Israel loosens restrictions on Gaza fishermen

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Israel loosened restrictions on fishermen off the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday by allowing them to travel up to 15 nautical miles into the Mediterranean, the largest distance in years.

The decision comes after Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, said it had been engaged in Egyptian-brokered talks with Israel on easing parts of the blockade in return for calm.

Israel has not commented on the negotiations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to avoid a severe escalation in the Gaza Strip ahead of April 9 Israeli elections.

“The fishing zone in the Gaza Strip has been expanded to a maximum of 15 nautical miles (28 kilometers),” said COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry unit that oversees such regulations.

It did not say in which areas the zone would extend to 15 nautical miles. Israel has in the past extended the distance in certain areas but not others.

The distance is the largest allowed in years by Israel, which has blockaded the enclave for more than a decade, said Miriam Marmur, spokeswoman for Gisha, an NGO that monitors restrictions on Gaza.

She however noted that it remains short of the 20 nautical miles agreed to under the Oslo accords of the 1990s.

The distance has fluctuated in recent years from between three nautical miles up to 12 in certain areas.

In late February, Israel extended part of the zone to 12 nautical miles while other areas remained at six.

On Sunday, Israel reopened its goods and people crossings with the Gaza Strip after having kept them closed for nearly a week following a rare long-distance rocket strike from Gaza. Restrictions had also been placed on the fishing zone after the rocket.

The rocket fire wounded seven Israelis and led to Israeli retaliatory strikes across the Gaza Strip, another serious flare-up between the two sides.

The reopening of the crossings came after tens of thousands of Palestinians protested along the Gaza border with Israel on Saturday, marking the one-year anniversary since demonstrations and clashes erupted there.

Four Palestinians were killed on Saturday during protests and clashes, but unrest was limited and fears of mass bloodshed were averted after Egyptian-led negotiations.

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