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War-torn Lebanese fishermen return to sea

9/14/2006

TYRE, Lebanon — The fishermen in this southern Lebanese port city are back at work now that the Israeli sea embargo has been lifted.

But so far their catch has been disappointingly small, and some of them contend their nets are often filled with bombs and missile parts.

"Our job has always been difficult, but now it's even harder," fisherman Kamal Istambuli said as he took a break this week at one of the rowdy taverns in the old port city.

The estimated 480 fishermen of Tyre scrambled back to work after Israel lifted its coastal blockade of Lebanon last week and vessels from a United Nations peacekeeping mission took over patrolling the Lebanese coast.

Israel had enforced the sea and air embargo since July, at the start of its 34-day war with Hezbollah, saying it needed to prevent the guerrillas from being resupplied with weapons.

For fishermen here, that meant they missed the summer high season, when fish are most abundant in the Mediterranean and when tourists usually flock to the scenic coast, packing seaside restaurants and boosting demand.

The fishermen say they are glad to be back fishing, but still face risks.

"The nets are filled with bombs and missile parts," said Istambuli, displaying a picture of what appeared to be a mine he had caught in a net the day before.

Fisherman Rami Assaf said he believes fish have been scarce since the blockade's end.

But he is unsure if that's because of an oil spill caused by an Israeli air strike against a fuel depot farther north, or because of the illegal dynamite he acknowledges that some of his colleagues use to fish.

The 24-year-old goes out nearly every day in his boat, the Marshabil, working in shifts with his father and nine brothers. He also works a second job as a cook at a hospital.

He said his family has been fishing for as long as anyone can remember, working in Tyre, an ancient port city founded by Phoenician sailors.

"You only become a fisherman if your father already is one, or if you're too poor to do any other job," he said, while endlessly throwing one hook after another into the sea.

It took Assaf three hours to cast and then pull out his line. He caught 68 fish, each about the size of a hand, which barely filled the bottom of the box where he keeps his catch.

Once unwanted species were thrown back, Assaf had 10 pounds of fish to sell — and back at port he reached a deal for $30 with a restaurant owner.

For now, Assaf said police have ordered all fishermen to stay within two miles of the coast, so they can avoid the Italian and French aircraft carriers and ships patrolling farther off shore.

His flimsy 20-foot wooden boat also sports an oddly large Lebanese flag, as do others.

"The police made us all have one," he said, pointing at the red-and-white Lebanese colors that flapped in the evening breeze. "You never know who you're going to meet at sea."

Several fisherman said that despite the Israeli blockade, they had kept fishing, rowing out at night and casting their nets close to the coast to avoid detection by the Israeli navy.

Some acknowledged they fish with dynamite, a forbidden method both dangerous for fishermen and devastating for maritime wildlife.

"But if you have little time and you really need the money, you have to do it," said one fisherman who asked not be identified because the practice is banned.

He said he would go fishing during Israeli raids so that the bombardment would cover the sound of the dynamite blasts.

On Sunday, a man had his hand blown off while at sea. His colleagues said no one knew whether it was from a leftover mine in a net, or because he'd been using dynamite.