Madeleine Kulab grew up by Gaza’s glistening blue sea, watching the waves crash into the strip’s 25-mile Mediterranean coastline. But at 13, when her father, who suffered from a form of palsy, could no longer fish, Kulab took the helm and became her family’s breadwinner.
Now 21, she says becoming Gaza’s first and only fisherwoman was not easy, both because she is a women and because she lives in a society whose dysfunctional relationship with Israel takes a daily toll. “Even the sea isn’t free here,” Kulab says. “People always looked at me and teased or scolded my dad … they didn’t take me seriously. But we ignored them.”
Today, one year after last summer’s war with Israel in which 2,100 Palestinians were killed — most of them civilians — vast devastation can still be seen across the Gaza Strip’s scarred landscape.
For many, Gaza is a cemetery of aspirations never realized. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world — home to about 1.8 million Palestinians, roughly a third of whom live in UN-funded refugee camps. The territory is riddled with poverty and its local economy strangled by a blockade which Israel imposed in 2007 to weaken the Islamist Hamas government.
UN figures show about 80 percent of the population receives aid. According to the World Bank, unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world at 43 percent. Youth unemployment hovers over 60 percent. Few ever obtain the proper permits to travel through the territory’s tightly controlled borders.
Since Israel imposed its land and sea blockade, families have suffered. On the water, if fishermen exceed a six-mile limit imposed by Israel, they risk being shot at by the Israeli Navy. “We are given small swimming zones to fish where there isn’t any good fish,” Kulab says, noting her boat has been shot at in the past. “It’s a cage.”
Zakaria Bakr, head of Gaza’s Union of Agricultural Workers, says Kulab is one of the best on the sea. “Living in Gaza taught her to be brave,” he says. “Both physically and mentally. This isn’t always easy here … few men are as strong.”