02 April 2009|
Exploitation of Gaza Part 1 - from Amnesty International
Why is Israel so interested in the waters off the Gaza coast?
Why did the attacks on Gazan fishermen start in 2000?
In 1999 the British Gas Group (later BG Group) discovered significant deposits of natural gas under the water 10 to 15 nautical miles off the shore of Gaza. The deposits, named Gaza Marine 1 and 2, are estimated to contain up to 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas or the energy equivalent of 150 million barrels of oil. They are currently valued at some 4 billion dollars.
BG Group initially drafted an agreement sharing the resource between the Palestinian Authority, Egyptian interests and themselves. Under pressure from Tony Blair BG group replaced Egypt with Israel in the consortium, although Egypt is once again involved.
Under the 1993 Oslo Accord the Palestinians were allowed to use a sea corridor extending 20 nautical miles out from the Gaza shoreline for fishing and recreational purposes. For the next 7 years the Gazans fished throughout this corridor without restrictions by the Israelis. But in 2000, less than a year after the natural gas discovery, Israeli warships began attacking fishing vessels that traveled further than 6 nm from shore. Since then at least 15 fishermen have been killed and over 200 injured. The practice has continued since the Operation Lead ceasefire went into effect. More fishermen have been killed and injured and the boats are now attacked when they travel beyond 3 miles.
This particular facet of Israel's widespread violations of international law connecting gas and fishermen is not widely known. These pages will be devoted to a detailed account of its background and of related developments as they unfold.
More links available on this topic on Free Gaza links page.
TIMELINE OF GAZA MARINE ZONE, FISHERMEN AND NATURAL GAS DEPOSITS (updated 24th February 2009)
BACKGROUND: There is an historical connection between the Gazan community and the off shore fishery. In recent times some 3000 fishermen in over 700 boats made their livelihood in the waters off the shores of Gaza. Before 1978 when the fishing area included the sea off the Sinai coastline the area covered some 75,000 square kilometers.
The larger boats are about 20 meters in length and usually carry a crew of 7. They are typically trawlers using downriggers to lower their nets to the ocean bed. Currently their main catch is bream or sardines that average between 8 and 14 inches. The smallest craft are rowboats normally used to deploy nets a few hundred meters off shore. The nets are then hauled in by hand from the beach. These catches are very modest.
After the 1994 GAZA-JERICHO AGREEMENT the fishermen were free to use a corridor extending 20 nautical miles from the Gaza shore bounded by restricted zones to the north and south abutting Israeli and Egyptian waters. After the UN's 2002 Bertini proposal the approved location was reduced to an area within 12 nautical miles of the coast. More recently the area available has been reduced to 300 square kilometers.
Beginning in late 2000 the Israeli military began a campaign of intimidation and harassment against the fishing boats that ventured near or beyond a 6 nautical mile limit. No formal notice or explanation was ever given to the Palestinians. Instead the regulation was written and enforced by Israeli machine guns and water cannons. At least 15 fishermen have been killed by the Israelis, over 200 injured and numerous boats damaged or impounded.
Since the ceasefire concluding Operation Lead the attacks by Israeli gunboats on the Gazan fishing boats has become more aggressive with assaults taking place less than 2 miles off shore. Gazans walking on the beach have been wounded by gunfire intended for the fishing boats.
In the late 1990's the British Gas Group (BG Group) discovered a vast deposit of natural gas under the waters off Gaza: Over 1 trillion cubic feet equal to 150 million barrels of oil was estimated to be there. A significantly smaller deposit was also found in nearby Israeli waters.
On 11/8/99 Chairman Yasser Arafat signed an agreement giving BG Group 90 percent interest and 10 per cent to Consolidated Contractors Company, an Athens based Palestinian entity connected to the PLO.
A final allocation of the rights continues to be contested between BG Group, Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians in obscured ongoing negotiations.
The Israelis began their program of killing and harassing the Gazan fishermen only after the discovery of the natural gas deposits. It is a reasonable assumption that the two events are linked: That the Israelis are asserting control over this resource valued at over 4 billion dollars; And that they are intent on denying any benefit to the Palestinians regardless of who controls Gaza.
