[This article originally appeared in Volume 255. Subscibe to Wavelength now to never miss an issue.]
In the farthest-flung corner of the Mediterranean Sea, there lies a small strip of land. Looking at a map it is largely inconspicuous; lodged in the crook of the eastern coast, its 365 square kilometres are neatly contained by Egypt on the south-western side and by Israel along the eastern and northern borders.
The tiny rectangular box could easily be skimmed over if the name was unfamiliar. But due to its presence on the world stage, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Gaza Strip. It’s one of the most densely populated areas in the world, blockaded by land, air and sea and once described by American philosopher Noam Chomsky as the “world’s largest open-air prison”. It’s also the birthplace of an unlikely fledgeling surf community.
Despite its unassuming size, this small piece of Palestinian Territory continues to be the root of continual conflict in the Middle East. Its near two million inhabitants are the survivors of a tumultuous political tug-of-war, where the land is being fought over with little regard for the people themselves. Since the UN’s decision in 1948 to establish a Jewish national state on what was then an Arab and Muslim-majority territory, provoking an immediate retaliation from neighbouring Arab nations, a number of territorial wars have left the Palestinians of Gaza under Israeli control ever since. The population were permitted a short breath of (relative) freedom in 2005 after Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip, ending almost forty years of military presence, only for it to be taken over by Islamist fundamentalist party Hamas in June 2007, forcing Israel to intensify the economic blockade on all sides of the territory, including the coast.
Trapped inside a 60-kilometre wall and caught between Israeli bombing and Hamas’ refusal to compromise, the people of Gaza have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The Israeli army have the land clenched in a vice-grip, shutting off the only border crossing available for the movement of people and imposing buffer zones that stretch the length of the border. The Gaza International Airport was destroyed in 2011, never to be rebuilt. Even the open sea is mostly off-limits, after the Israel Defense Forces imposed a six-mile fishing limit on the whole coastline in 2007, despite most fish being found nine miles offshore. Not only does this barricade on all sides severely restrict freedom of movement of both people and goods, it contributes to the already poor living conditions, robbing families of their livelihoods and choking any chance of an economy.
With the recent ban on imports to and exports from Gaza, imposed by Israeli forces, hospitals and sanitation services are close to collapsing and construction materials to rebuild destroyed homes are scarce. The electricity supply is unstable, causing sewage treatment facilities to fail and contaminate the water supply: now, less than four percent of freshwater is drinkable, and the beaches are in no better state – almost three-quarters of the coastline are deemed unfit for swimming as a result of sewage flowing into the sea. With 80% of the population relying on international humanitarian aid to survive, the situation only seems to be getting worse. If things don’t change quickly, according to the UN, Gaza will be unlivable by 2020.
However, the horrors of residing in a place set soon to be uninhabitable isn’t stopping Gaza’s youth from pursuing an unlikely passion. A small band of brothers are taking to the waves to escape the occupation and political gridlock, creating a new existence for themselves beyond the reality of war, conflict and destitution. Gaza’s first real surf generation are the first ones out in any fickle conditions the Med throws at them, braving the sewage and paddling out despite, or perhaps in spite of, the constant conflict that regulates their everyday lives. But unlike their Israeli neighbours, surfing in Gaza has evolved in total isolation, untainted by the influence of the global surf industry, surf media and the outside world of surfing in general because, inside the walls of Gaza, these phenomena simply don’t exist.
The waves of Israel were first surfed long before the likes of Hossegor, Ericeira and other European beaches became international surfing hot spots. In 1956, the late American surf legend Doctor Dorian Paskowitz introduced the sport to this part of the world whilst rediscovering his Jewish roots in Tel Aviv. His original plan was to volunteer for the Israeli Army, but after being rejected he took to the uncharted waves instead. Today, the legacy of this accidental surf trip has evolved into a thriving surf scene. The Israeli coast now boasts “around 30,000 surfers, modern shaping machines, a huge surf industry and loads of surf schools across the 187,200 km of exposed coastline”, according to Arthur Rashkovan, surf and skate industry exec and former director of the Israeli Surfing Association. It’s a modern surf society, and a booming one at that, with the WSL Seat Pro Netanya QS event returning for the third time to the Israeli coastline back in January. But just over the fence, it’s a very different story.
“I lost my freedom, I lost my voice, I lost my hope. Every day I live a nightmare when I wake up.”
