By DIAA HADID
The Associated Press
Thursday, July 6, 2006; 2:49 PM
RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- During five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Gaza's fishing boats were routinely grounded by the Israeli military. So when Israel withdraw from Gaza last year and relaxed its coastal restrictions, the fishermen here gleefully took to the sea to support their families.
But a new Israeli offensive that started last week has forced the small fishing fleet here back to shore at the height of the summer season, leaving many fisherman scrambling to survive.
Majid al-Nada, a 24-year-old fisherman from Rafah, said he and others used to go out six miles _ but now it's only five yards.
"I'm living off my savings and, when that ends, I'll borrow money," he said.
Israel, which maintained control of Gaza's coast even after its pullout last year, sealed off the sea with naval gunboats after a soldier was captured in a June 25 militant raid on an army post.
The army says the coastal closure is crucial to stopping the militants from smuggling the soldier into nearby Egypt by boat.
It has also stranded about 3,000 Palestinian fisherman on shore for 10 days, costing the local economy $250,000 in losses, said Tarek Saker, director general of fisheries at the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry.
With about 43 percent of the Palestinian population living in poverty and unemployment at 23 percent, every fish caught counts. The fishing industry supports tens of thousands of workers, from the fishermen to those who make the nets and fix the boats, Saker said.
The industry became even more important to Gaza's economy earlier this year, when Israel and the West started an international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which has left 165,000 civil servants without salaries since April.
Before Israeli-Palestinian fighting broke out in 2000, fishing accounted for almost 7 percent of agricultural output, said Saker. But last year, Palestinian fishermen caught half as much as they did in 1999 _ largely because of the Israeli restrictions.
"When the fishing season is at its peak, this is the people's food and they eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Saker said.
Gaza fishermen were caught off guard by the Israeli response to the militant raid that captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Al-Nada's boats were out at sea when Israeli naval boats suddenly began firing on the fishermen the morning of the raid. A small unmanned boat filled with lights to attract fish, which he drags behind his main boat, was hit with 38 bullets.
"I wasn't in the boat," Al-Nada said. "If I was, I'd be dead."
Israeli army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said Israel is constantly patrolling the Gaza coast to prevent the kidnappers from moving Shalit to Egypt and to prevent Palestinian militants from smuggling explosives in, as they tried to do recently.
Amran Miqzad, a 19-year-old Rafah fisherman, had been hopeful he could continue in his family's profession after Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer. For six months, the horizon was free of naval ships and Palestinians fished freely.
But now Miqzad can only count on a few fish to feed his family, he said, as 23 small boats lay on their side in the sand nearby.
"I have no other source of livelihood," said Miqzad, who usually catches tuna and sardines this time of year. Now, "we throw our nets into the sea from the shore, and we catch two or three fish for personal use."