GAZA CITY, Palestine: After two hours waist-deep in the sea, Sameer al-Hissi says his paltry haul of tiny fish is not the only consequence he and Gaza’s fishermen are suffering from as a result of Israel’s offensive.
Ashore, he lifts up his T-shirt to show red-brown blotches across his chest and stomach, the result, he says, of spending his mornings in a sea heavily tainted with smelly sewage since Israeli strikes knocked out the power station supplying electricity to treatment plants.
Following the plants’ closure, levels of raw sewage released into the sea are higher, meaning smaller catches and the risk of illness.
“Sewage in the sea today is affecting people and the fish they eat,” said the wiry 52-year-old, sat in the shade of an umbrella with the basket carrying the 14 tiny fish he caught.
Before the conflict erupted on July 8 he fished from his boat in Gaza port, going up to 3 nautical miles out to sea in accordance with the limit imposed by the Israelis.
Now he spends two hours every morning wading through the surf on the beach casting a small net to bring back food for his family. But he says that there are fewer and fewer fish to be caught off the beach because the raised level of untreated sewage is driving them further out to sea.
“If their environment is dangerous, the fish leave,” he said, and added: “Like people.”
The waste is also making people ill, more seriously than himself, he said, talking of children who had become sick after swimming in the sea.
The head of the Gaza fishermen’s syndicate agreed the problem had gotten worse since water treatment plants had stopped working.
“Of course, we know the problem of pollution in the sea is worse than before the war,” Nizar Ayish said. “Currently there is no treatment of the water because of the war.”
Complicating the problem is the fact that it is too dangerous for members of his body, which he said has 4,000 members, to inspect exactly how much sewage is currently being released into the sea where Hissi fishes. Four young boys playing on the beach on July 16 were killed when Israeli forces shelled the area.
Monzer Shoblak from the Coastal Municipalities Water utility said the amount of waste pumped into the sea had remained about the same as before the war, around 25,000 cubic meters, but because of the electricity and damage to a treatment station, everything is now untreated.
The amount “collected from the city and pumped to the waste water treatment plant has not increased ... it has become just raw sewage,” Shoblak added.
Back on the same Mediterranean beach, Hissi near the Shati refugee camp, Yasir al-Sultan only ventures 200 meters offshore in his small boat, standing and paddling himself out before casting his nets.
A fisherman for 30 years, he too has been struggling with conditions since the war started, and blames the rising levels of sewage in the water and the rubbish floating in the seas for his declining catches.
“For the most part, the environment here is polluted, it’s dirty,” he said. “We fish here because it’s a little further from the pipelines.”
Pointing to the port behind him, where the rooms where the fishermen kept their nets and equipment were blackened from Israeli shelling, Sultan said the sewage in the water has even put Gazans off spending time at the port.
“The port was supposed to be a touristic place, but because of the sewage, no one comes because they don’t like the smell.”
But Sultan was more concerned with seeing an end to the fighting as soon as possible.
“We want an end solution – the Israelis are shelling us every day,” Sultan said.
From early morning Monday, as a new truce began, fishermen headed out to sea in dozens of small launches after staying at home during the conflict for fear of Israeli shelling.
But most went no further than a couple of hundred meters offshore as in the distance, a Israeli naval vessel could be seen patrolling several kilometers further out.