Raed Jadallah, one of Palestine’s best surfers, was shot in the leg with an explosive bullet during the Great March of Return in Gaza City on the 6th of April 2018. Not only has the Israeli sniper who attacked the young surfer cost him his job as a construction worker, he has snatched away the precious freedom Raed found whilst riding waves and shattered life as he knows it. “Sport is a kind of freedom that breathes into a society besieged by its own land and sea,” he says. “The surfers in Gaza see the sport as a game of rebellion against the conditions of the siege, and as an escape from the daily psychological anxieties.” Growing up in the third largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, a beach camp known as ‘al-Shati’, surfing was Raed’s only escape from the hardships of everyday life in the camp. “Life is difficult now because the water is contaminated and infrastructure is weak and electricity comes in only 4 hours a day,” he says, “but it is our only home.”
The Israeli authorities had already prevented Raed on numerous occasions from working towards his dream of becoming a professional surfer – in 2017 he was invited to Italy to participate in a surf training course but he was refused the right to leave Gaza – and it seems that this time, that dream has been shot down for good. When asked if he would ever be able to surf again, his response is disheartening: “Frankly, I do not know because my injury is difficult and the doctors told me I cannot go back to the sport, because medicine in Gaza has no potential. Only in European countries can I get the operation needed to return to the sport.” With the severe travel restrictions imposed on the people of Gaza, this option is not looking likely for him.
The evolution of surfing in Gaza has been a battle against the authorities ever since its humble beginnings back in the early 2000s, its survival owing to the determination of the local surfers and the generosity of international initiatives such as Surfing for Peace, founded by Doc Paskowitz. Fifty years on from his stint in Israel, in the summer of 2007, Paskowitz opened the LA Times back in his home in California to see a photo of two Palestinian friends sharing one second-hand surfboard between them. This chance discovery sparked a conversation between Surfing for Peace founders Paskowitz, 86 at the time, his son David and their good friend Arthur Rashkovan – they had to get some boards over to these guys in Gaza, by whatever means possible.
Just a few weeks later, with the support of Israeli benefactors as well as Kelly Slater (an American of Syrian descent), they had gathered 14 boards from Israeli shapers and set out on the nigh-on impossible mission of getting them across the Erez border crossing. After an encounter with armed Israeli officials who almost put a stop to the whole endeavour, the surfers marched on towards their Palestinian friends who were waiting for them on the other side. Rashkovan describes the event as an “all Israeli-Jewish initiative”, an act of surfer solidarity between brothers separated by borders. Amongst the Palestinian surfers eagerly awaiting their new boards were the two friends Paskowitz had seen in the newspaper a few weeks earlier. “When we first started Surfing for Peace, there were just two surfers who had one Israeli board left by a soldier – they are Ahmed Abu Hassira and Mohammed Abu Jayab,” Rashkovan says of the early surf scene in Gaza.
Struggling fisherman and local surfing legend Mohammed Abu Jayab, aged 44, used to make boards out of any piece of wood he could get his hands on – from cupboard doors to floorboards – after watching a documentary about European surfers that happened to air on Israeli television when he was younger. Now, he is the unofficial mentor for the growing number of young surfers that are emerging from the crowded camps of Gaza’s coastline. “Surfing is the most beautiful way to express the strength of talent in Gaza, a powerful way for the young guys to encourage talent to join this sport because the Palestinian society does not have this sport and professionals as we see in foreign competitions in surfing,” he says.
Although surfing is still a new sport in Gaza – Rashkovan reckons the guys have only discovered modern surfing in the last 10 years, finding all of their previous surf inspiration just from watching Kelly Slater on reruns of Baywatch – the days of Mohammed’s homemade cupboard-door-boards are long gone. Since their first board donation in 2007, Surfing for Peace has continued to work with local surfers to progress the sport further and to establish a clubhouse, with long-standing ambassador Matt Olsen, from Hawaii, at the helm of the project. “In 2010 we delivered a big shipment of 30 surfboards to Gaza so today there are around 30 surfers who have their own boards and equipment including wetsuits,” Matt says, not including the surfers who still have to share boards between themselves.
