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Lebanon’s fishermen crippled by wartime oil spill

Shame Israel Shame II

by Jocelyne Zablit Sun Aug 27, 6:39 PM ET BEIRUT (AFP)

Israel’s war against Hezbollah has brought disaster to Lebanon’s fishermen, stricken by a massive oil spill on the country’s shores, as well as heavily damaged boats and a continuing naval blockade.

Dozens of fishermen can be seen lingering in the small ports that dot the coastline, desperately surveying their idle craft and the oil slick caused when Israel bombed a power plant near Beirut in mid-July, destroying storage tanks and spilling up to 15,000 tonnes of fuel into the Mediterranean.

The slick, described as the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster, has polluted an estimated 150 kilometers (93 miles) of coastline.

But while the focus has so far been on the environmental crisis, little attention has been paid to the thousands of fishermen whose lives were shattered by the month-long war and who have yet to receive any compensation from the government.

“It’s been almost two months since any of us worked,” said Mohammed Kniwa, head of the fishermen’s union at the Raouche port in Beirut, where an estimated 150 tonnes of oil is trapped.

The Lebanese army on Friday began pumping out the black sludge, which has coated the few boats still in the water as well as the rocks around the bay where stray cats with blackened legs and underbellies prowled.

Kniwa, 63, said the only help the fishermen have received is a handout of 100 US dollars each and food parcels from the foundation representing Lebanon’s slain ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

“No one from the government has even deigned to come talk to us,” said a bitter Ahmad Itani, 55, who has been a fisherman since the age of 15.

“I guess they will show up when it’s election time.”

In the meantime, he and his fellow fishermen spend their time at the port playing cards or discussing politics and their plight.

“I have been fishing for 30 years and now I’m reduced to taking handouts,” lamented 66-year-old Samir Moussa.

At the port in Uzai on the outskirts of south Beirut, where an entire fleet of 300 fishing boats was destroyed by Israeli bombardments in July, the fishermen’s anger is palpable.

Not only have they been affected by the oil spill and Israel’s punishing air and naval blockade on Lebanon, but their boats have also been reduced to debris, they say.

“My boat is gone, my livelihood is gone and all the government is doing is taking care of the tourist beaches rather than their own people,” said 40-year-old father of six, Adel Zein El Din.

Help at Uzai has come from the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which gave each fisherman 150 dollars and some food.

But the men say that while the handout is welcome, it will do little to ease the long-term financial burden caused by the war.

Those with children say their kids will not be able to attend school this year because they cannot afford tuition fees or school supplies.

“We wait all year for the summer season because that’s when we can earn up to 35 dollars a day and that helps us to make it through the winter,” said Saad El Din Jizay, 41.

“But today we have nothing, and all we need is for the government to help us out until we can stand on our own two feet again,” he said.

He and others said that even those who venture out to fish near the coast are unable to sell their catch at the market because buyers are afraid of pollution.

The many fish restaurants along the coast have also been hard hit.

“The first thing customers do when they come in is ask if the fish is OK,” said Elie al Ward, manager at Sultan Ibrahim, one of the Lebanese capital’s best-known fish restaurants.

“Our restaurant is usually full, but now we have more employees than customers,” he added.

Lebanon’s Environment Minister Yacoub Sarraf told AFP that the government was still evaluating the damage caused by the spill and was studying a bailout package for the fishermen.

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