Palestinians pray for fish as Israel opens deeper waters

A fisherman unloads his catch at the seaport of Gaza City on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 02 April 2019
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Palestinians pray for fish as Israel opens deeper waters

  • This step is part of the civilian policy aimed at preventing a humanitarian deterioration in the Gaza Strip

GAZA: As their rickety motorboats puttered out into deep Mediterranean waters for the first time in almost two decades, the Palestinian fishermen prayed for deepwater mackerel and tuna to supplement Gaza’s usual shallows fare of sardines, shrimp and crab.

This week, as part of Egyptian-mediated efforts to ease the plight of 2 million residents of the blockaded Gaza Strip, Israel has extended the area where it permits Palestinians to fish.

“Such a distance has been off-limits. And hopefully there are lots of fish to bring back,” said 69-year-old fisherman Ahmed Al-Amoudi.

Israel keeps a naval cordon on Gaza, part of a blockade it and neighboring Egypt say is necessary to prevent arms smuggling by the Hamas extremists that rule the coastal territory.

Since 2000, Israel has limited Palestinian fishing waters to just 6-9 miles from the Gaza coast. But on Monday it broadened the limit to 12-15 miles (19-24 km) out.

“This step is part of the civilian policy aimed at preventing a humanitarian deterioration in the Gaza Strip and reflects the policy of distinguishing between terror and the uninvolved populace,” an Israeli official said.

Palestinians saw the move as an Israeli concession to a year of protests at the border, combined with several surges of cross-border fighting which have prompted foreign mediation on ways to help Gaza’s economy.

“Thanks to God and then to the ‘March of Return’, which opened up the sea for us,” Al-Amoudi said, referring to the weekly demonstrations at the frontier, which demand a lifting of the blockade and the right for Palestinians to return to homes their families fled or were forced from when Israel was founded.

April to June are peak Gaza fishing season. The sector accounts for less than 5 percent of the enclave’s GDP and supports some 50,000 people, a fraction of the 2 million population.

But the fishing has value beyond the numbers, as one of the few viable industries in Gaza, where more than half the population is unemployed and nearly 80 percent receive some form of aid, according to the World Bank.

With Gaza’s land borders tightly controlled by neighboring Israel and Egypt, the sea’s horizon provides many Palestinians with a glimpse of hoped-for freedoms of movement in the future.

The fishermen still have it hard, with fuel and spare parts for their boats scarce. They say that Israel has also barred the importation to Gaza of wire cables that would allow them to line nets for plumbing the depths.

But fisherman Wael Abu Mohammed was still cautiously upbeat.

“With 15 miles now we will be comfortable, if there are no problems with the Israelis,” the father of 10 said. “We hope for the best.”

The past year has been the deadliest in Gaza since the last war between Hamas and Israel five years ago, with nearly 200 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces at the border demonstrations. One Israeli soldier was killed.

United Nations investigators say Israel has used excessive force. Israel says it has no choice but to use deadly force to protect the border from militants and infiltrators.

The Israeli navy has in the past fired on Palestinian boats that strayed from the fishing zones, sometimes impounding the vessels and detaining their occupants. In addition to smuggling, Israel worries about seaborne attacks. In the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas frogmen swam from Gaza to storm an Israeli coastal base.

The Israeli official said that maintaining the expanded zone for Gaza fisherman “depends on (them) honoring the agreements” and that any attempt to venture beyond it “will be handled accordingly by the (Israeli) security services.”


Palestinian contractors set to gain from Israeli tech firm’s takeover

Updated 1 min 29 sec ago
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Palestinian contractors set to gain from Israeli tech firm’s takeover

  • The chipmaker offered stock options to more than 100 Palestinian engineers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip

RAWABI, WEST BANK/TEL AVIV: Palestinian engineers working for Israeli chip designer Mellanox Technologies are poised to share a $3.5 million payout when the company’s takeover by US chip supplier Nvidia Corp. is completed.

Mellanox is one of a handful of Israeli firms that have begun to collaborate with the emerging Palestinian tech scene, bypassing the political conflict to tap a growing pool of engineers at costs they say are comparable to hiring from engineering expertise in India or Ukraine.

The chipmaker offered stock options to more than 100 Palestinian engineers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip when it hired them as contractors, even though they are not permanent staff, as a shortage of engineers in Israel makes their skills highly sought after by multinationals.

Mellanox says its Palestinian designers and coders, outsourced through software firm ASAL Technologies, will now be able to exercise those options after Nvidia’s $6.8 billion takeover closes at the end of 2019, and stand to collectively earn as much as $3.5 million.

“We’re very proud they have equity, the same as all other employees in the company,” Mellanox Chief Executive Eyal Waldman told Reuters in an interview.

“Thirty, forty thousand dollars for an employee in the West Bank or in Gaza is a lot of money,” Waldman added, noting that unemployment there hovers at around 40 percent.

The median daily wage in the West Bank is $28 and just $11 in Gaza, according to the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute.

ASAL CEO Murad Tahboub said 125 of his 350 employees work exclusively for Mellanox, which makes products that connect databases, servers and computers, and they were given options in a bid to reduce job hopping among workers.

“(Mellanox) saw value, they saw loyalty in the relationship,” Tahboub said in his office in a bustling high-tech center in Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city in the West Bank. “The Israeli market provides an opportunity for the whole Palestinian high-tech sector.”

ASAL’s other clients include Microsoft, Intel and Cisco. Tahboub said his engineers designed 70 percent of Cortana, the virtual assistant created by Microsoft.

High-tech provides a unique opportunity for Palestinians, whose universities produced around 3,000 engineers in 2018, Tahboub said.

Still, Tahboub said Israeli restrictions — particularly curbs on the movement of goods and people in and out of the West Bank and Gaza — deter multinationals from investing in or outsourcing from the Palestinian territories.

“(Investors) avoid risk. Why should I invest in a startup in Palestine if I’m not sure if the owner of that startup can travel to the US?” Tahboub asked.

Those challenges are intimately felt in Gaza, whose economy has suffered from years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades. Economic cooperation between Israel and Gaza is mostly limited to merchants importing goods, including cement and petrol.

Both Mellanox and ASAL agree tech can be a major boost for Gaza, and they plan to increase their joint remote workforce in Gaza from 25 engineers currently.

Waldman hopes the two companies’ collaboration will help improve relations and reduce tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The more positive friction there is between the two people the better it is for us, for the environment, for the Israelis, for the Palestinians,” Waldman said. “I think we can have an impact.”