Israel says eases Gaza fishing restrictions after truce

Several thousand Gazans depend on fishing for their livelihoods but often changing Israeli restrictions have led to prolonged layoffs that mean many live below the poverty line (AFP Photo/MAHMUD HAMS)

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel announced Tuesday it had eased fishing restrictions off the blockaded Gaza Strip after a ceasefire with Hamas ended a deadly escalation earlier this month.

Israel extended the fishing limit to up to 15 nautical miles, said COGAT, the defence ministry unit that oversees such regulations.

The move restores the fishing zone to the limits set in April ahead of Israel's general election.

Gaza fishing union official, Zakaria Bakr, however told AFP on Tuesday morning that it had yet to be informed of any changes.

COGAT did not provide further details, but in April the limit was set at six nautical miles in the north near the Israeli border, 12 off central Gaza and 15 in the south near the Egyptian border, according to the fishing union.

Israel banned fishing completely when the two-day flare-up of violence began earlier this month, but lifted the ban with a restriction of up to 12 nautical miles following the truce.

The 15-nautical-mile limit is the largest allowed in years by Israel, which has fought three wars with Palestinian militants in the enclave and has blockaded it for more than a decade.

But human rights activists note that it still falls short of the 20 nautical miles agreed under the Oslo accords of the 1990s.

Israeli authorities did not say the move was linked to the truce reached earlier this month with Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip.

But Palestinian officials said at the time of the May 6 ceasefire that it included Israel taking steps to ease its blockade.

Israel media reported late Monday that the ceasefire, brokered by Egyptian and UN officials, is a six-month deal that includes the expansion of the fishing zone as well as the transfer of medicines and other aid to Gaza.

Negotiations are also to take place on issues including Gaza's severe electricity shortage and border crossings, the reports said.

In return, Hamas would calm protests along the border and halt maritime demonstrations aimed at breaking the blockade.

Hamas denied the reports and Israel did not comment.

Separately on Tuesday, human rights groups said Israel had informed the Israeli supreme court it intended to return 65 boats seized from Gaza fishermen accused of violating the blockade.

Three human rights groups calling for the immediate return of the boats said the government indicated in a court filing it intended to return them "in accordance with security and political considerations and in line with a security assessment", without providing a date.

COGAT did not respond to a request for comment on the statement from the three groups, Gisha, Adalah and Al Mezan.