 2009, according to the Palestinian Trade Center.

This is because not everything is blocked from entering the Gaza strip. Some commodities are authorized, whose selection is evidence of a siege that is not only inhumane because of the shortages it imposes, but also because it is often cynical.

In the report that it has just published, the Israeli human rights organization, Gisha, which is fighting for freedom of movement, has gone over the blockade’s three years with a fine-toothed comb. The first aspect of the study is well known: Israel allows only 97 products to enter Gaza, as against over 4,000 before 2007, and one fourth as many truckloads of goods (2,300 a month, as against 10,400).

The second aspect is less well known: one learns that Israel accepts, on principle, the entry of only small quantities of margarine, but not the big blocks that could serve industrial activity. Similarly, Gisha explains, Israel forbids “the transfer of rubber, glue and nylon used to make diapers in Gaza, but authorizes the entry of made-in-Israel diapers.” There are two advantages to this choice for the Israeli rulers: hindering any economic development in Gaza and selling off some stocks of Israeli products.

In Gaza, the managers of the Arjan mineral water plant know something about that. The team is proud to take you on a visit of the facilities: the little quality analysis laboratory, the desalination set-up, the bottling line...

Producing mineral water... a vital need.

“Mineral water may seem to be a funny idea, but we lack drinking water, and water that is filtered is not healthy,” explained Bassem Aboudraz. The forty-ish scientist is a member of the team that worked on the project beginning in August 2009, developing marvels of ingenuity to make such an infrastructure possible, despite the blockade. The bulk of the material was brought in from Egypt, the money was raised thanks to Gaza investors, and advertising has even been published in the newspaper.

And then? “And then, since February, less than two weeks after opening, Israel brought in millions of bottles of mineral water cheaper than ours, whereas we had not seen a single bottle for four years,” the factory director explains, matter-of-factly.

The information is easy to check. On its Internet site, COGAT – the Israeli bureau that applies the entry-departure policy in the Palestinian territories – has an up-to-date list of authorized commodities and their entry date. “Mineral water: February 2010.”

Thousands of unsaleable bottles have been stocked for months at the Arjan factory, and the mineral water bottling line is at a standstill. The factory, which employs twenty workers, continues to operate, making fruit juices. “It’s clear that the Israelis did this to bust the industry,” the director, Attqia Esleem, underlines. “If we were able to export, we could employ 2,000 or 3,000 people,” he adds.

There is a need for technological, financial and political backing on the part of governments, companies, and even universities, in order to attempt to crack the blockade. Moreover, if France were to demand that Arjan water be allowed to be exported, the factory is ready to send a free truckload of water.

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