-May 4, 1994: PLO Chairman Yasser Araft and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed The Gaza-Jericho Agreement. Article XI established three Maritime Activity Zones that extended out to sea 20 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza. Two narrow Zones running parallel to the boundaries of Egyptian and Israeli waters were designated No Fishing Areas. Under the terms of the Agreement the larger remaining Zone "will be open for fishing, recreation and economic activities."
The Agreement defined the main Maritime Activity Zone as extending out 20 nm from shore. However the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea Part V describes an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that would grant Gaza control of all seabed assets up to 200 nm from its shore. There is speculation that even greater deposits are located under these waters that would give Gaza the potential of becoming another Dubai in a relatively short period if they were allowed to develop their own resources.
For the next 6 years the Gazan fishermen operated freely within the main Marine Activity Zone with no major confrontations with the Israelis.
- 1999: The British Gas Group (later BG Group) began explorations off the Israeli and Gazan coasts for natural gas. A modest deposit was found in Israeli waters close to the Gaza Marine Activity Zone. A significantly larger deposit was found in a section of this Zone centered some 10 to 15 nautical miles offshore. It was estimated that there were sufficient reserves to generate electric power for all Palestinian needs for a decade and still have surplus to export.
- July 25, 2000: Yasser Arafat walked out on the Camp David meeting.
- September 27, 2000: Yasser Arafat traveled 19 miles off the Gaza coast to light the first flare stack flowing up from the natural gas deposit. An Israeli oil consortium had contested the Palestinian rights to the gas but was overturned in an Israeli court. The initial agreement with the BG Group gave them 90 percent interest and 10 percent to Consolidated Contractors Company, an Athens based Palestinian group. They and the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF) had the option to later assume up to 40 per cent interest. Original estimates for development and production expenses were in the area of 2 billion dollars. Profits were estimated at another 2 billion dollars.
In the initial stages BG considered running an underwater pipeline 20 nautical miles from the Marine Zone directly to Gaza where it would be used in retrofitted generators to provide power. Excess gas would be piped to the West Bank or converted to Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) for export to foreign buyers.
This plan was abandoned when the Israelis said they would never buy the gas directly from the Palestinians. At that point the BG Group negotiated with Egypt to run an undersea pipeline designed to import the gas to a plant at El-Arish. The gas would then be piped to Israel that would not have to deal directly with the Palestinians.
Under pressure from Tony Blair BG Group was forced to negotiate with the Israelis instead who wanted the pipe to run directly to Ashqelon. Those discussions were so long and contentious that ultimately the BG Group closed their Israel office and again began dealing with Egypt.
- September 28, 2000: Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount despite warnings by Arafat and other leading Palestinians. The predictable riots and deaths following this provocation marked the beginning of 2nd Intafada. Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February 2001. He vowed that Israel would never buy gas from the Palestinians. After the outbreak of the 2nd Intafada the Israelis began an ever-tightening blockade of Gaza with fewer and fewer trucks allowed to enter.
- Late 2000: Attacks by Israeli patrol boats against Gazan fishing boats began and have continued to this day. These attacks began only after the discovery of the natural gas deposits and 5 years before Hamas freely won the legislative elections on January 25, 2006. It is apparent that these assaults on the fishermen had nothing to do with security or with Hamas. Instead it had everything to do with a 4 billion dollar resource belonging to the Palestinians.
There is an Israeli drilling platform a short way north of the Gaza Marine Zone. Although there is no evidence supporting speculation at this time it is feasible for the Israelis to access the gas deposits located in the Marine Zone. Slant drilling techniques allow bits to reach 10-15000 feet horizontally from a standing platform. Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing its oil using this technique.
- August, 2002: In response to a request from Prime Minister Sharon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations appointed Ms. Catherine Bertini as his Personal Humanitarian Envoy to asses humanitarian needs of the Palestinians.
