The hours after sunset are when Gaza City’s seaside walkway is at its most crowded, with families navigating brightly colored juice and ice cream stalls, the embers atop countless hookah pipes glowing in the wind and cafes blaring music well into the night.
But just before sunrise, it’s a quieter, more serene waterfront. By 6 a.m., the fishermen have assembled at Al-Mina, the city’s main port, loading fuel, ice and other supplies into their rickety boats for another 24 hours at sea.
Among them is the Subuh, a fishing trawler owned by the Hissi family. Today it’s helmed by Mohammad Hissi, a wiry 35-year-old with glasses who slides the boat away from the docks with the half-distracted ease of many years of practice.
“I’m old in this business,” he says, adding that he’s been fishing Gaza’s shores since he was 14. “My father, Abdul Salam Hissi, also did this since he was a child in school. We all have. It’s our family’s craft.”
He glances at a Koden Echo Sounder perched on the side, discerning in the Rorschach-like display of blue, red, green and yellow dots, some promising schools of fish, then notes his position according to a bulky, ’90s-era GPS unit. He turns the wheel and orients the Subuh toward the northern edge of the zone that he and the other fishermen are allowed to ply.
It’s a short trip. With the Gaza Strip controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas since 2007, both Israel and Egypt have the enclave under blockade. That makes the coast off this 23-mile-long Mediterranean enclave a patchwork of boundaries, one that fluctuates according to the stormy relations between Israel and Hamas. Although the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s obligated Israel to allow boats to go as far as 20 nautical miles from Gaza’s shore, the maximum it has ever permitted is 12. It’s often even fewer than that.
A day before the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas erupted May 10, Israel imposed a ban on all boats sailing from Gaza. It has since permitted fishermen to go six nautical miles from the shore.
The result is a voyage akin to an ’80s arcade game, with Hissi and about 5,000 other Gaza fishermen bobbing and weaving from one end of the zone to the other while avoiding the twin dangers of Israeli and Egyptian gunboats. Cross a boundary and it can be game over for the fishermen’s boats, their freedom or even their lives.
“There’s the daboor,” says Yusef Hissi, the captain’s cousin, employing the Arabic word for “wasp” as he gestures at an Israeli navy gunboat lying in wait a few miles north. Get too close, he explains, and the Israelis fire water cannons, shoot at the nets or dispatch commandos to board and confiscate the ship.
He expects little better on the Egyptian side.
“If we get close to the Egyptians, they just shoot at us,” he says, showing a reporter the traces of patched-up bullet holes on the walls of the boat’s cabin.
But there’s little action today. With the fishing net deployed, the crew members settle into a relaxed routine, sipping mouthfuls of Turkish coffee as they gaze at their smartphones. Hissi puts up a tune by the Lebanese chanteuse Fayrouz and lounges back in his chair while keeping the wheel steady with the side of his leg. Then Umm Kulthum comes on, and the others hum along with her over the engine’s din.
At midday, Hissi gives a shout to his crew. It’s time for the second emptying of the catch. He checks everyone is in position before pushing on a lever and pedal that begin retracting the net, with cousin Yusef and Mohammad Saadallah, a 36-year-old crew member, standing near the fast-spooling chain to guide it and make sure there are no obstructions. Then the pair pour out the haul — hundreds of fish, jellyfish and the occasional stingray, all flopping on the deck — before the net gets dropped into the sea once again.
The crew quickly sorts the fish into boxes that Yusef carries into the hold and packs in ice. They’ll repeat the whole process about eight more times before they head back to the dock.
First, lunch. It should come as little surprise that fish is on the menu, with some of the better selections from the day’s catch battered and fried on a makeshift stovetop, with a simple salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions on the side. Flatbread, whether to wrap chunks of fish or sop up the salad’s lemony dressing, works in lieu of cutlery.
Come dusk, a few skiffs cross in front of the boat, skimming the waves as they head toward the setting sun. But on the Subuh, the rhythm slows; Alaa and Abdul Qader, the youngest crew members at 14 and 13, respectively, lie on the bow and take selfies, while Hissi, taking advantage of the lull between emptying the net, puts 17-year-old Abdul Salam on the conn and takes a nap. Yusef Hissi and Saadallah change to finer nets for nighttime use, when they can expect to catch shrimp.
The night unfolds as a series of naps punctuated by frenetic bursts of action to haul in and sort the fish. Hissi squeezes in one more traversal of the coast before swinging back to port as the first blush of sunrise colors the sky.
Return at dawn
At the dock, Hissi’s father, the elder Abdul Salam, a stern-looking man in an off-white tunic who uses a cane, steps on board and props up a chair to keep a watchful eye over the day’s catch. Beside him prowl a trio of cats waiting for the occasional fish he’ll toss them as the crew weighs the boxes and carries them over to a refrigerated van.
With the blockade still in place and Israel banning most of Gaza’s exports to fellow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Hissi’s operation will be lucky to break even. But once again he turns his attention to the boat and checks to see if fuel and ice have been loaded for another trip.
Minutes later, the Subuh sets out on another voyage in the Mediterranean.
About this story
This piece was designed and developed by Nico Chilla. Copy editing by Rubaina Azhar and Sam-Omar Hall. Photo editing by Calvin Hom. Additional editing by Kate Kuo, Amy King and Alex Tatusian.