Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Boats Run Short of Sea to Sail On

Eva Bartlett

GAZA CITY, Aug 1 2011 (IPS) - “My father was a boat-builder and I learned from him, worked on boats all my life. Now there’s no work at all.” Abu Fayez Bakr, 64, is one of two boat-builders in the Gaza Strip, the last of a dying trade, despite Palestinians’ penchant for the sea and its bounty.

The now useless boat built by Abu Fayez. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

The now useless boat built by Abu Fayez. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

“My sons learned a little about boat repairs, but not actual building. They were young when I had regular building work, but now that they are older the work has dried up.”

In Gaza’s simple harbour, Bakr sits beside a hefty boat he built nearly a decade ago, one of his last projects.

“We received funding from Denmark to make this research boat, equipped with special oceanography equipment. I built it about nine years ago, but it isn’t much use now. You need to go out into the sea to use it properly, not just a couple of miles,” he says, referring to the Israeli lethal imposition of a three- mile boundary on Gaza’s sea, despite the Oslo agreements according Palestinian fishermen 20 miles.

“It was damaged in the last Israeli war on Gaza. We’re repairing it now,” he explains.

Bakr laments his working conditions, as well as those of fishermen in general. “The Israeli siege has made everything here difficult, and it bans the materials I need for my work.

“We don’t even have the proper nails any more. They need to be copper or another rust-proof material. Now we’re forced to use nails that will rust and need to be replaced in a year or two. The fiberglass is poor quality also, like what people use to fix leaks in their homes.”

The ban on wood and machinery hurts Bakr the most.

“I used to get good oak via Israel, from Brazil or elsewhere. Now I have to use expensive Eucalyptus that we bring in through the tunnels from Egypt. It isn’t ideal for boat building and after five years the wood will be damaged from rot.”

Having worked as a builder outside of the Strip, Abu Fayez is acutely aware of Gaza’s shortcomings in equipment and materials.

“In Gaza, we make do with simplicity, even repairing the boats right on the beach. But that’s wrong, they should be in a sheltered workshop,” he says, pointing to the tilted 130 ton research boat propped up with blocks.

“No one has the money to make a workshop. Most fishermen can barely feed their families,” he says.

Across the harbour a mid-sized vessel sits steadied on blocks. “We’ve been enlarging it for the owner. Since the materials are expensive it will cost ten times more than it should.”

With no orders coming in for new boats, Bakr survives by boat maintenance, including normal sea wear and paint touch-ups.

But it is the repairs from Israeli attacks that continue to send fishermen to Bakr.

“The boats are damaged with bullet holes from the Israeli machine guns. Some are damaged by Israeli shelling. The water cannons, too, they seriously damage the boats: they destroy the equipment and weaken the wood.”

Even with the constant stream of repair work, Bakr just earns enough for his family.

“If I was outside of Gaza, every day I’d make good money for this work. But here no one has money to make new boats, or to pay for their repairs. Most of the fishermen are in debt.”

In the late nineties, when investors had hope for Palestine’s economy, one Gazan Palestinian commissioned Bakr to make a large, two-level tourist cruising boat.

“It was ready in 2000 and sailed for a couple of summers just beyond the port. But people stopped going on it because of the Israeli navy’s shooting,” Bakr says.

“So the owner moved it inside the harbour to use as a floating restaurant. Even then people were frightened off by the Israeli navy shooting along the beach. Eventually the owner decided to stop wasting money on a project no one would go on,” says Bakr, standing in front of the defunct Dolphin, now weathering on the harbour sand.

Abu Said Najjar, 35, from Rafah, is the second-last boat-builder in the Strip. “I learned from my uncle, when I was young. We worked in Gaza and Egypt,” he says.

Like Bakr, the forced decrease in fishing impacts Najjar’s own work. “I haven’t worked regularly for the last five years, because the fishermen are either not working or don’t catch enough fish to save any money.”

One of Najjar’s last projects is still being curved into the shape of a hull. It now sits gleaming with a new coat of paint, almost sea-worthy.

“It still needs finishing inside but the owner doesn’t have the money for those materials,” he says. “Even if he borrows money to pay for the boat, he’ll never be able to pay off the loan. Not when he’s limited to three miles.”

With 13 children, Najjar knows the consequences of being banned from the sea. “I sold my trawler, which I’d worked off for 20 years, because I had debts,” he says, pointing to the boat undergoing renovations across the harbour, whose new owner is one of very few in Gaza with the money to buy a boat for the sport of it.

Like Bakr, one of Najjar’s sons was learning the trade but stopped with the absence of building work.

“Years ago there were more boat-builders. But the tradition is dying out because our youths look for any work that will pay now, and boat-building isn’t that work, ” Najjar says.

“We need the means to keep our boat-building tradition alive: funding, a proper place to repair and build the boats, and an economy and open seas that allow our fishermen to fish properly.”

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