Without any access to surf magazines, films or clips of the pros on tour, those Baywatch reruns must have been gold dust to the young aspiring surfers. And now, Gaza’s first real surf generation have hit the big screens themselves. The documentary film ‘Gaza Surf Club’, directed by Philip Gnadt, follows the lives of a core group of surfers in the Gaza Surf Club community, projecting their voices across the globe whilst their bodies stay firmly trapped in Gaza. Ibrahim Arafat, a 25-year-old who works as a nurse alongside his role as unofficial surf club president – which includes attempting to build a real clubhouse – and his motley crew feature as protagonists alongside mentor Mohammed Abu Jayab.
The film also follows Sabah Abu Ghanem, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, who goes out surfing with her father, brothers and cousins. But the conservative culture keeps the line-up in Gaza a boys-only club: as soon as a girl turns 16, it is seen as sinful for her to swim in the ocean, let alone surf with the boys. “Surfing changed my attitude towards life for the better because it was my passion ever since I was young,” she says, “and I am proud of myself that I learned such a difficult sport at a young age.” Despite having to give up the sport now she is married, Sabah is grateful that her father decided to share this otherwise foreign world with her, and accepts that she must adhere to the religion and cultural norms of her society. “She only wishes she sometimes had a little more freedom to do what she enjoys,” says Philip, the film director, after watching her in the water as she takes a short breath of freedom from her hijab and the social standards that come with it. “Surfing is a privilege for anyone in Gaza,” he adds.
Although their style is somewhat quirky – some surf with the leash on their front foot, dropping in is an unknown concept, and the lifeguard surfers blow the whistles worn around their necks, drawing the attention of people back on the beach – their level of surfing is still impressive nonetheless. And what is evident from watching the film is how, for the guys in Gaza, surfing is not just about surfing. Philip recalls a revelation Matt shared with him during the film production: “Surfing in general is somewhat of an elbow-sport, meaning your wave is yours and no one should get in the way when you’re riding it. It’s very different in Gaza, it’s about being part of a community where they prefer to surf together rather than alone. They high five each other and sometimes hold hands while surfing. It’s a kind of surfing you probably won’t find on western beaches any more.” What might just be a sport to some is a precious chance to socialise with others of the same age for these surfers, giving them an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have in Gaza’s conservative Muslim culture, where the home is a private space. Instead of visiting each other’s houses, they all hang out together in the lifeguard towers where they share a post-surf round of sweet Arabic tea.
For many of the surfers the sea is their lifeblood, a source of sustenance and solace. If the essence of surfing is freedom, nowhere is this spirit more relevant than in Gaza. To surf here is to snatch a rare sense of quiet, a small triumph for peace. “When we get the chance to go for a surf, we are very happy because we can throw all the bad things, all the stress and the news into the water. We feel like we are free, we just enjoy the waves,” Ibrahim says. There’s no doubt that surfing has helped these young men to cope with the constant conflict of their everyday lives, as Philip noticed whilst filming in Gaza: “Imagine living in such a small area as a 20 year old, not being able to leave and travel. This can drive you mad and in addition to the confined space, the community is quite conservative and regulates much of their daily lives. So time spent in the water, away from all of that, is precious. No one watches or controls you. To them it is sort of a small strip of freedom – in one of the most isolated countries in the world.” Mohammed Abu Jayab paints a more poetic picture of what surfing means to him and his fellow surfers: “Imagine the image of a free bird in the skies of a city all dark: this is a Gazan surfer who tastes a bit of freedom amid occupation and Israeli siege.”
Although from an outside perspective it might look like they are actively protesting against the current situation just by paddling out, the film director noticed that politics were far from the surfers’ minds. “The way we got to know the surfers, they are not particularly rebellious in terms of their political stance. They are disillusioned by their politicians and by the perceived lack of help they receive. The sport is quite simply an outlet, an escape from the reality of their confined lives and this complicated conflict,” he says. Ibrahim and his crew are perhaps then just young guys trying to get on with their lives, and surfing happens to be the vehicle that transports them to another existence, one which swaps bombs for barrels… if only for an hour or two. The Surfing for Peace ethos mirrors the surfer’s apolitical stance : “It’s about making a person to person gesture based on our love for surfing, not about politics. Yes, it’s a political issue, but we leave this on land and step into the water where there’s only stoke!” says co-founder Rashkovan.