At the end of her visit to the area she made numerous recommendations including one that dealt with the fishing boats. In her report she included a list of "Previous Commitments Made by Israel". Item 2 states: "The fishing zone for Palestinian fishing boats off the Gaza coast is 12 nautical miles. This policy needs to be fully implemented." But never was!
- Although the attacks occurred throughout the Maritime Activity Zone they were more common once a boat had passed a 6-mile limit. Most boats now carry GPS's in order to know their exact positions. Some captains are intimidated by the Israeli threat and turn back before crossing the line. Others go further despite the increased danger from the Israelis. The fishery closer to shore has collapsed after so many boats were forced to operate in such a limited area. In addition the waters near shore are polluted due to sewage pouring in from broken pipes. One more consequence of an infrastructure crippled by the Israelis.
Since the outset of these assaults at least 15 fishermen have been killed and over 200 injured. Boats continue to be damaged or impounded.
9/12/05 - Israel announced that it had ended the occupation of Gaza and withdrew its forces. It continued to maintain control of air and sea-lanes as well as all border crossings on land.
1/25/06 - Hamas won 76 of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in an open honest election. After a bloody battle with Fatah elements Hamas took control of Gaza. Israel and the United States branded Hamas a terrorist organization and have had no public contact with it thereafter. The restrictions at the border crossings were tightened further with severe limitations on the traffic of produce, materials, medicines and people. Anemia and malnutrition are widespread as a result.
Early June 2008 - Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the Israel Defense Forces to covertly prepare for an invasion of Gaza to be known as operation "Cast Lead".
June, 2008 -Israel contacted BG Group to propose reopening negotiations over the natural gas deposits. Actual negotiations overseen by Ehud Olmert were taking place in October, 2008. It appears that Israel wished to reach an agreement with BG Group before the secretly planned invasion began.
6/19/08 - Hamas and Israel signed a 6-month truce agreement calling for cessation of rocket firings by Hamas and military incursions by Israel. In May over 300 rockets had been fired. Hamas was lead to believe that significant increase in shipments would be allowed to enter Gaza. Before the truce roughly 70 trucks were allowed to bring provisions into Gaza each day compared with some 900 permitted before the Israeli clamped down in 2000. Hamas believed that a similar flow of traffic would be restored. Instead Israel allowed only an increase from the 70 to 90 trucks.
11/5/08 - IDF forces killed 6 Palestinians while supposedly searching for a tunnel passing under the border. In effect the truce was over after this provocation. During the next 5 weeks 237 rockets were fired into Israel compared with the 1 fired in September and 2 in October before the IDF attack. The increase in rocket fire was Israel's public justification for launching the long planned "Cast Lead" invasion.
11/18/08 - An Egyptian court ordered the government to stop shipping natural gas to Israel. Under a 2005 agreement Egypt agreed to deliver 1.7 billion cubic meters of gas to Israel over a 15-year period. The gas began to flow in May, 2008. A lawsuit followed seeking to bar delivery since the Parliament had not given its approval. The court supported the lawsuit and its findings are being appealed. The potential cutoff of the gas from Egypt gave Israel even more incentive to take control of the Gaza Marine deposits and to deny any benefits to Palestinians whether Hamas or Fatah.
11/18/08 - Israeli naval vessels attacked three Palestinian fishing boats located seven miles off the coast of Deir Al Balah, clearly within the limits permitted in the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement. Fifteen Palestinian fishermen and three international observers were kidnapped and taken with the boats to Israel. The fishermen were held for a day and then released. The boats were eventually returned but damaged. The internationals were jailed in Israel for many days and then deported.
12/27/08 - Israel began bombing Gaza as phase 1 of operation "Cast Lead".
1/18/2009 - Israel declares ceasefire ending "Cast Lead".
1/24/2009 - A father and his daughter walking on a Gaza beach were wounded by gunfire from Israeli ships shooting at Gazan fishing boats.
