Forget the blockade, eat at Abu Hassira

The family-owned restaurant in Gaza has managed has a loyal clientele spanning all political stripes and most income brackets, as well the handful of foreigners working in this Palestinian enclave.

The owner, Moneer Abu Hassira, showcases the latest catch in his restaurant's fish market.
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GAZA CITY // Newcomers could be forgiven for being confused by the half dozen or more seafood restaurants on Abu Hassira street, all bearing a variation of the same name: Abu Hassira.

But only this one venerable seafaring family has managed has a loyal clientele spanning all political stripes and most income brackets, as well the handful of foreigners working in this Palestinian enclave.

This is Moneer Abu Hassira's restaurant, which, deliberately, the 47-year-old fisherman and restaurateur named the Moneer Abu Hassira restaurant.

The menu-less eatery - where fish is ordered by the gram, and which serves a popular yet mysterious fish soup that is anything but fishy - has become an institution here since its founding in 2000.

And yet, the two-level restaurant is far from fancy. Patrons must first enter through the in-house fish market, where the sights and smells of the day's catch, displayed in front and packed on ice, resemble a gritty seaside dock.

The dining facility also is a no-frills experience. Massive tortoise shells and shark jawbones adorn the walls, alongside shucked lobster tails and fading posters of killer whales and other aquatic species.

Adel Taweel, 40, says he dines at Moneer Abu Hassira for reasons other than ambience. "We're here to focus on the dishes served, not the surroundings," he said as he and three friends crowded around one of the restaurant's nondescript tables that seem fit for a military canteen.

Yet, for Mr Abu Hassira, that is the point: a solid reputation for delicious entres and fresh fish, rather than the facade, is what matters most.

"If you were to go all the way to Malta and mention Abu Hassira, believe me, they would think of Gaza and my family," he boasted.

His customers have remained loyal through wars, political upheaval and an economy limping along as a result of Israel's crushing blockade on Gaza.

The restaurant served up customers on both sides of the Palestinian political divide, which was bridged this week after officials from Hamas and Fatah signed a unity agreement in Cairo. Officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, which was driven out by Hamas in 2007, were regular customers, Mr Abu Hassira says.

Even the late Fatah founder and PA president, Yasser Arafat, would regularly frequent his in-house fish market, choosing from his daily selection of more than 20 different fish and crustaceans.

If they tend to spend far less than officials from the PA, Mr Abu Hassira says, Hamas officials have still become dependable. Hamas's prime minister, Ismael Haniyeh, consistently calls in for deliveries.

"He loves sardines," Mr Hassira says of the Hamas leader, who also is a childhood friend and fellow fisherman.

In some respects, his restaurant seems like an abode of civility. Hamas personnel can be seen slurping down his soups and devouring succulent mackerel next to more secular Palestinians.

Yet like many in the politically charged Gaza Strip, he avoids talking politics. His love is the sea and its fruits. He discusses little else.

"I was seriously considering opening a restaurant in Ramallah," he said. "I stayed there for about one week but I couldn't stand it; it was too far from the sea."

He said he decided to abandon the restaurant as a result. "I can't even go to northern Gaza because I miss the water!"

His zest for fish and fishing began with his grandfather, Hajj Mohammed Abu Hassira. He headed a fisherman's union during the British-mandate era that scoured in small wooden boats the waters spanning Egypt's Port Said to Haifa, in what is now Israel.

Mr Abu Hasssira has kept up the family seafaring tradition and owns a fleet of three large fishing vessels and six smaller ones.

But the days of fishing the vast expanses of his grandfather's Mediterranean are long gone; Israel allows Gaza fisherman only three miles beyond the shoreline. Friends and colleagues now describe his role as important for negotiating with Israel the release of Gaza fishing vessels impounded by the country's military.

The restrictions, he laments, have devastated Gaza's fishing industry.

"You can't find anything three miles out," Mr Abu Hassira said ruefully. "We're missing the sardine season, and more than 70 per cent of the industry depends on sardines."

He decided to start a restaurant as a result of the difficulties of fishing Gaza's waters.

Ironically, though, much of his catch is really not his catch at all: if not imported from Israel, most of the rest of his fish are smuggled in from Egypt through Gaza's bountiful smuggling tunnels. "Only about 10 per cent of it is caught locally," he said.

But patrons do not seem to care, or know of, the difference. They keep on coming, like 37-year-old Rafah Chamiyeh.

"There are plenty of fish restaurants in Gaza," he said as he sat down with his friends to eat. He ordered the barbecue Dorado.

"But Moneer's fish are the best."