The Palestinian women working to save Gaza's fishing industry
Instead of waiting for her fisherman husband to finish his day off the Gaza coast, Mona Hneideq now works alongside him. He catches the fish, while she creates and makes delicious dishes with them.
Along with 19 other women, Hneideq has opened the Fishermen’s Wives Seafood Kitchen, near the seaport of Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip. There, the women support their husbands, whose work in the fishing industry faces ever tighter restrictions from Israel.
“They go fishing early in the morning, and once they are back, we take the catch and make different dishes based on customers’ orders,” Hneideq, 36, told Middle East Eye as she cleaned the fish.
“We prepare the meals, wrap them, and then deliver them to different districts of the Gaza Strip… We complete our husbands and help them overcome the challenges.”
Hneideq decided to support her husband after 14 years of marriage, during which she witnessed him come close to giving up fishing many times.
“He felt desperate and hopeless on many occasions, and he was about to give up on his profession. He and his fellow fishermen get chased by Israeli gunboats almost every day.
"The occupation [forces] open fire towards them, threaten to detain them, confiscate their boats and limit the fishing zone regularly,” she said.
“This has made fishing sometimes not worth the effort. There are many days when he would come back home after a long day of fishing without earning anything. But there were also days when he would make up for it.”
Before they started the project, the feelings of hopelessness that had overwhelmed Hneideq’s husband meant he thought it would fail.
“All our husbands were doubtful, they told us that it was going to fail, especially as we started a similar project in 2021 and we gave up on it a few weeks later because we did not receive enough orders,” Hneideq said.
“But this time, we worked well on marketing and organised an opening ceremony with an open buffet to attract customers. We are getting many orders and our husbands are now supporting the idea because they can see it is working.”
Generations at sea
Although the majority of the 20 women working in the kitchen are wives of fishermen, there are also daughters looking to support their seagoing fathers.
Growing up in a family deeply rooted in the fishing industry, Hanan al-Aqraa learned to make seafood recipes from a very young age.
“I remember when I was a child, I used to come to the seaport where my father worked. I brought him food and tea and watched him fishing for hours,” she told MEE.
“My grandfather was a fisherman. Now my father, uncles, and brothers are continuing the family tradition. I am very familiar with fish recipes and have decided to continue the same tradition and look for a new work opportunity through this project.”
The 29-year-old has a degree in English literature. Since her graduation, she has only done work connected to this degree for a couple of months.
“I once worked as an English language trainer, but I quit a few months later because the pay was really bad and the hours were really long,” she said.
'We are getting many orders and our husbands are now supporting the idea because they can see it is working'
- Mona Hneideq, Gaza
“I am still looking for job opportunities, but I currently work in the kitchen almost every day. We have a schedule organising the working hours for the ladies, and each one of us works according to her schedule and assigned tasks.”
The unemployment rate in the blockaded Gaza Strip, which has been described by human rights groups as an “open-air prison”, reached 45 percent at the end of 2022, compared to 13 percent in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).
Among youth graduates (19-29 years old) holding an intermediate diploma or higher, the unemployment rate in Gaza had reached 74 percent, compared to 29 percent in the West Bank.
The kitchen’s project is supported by a non-governmental organisation, the Economic and Social Development Centre of Palestine, as part of an initiative to improve fishermen’s income and support their families.
No other work
In the first half of 2023, there were around 4,900 registered fishermen working in the five governorates of the Gaza Strip. They are supporting at least 50,000 people.
According to Nizar Ayyash, head of Gaza's fishermen's union, the number of fishermen in the coastal enclave has increased over the past few years despite Israeli restrictions on the industry.
“This year, we have the largest number of registered fishermen. The reason why the number is increasing while the restrictions are tightening is that there are no other work opportunities in Gaza. People are depending mainly on fishing and farming,” Ayyash told MEE.
Since 2006, fishermen and farmers have been the workers most impacted by Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza, the union boss said.
“The first file that the occupation deals with when they decide [on restrictions] is the Gaza Sea. They immediately limit the fishing zone from 12 to six or three nautical miles. In addition to this, there are daily incidents of detention, boat confiscation and assaults,” Ayyash said.
Under the 1993 Oslo Accords agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Israel is obligated to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles off the Gaza coast.
In practice, this has never been implemented, with Israeli gunboats usually appearing between six and 12 nautical miles offshore. At times, Gaza’s fishermen have been restricted to just three nautical miles by the Israeli navy.
“While they confiscate fishing boats and equipment, the Israeli occupation has also been preventing the entry of any equipment necessary for the fishing industry into Gaza for the past 16 years,” Ayyash said.
“This includes fibreglass, which is needed for manufacturing and repairing fishing boats, and boat engines. Today, when an engine is broken, fishermen repair it by replacing parts from other broken engines.
"If an engine part is available on the black market, it would not be a genuine part, and if its original price is 100 shekels ($27), it actually costs them around 1,000 Shekels ($275).”
'Born in the sea'
On a plastic chair outside the kitchen, Hanan’s uncle, Adnan al-Aqraa, was taking a day off from fishing.
Having worked as a fisherman for over 50 years, Adnan says he feels that he “was born in the sea”.
“I have worked with my father in fishing since I was around 10 years old. I helped him as a child and now my children help me,” the 61-year-old said.
“We first used the fishing net, which we could only use while standing on the beach. In 1984, we bought our first boat, and then over the years, we bought another two boats that I, my brothers, and our children have used for decades,” he told MEE.
But in 2021, one of the family’s boats was shot at by an Israeli gunboat as al-Aqraa and his brothers were fishing within the permitted fishing zone.
“The shot left a hole in the boat, but we managed to repair it soon after the incident. They still regularly open fire towards our boats to force us to back off although we sail within the allowed limit,” the father of 10 continued.
“But we still go every day, because what would we do otherwise?”
According to fishermen and their wives, the kitchen project, which they started in order to challenge Israel’s restrictions, will still be significantly impacted by the Israeli blockade.
'They still regularly open fire towards our boats to force us to back off, although we sail within the allowed limit'
- Adnan al-Aqraa, fisherman
The type and quantity of seafood caught in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza are affected by the nautical miles allowed by Israel for fishing. When fishermen are allowed to sail out to between 12 and 15 nautical miles, the fish market in the strip thrives; more fish species are available, with more affordable prices for residents.
“The kitchen project of fishermen’s wives would support a lot of families, but it would still be affected by the restrictions imposed on us fishermen,” al-Aqraa continued.
“For example, in the 1990s, I used to sail out to around 20 nautical miles. I was known for catching the white lox because this is the distance you need to sail within in order to find this type of fish. Today, you would rarely find this type in the market because we only sail within six or seven nautical miles.”
His niece, Hanan, who is responsible for receiving orders from customers, agrees.
“We receive orders from customers daily and make various dishes, including seafood soup, rice dishes, as well as grilled or fried fish and shrimps,” she said.
“However, our daily menu is restricted to the types of seafood our fathers and husbands manage to catch within the allowed fishing zone.”