GAZAN COAST BECOMING A "NO-GO" ZONE
On Saturday 14th February, 23 year-old Rafiq abu Reala was shot by Israeli naval forces whilst fishing in Gazan territorial waters, approximately two nautical miles out from the port of Gaza city. He was in a simple fishing vessel, not much larger than a rowing boat, with a small outboard engine, known locally as a 'hassaka'. Rafiq, his brother Rajab and another friend were following the course of a shoal of fish. A group of five more hassakas were out at the time, about a kilometre to the west of Rafiq's boat, further out to sea. An Israeli naval gunboat approached the area and began shooting at the other hassakas, which quickly changed course and headed east, back towards shore.
Suddenly Rafiq realised the gunboat was bearing down on their hassaka. As he recounted the events of that day, Rafiq likened the predatory nature of the naval vessel to that of a wolf. It circled their fishing boat and began shooting heavy ammunition in their direction. The three terrified fishermen threw themselves down flat in the bottom of their boat. The Israeli captain ordered them via megaphone to raise their nets and leave the area. At this point the gunboat was less then 20 metres from Rafiq's hassaka. The second time the gunboat came around no attempt was made to communicate with the fishermen. Rafiq was desperately pulling in the nets with his back facing the gunboat. An M-16 assault rifle was fired hitting him twice with explosive 'dum-dum' bullets, which peppered his back with shrapnel from the bullets themselves.
The force of the shots threw him in the water, plunging him down about six or seven metres below the surface. Rajab asked their friend to control the boat while he rescued Rafiq. Being a strong swimmer, he dived in after Rafiq and pulled him out of the water into the hassaka. However, Rafiq was unconscious by this time. The outboard was being slowed down by the weight of the nets so they headed towards another hassaka 300 metres away where they dumped the nets. The fishermen in this vessel had a mobile phone and made an emergency call. The stricken hassaka reached port at the same time as the ambulance arrived and Rafiq was taken to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza city in a serious condition.
It could take Rafiq months to fully recover yet he has a family to support. He married just six months ago and his wife is now expecting their first baby. After five years of working as a fisherman, he has experienced Israeli naval forces firing warning shots on many occasions but this was the first time he has been directly targeted. However, Rajab survived being shot in the chest by the Israeli navy two and a half years ago. It is sobering to note that 15 Gazan fishermen have been killed by the Israeli navy since 2000. Rafiq described the level shooting on Saturday like an open war. Fishermen were attacked from Wadi Gaza, south of Gaza city, all the way to the north of Gaza. A number of hassakas were targeted that day, some vessels sustaining serious damage from the shooting.
Palestinian fishermen have come under daily assaults from Israeli gunboats since Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire which supposedly came into force on 18th January. Reports of heavy gunfire and even missile fire are now becoming the 'norm'. Rafiq is the third Gazan fisherman to be shot by the Israeli navy during this non-existant ceasefire. On 26th January, Alaa al-Habil was shot in the lower leg whilst trawling less than one nautical mile off the coast of Gaza. On 6th February, Mahmoud al-Nadar was shot in both legs whilst 1.5 nautical miles off the coast of Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip. Nowadays it is unthinkable for fishermen to venture beyond three nautical miles from the Gazan coast, with many vessels staying just metres from the beach. However, Gazan territorial waters reach 12 nautical miles offshore - indeed, the Oslo Accords grant a fishing zone extending as far as 20 nautical miles.
Israel is attempting to create arbitrary 'no-go' zones in the sea - enforced solely by the gun. They might succeed if it weren't for the resilience of the fishermen. All this is akin to what is happening on land. The Israeli Occupation Force has declared an area of Palestinian land a kilometre in from the Green Line a 'closed military zone', affecting an audacious land grab that threatens to swallow a vast swathe of rich agricultural land all the way along the eastern length of the Gaza strip.
Although the violations of law and basic human rights to the Gazan fishermen pale in comparison to the recent horrors that have unfolded they should be addressed and prosecuted in the future.
David K. Schermerhorn
Deer Harbor, WA 98243
(Schermerhorn has been to Gaza 3 times in recent months aboard Free Gaza (freegaza.org ) boats. He spent two days aboard fishing boats that were harassed by machine gun fire and assaulted by water cannons.)
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