“In the past, fishing was better, because we could go out 12 nautical miles and no one targeted us,” observes one of the young Gazan fisherman. “Now, it’s only six miles and there’s no fish there.”

This basic fact - the literal shrinking of the space within which people in Gaza can engage in fishing without risking harassment and death at the hands of the Israeli military - lies at the core of “Six Miles Out,” a striking new video released on Facebook last week by the We Are Not Numbers project (whose work has been featured previously here on the Weave News site).

Having spent many years writing about the Palestinian liberation struggle, I found this short film moving and instructive on a number of levels. At its core, the film reveals something important about how the experiences of Palestinians living under Israel’s settler-colonial occupation are shaped by different forms of spatial confinement. I explored this theme in my Global Palestine book, drawing on an evocative phrase once used by Sylvere Lotringer in a dialogue with Paul Virilio: “confinement under an open sky.”

In “Six Miles Out,” the filmmakers travel with a group of Palestinian fishermen working just off the coast of the Gaza Strip. The joy and camaraderie are palpable: they are doing what they love. The younger ones ask one of their senior comrades to regale them with a song. Later they all sing together as they pull in their nets, grateful for the catch they have been able to bring in.

In one way, the sky is open. Yet as anyone who follows the situation in Gaza knows, there is nothing “open” or “free” about the status of the territory. Despite the misleading Israeli rhetoric of having supposedly “withdrawn” from Gaza, there is no question that Gaza remains under occupation. Israel controls the borders and the airspace. As Ahmed Alnaouq, one of the young authors from We Are Not Numbers, wrote recently, young Gazans have an “intimate knowledge” of the deadly machines that control the “open sky” above them:

Drones are relatively new in our world, first invading my imagination during Israel’s 2008 war on Gaza, when I was 14. Before that, the Apache helicopter dominated both our play and our nightmares. During the Second Intifada, most of the assassinations of Palestinian leaders in Gaza were carried out by Apaches. I was in the first grade when the intifada began, and they were used to shoot at protesters. Apaches hovering in the sky over Gaza became a routine sight as I walked to school.
— Ahmed Alnaouq, "The Return of the Apache"

The system of colonial occupation operates horizontally as well. Gaza’s fishermen must constantly be aware of the fact that Israel’s ongoing blockade of the territory includes a six-mile “designated fishing zone” that is maintained, through force and intimidation, by the Israeli navy.

After night falls in “Six Miles Out,” the fishermen are urgently reminded of this reality. “The hornet (Israeli navy) is coming,” announces one member of the group, “although we didn’t cross the designated line.” Over a loudspeaker we hear a voice coming from the naval vessel: “I’m crazy! I will shoot you all!” The men swing into action, reeling in the rods and firing up the motor. Another explains to the filmmakers, “Whether you cross the fishing limit or not, they’ll come to hurt you...they are shrinking the fishing zone gradually. In a matter of three or four years, we’ll have nothing. They’ll take the sea from us.”

The process he describes has been documented extensively in recent years. In a 2016 report, UNRWA (the UN agency that provides support to Palestinian refugees) laid out the implications:

The restrictions imposed by Israel over the course of the last nine years have led to intensive, near-shore fishing, which has depleted fish stocks by disturbing their natural breeding grounds and threatened the fisheries resource base. Fishermen have been forced to drop their nets in waters that contain young fish and spawning species. This means that the fish caught are typically small, and this practice leads to long-term damage to marine habitats. The fishermen in Gaza are also reportedly being fired at by the Israeli Navy on an almost daily basis. Their boats are allegedly regularly sunk or impounded and the fishermen themselves arrested. Additionally, different materials used by the Gaza fishermen to repair their boats and nets are considered by Israel to be ‘dual use items’ – meaning items that Israel believes could have a military purpose, such as steel bars, concrete, electrical material, pipes or wood thicker than 1 cm, among others – and therefore fall under Israeli import restrictions.
— UNRWA, "Gaza fishermen: Restricted livelihoods" (2016)

“Six Miles Out” provides a powerful look at the vibrant humanity of Gaza’s people as well as an essential glimpse into how Israel’s colonial project continues to operate through multiple, interlocking forms of confinement and repression. While watching it I was reminded of two films. The first, director Saverio Costanzo’s intensely claustrophobic 2004 film Private, centers on a Palestinian family whose house is literally occupied by Israeli soldiers, forcing the family members to spend much of their time inside a single room. The second, Nahed Awwad’s 2008 documentary Five Miles From Home, brilliantly uses the bittersweet memories of older Palestinians to tell the story of the Jerusalem-area airport that used to enable Palestinians to fly with ease to Beirut and elsewhere prior to Israel’s capture of Jerusalem in 1967.

This reality of “confinement under an open sky” affects all Palestinians, whether they live directly under occupation or whether they experience it from afar as members of the global Palestinian diaspora. It is a reality that works its way into everyday life in an infinite number of ways, many of which are illustrated in the stories published by We Are Not Numbers. One young fisherman in the “Six Miles Out” film sums up what this reality means for him: “I wish we had our own sea port with no fishing limits. I wish we had our own airport so we can travel.”