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The New York Times’ Gaza fishing story reels in readers, forgoes facts

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Tamar Sternthal

 A great deal has been written about Gazans’ resourcefulness in face of incredibly challenging circumstances. But no one has ever put their finger on this particular stroke of Gazan ingenuity: The coastal territory appears to be the only place in the world with a collapsing fishing industry that nevertheless manages to more than double its catch.

Even The New York Times’ Nov. 27 article (“Amid Israeli Blockade on Gaza, a Fishing Fleet Limps Along”), in which Raja Abdulrahim describes the Gaza fishing industry like a fish out of water gasping for air, collapsing under Israel’s suffocating blockade, fails to detect this unprecedented ingenuity at play.

“Not far from the edge of the port in the Gaza Strip lies its boat cemetery: two rows of beached fishing vessels that even Gazan ingenuity cannot salvage,” Abdulrahim laments about the ailing sector which is said to be in or near its death throes.

“This is a war on our livelihoods,” she quotes a local fisherman saying, who is “standing on the bow of one of his family’s boats, which has been in the cemetery for years.” The graphically described emotive story that she wants readers to buy hook, like and sinker is exactly as her tweet says: “For Gaza’s fishermen, Israel’s blockade has prevented import of materials needed to repair boats and maintain a functioning fishing fleet. It has damaged a vital but shrinking part of the economy in the coastal enclave.”

Introducing readers to the forlorn boat cemetery, she explains, “The boats began piling up in Gaza 15 years ago after Israel, aided by Egypt, imposed a land, air and sea blockade on the small Palestinian coastal enclave in 2007.” The blockade, she says, means that fishermen can’t obtain critical supplies like motors, propellers, fiberglass and more needed for their trade, leading boat owners to abandon their broken, useless vessels in the ship cemetery.

“Gazan and industry officials warn that if Israeli restrictions are not eased, the Strip’s fishing sector could completely collapse in the next few years as more and more boats are removed from service,” Abdulrahim claims.

“The fishing sector now works at 50% capacity and every day it is decreasing,” the New York Times reporter quotes Jehad Salah, head of the fisheries directorate in Gaza, saying. “When they ban the equipment needed for maintenance, then they are forcing people to leave this industry.”

But happily, as it turns out, Gazan ingenuity is alive and well. Even as the fishing sector is “decreasing” every day, it catches more and more fish.

Indeed, according to figures published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, by all counts Gaza’s fishing industry over the last 15 years has thrived during its alleged “collapse.”

In 2005, two years before the blockade was imposed, 707 fishing boats were in Gaza. By 2019, a dozen years into the blockade, that figure more than doubled to 1,739 boats.

Some skeptics might argue that official Palestinian statistics on Gaza fishing boats or fishermen are not a fair measure of the actual situation. Perhaps, they say, desperate, dirt-poor fishermen continue registering additional broken-down boats that they cannot use due to lack of parts.

What about other indicators of the sectors’ health, despite its reported collapse? The amount of fish caught, for example, is surely an accurate reflection of the industry’s actual vitality or lack thereof. And here too the figures show remarkable growth, despite the industry’s purported demise. In 2009 (see Table 3), Gaza fishermen caught 1,524,913 fish. After another decade of a supposedly suffocating Israeli blockade, that figure climbed to 3,943,369 in 2019.

Among readers hooked by Abdulrahim’s account on the destruction of the Gaza fishing industry was Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth, who tweeted, “Israel’s punitive blockade of Gaza is far far broader than needed to combat violent attacks. It is a form of collective punishment against the people of Gaza (not just Hamas) that, for example, is destroying Gaza’s vital fishing industry.”

CAMERA has appealed to The New York Times to cover this unique form of Gaza ingenuity in which a collapsing fishing industry has managed to more than double its catch despite a “devastating” Israeli blockade. Stay tuned for any updates.

Tamar Sternthal is director of CAMERA’s Israel Office.

Originally published by CAMERA.

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