However, as the situation in Gaza intensifies with rising tensions between authorities and civilians, it’s not as easy as walking across the border from Israel into Gaza, surfboards tucked under benevolent arms. The struggles of sustaining a surf culture in a war-torn land, isolated from the rest of the world, could stop the sport from progressing here at all. “There have really been so many challenges that it’s hard to keep track of things,” Matt says. “The Israeli embargo on Gaza means that we cannot import surfboards and cannot get people in to visit the surfers. The 2010 surfboard donation was a one-time exception to the rule and it took more than two years of almost daily negotiation to get the boards in.” Ibrahim’s dream of creating a physical hub for surfers in Gaza is also wrapped up in red tape. “We’re trying to build it as a real location, but we couldn’t get the permits for it and we don’t have enough boards because Israel prevents it,” he says. It also doesn’t bode well that Ibrahim, a core member of the surf club community, has been the only one to leave Gaza – and is still yet to return. The prospect of having a real clubhouse to meet up and store their boards in is thus becoming a just as distant pipedream as travelling to foreign waves is for the young surfers of Gaza.
“Within Gaza, the Hamas government has proven to be very uncooperative,” Matt says, “they are suspicious of any visitors or equipment coming from outside Gaza and paranoid when it comes to activities that involve the sea, since they worry about Israeli incursions into Gaza via the sea. So everything we do in Gaza gets scrutinized by the Hamas security forces and usually leads to me having to “visit” the security services to explain who I am, what I am doing, and convince them that I am not a spy. We have also had our fair share of problems with corruption, mostly with local individuals in Gaza who are well connected to the government and have tried to take over the Club, our programming and equipment. It has proven to be a full time job just to keep the surfers and their equipment safe.”
Speaking with some of the local surfers and the people who are working so hard to preserve their surf community opens up a fresh perspective on this isolated strip of land, most often conveyed by the media as a place of war, terrorism and violence. As more and more unique stories of Gaza’s population are told, the nameless and faceless news story numbers of a nation become characters of niche communities that are striking out to create an alternative reality for themselves amidst the daily struggle and rubble. But what does the future hold for Gaza’s surf community?
Eight years on from the last Surfing for Peace board donation, Matt is convinced that the survival of surfing in Gaza depends on external forces. “Unfortunately I don’t see any reason to think that things will change for Gaza in general. The Hamas government isn’t going anywhere and the Israeli embargo shows no signs of lessening,” he says, “I think the future of the Club is really in our hands. We are working with the International Surfing Association to use the Gaza Surf Club as a representative body for Palestinian surfing in the sporting world. And in Gaza we are continuing our efforts to build a clubhouse to build and strengthen the surfer community around it.”
It’s clear that as long as the surfers remain estranged from the outside world, the surf scene in Gaza is at risk of becoming stagnant. They have the determination, but in a place where the very essence of surfing is being destroyed by the political climate, it cannot survive on determination alone. The surfers need access to information (how to forecast waves, live-streams of international surf contests, the history of surfing, surf etiquette, board repair techniques etc.), as well as new equipment. Surfing for Peace looks to be at the forefront of the fight to keep surfing alive in Gaza, opening a European chapter with Sam Jacquesson and Ben Levy (Jewish surfers from France) to widen the project to more Muslim countries. “Our aim is wider than only Gaza,” Rashkovan says, “we have collaborations with Arab and Muslim surfers in Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria – we even met an amazing Afgan surfer.” Despite these hopeful efforts, the current situation leaves the Israeli surfer disheartened at the sad reality of his brothers across the border. “It’s sad but it’s true – if the guys in Gaza want to evolve in surfing, they have to leave Gaza,” Rashkovan says, “my dream is to meet them and surf with them. I wish we could bring the top pros into Gaza. I wish I could go in with my friends and teach them what we know. I wish we could have them here in Israel with us for every swell. But this is not possible.”
Perhaps this is what the surfers of Gaza need the most: contact with surfers beyond the confines of the city walls. Everything that has happened to them so far – the board donations, the film being made, even the two brothers being spotted in the paper by Paskowitz – has been a total fluke. Against all odds, they learned to surf in one of the most isolated places on earth, and with the help of a few benevolent souls that saw the potential in their fledgeling surf community, it has become a way of living outside of a hard reality. If they were connected to a global community of like-minded surfers (and if they were able to leave their home), who knows what might happen next? Could the swell of surf solidarity between Gaza and Israel break down the borders that separates these brothers of the sea – and beyond?
At the end of it all, it’s useless speculating the what if’s and could be’s. The forces affecting Gaza’s surf community are completely unique to Gaza alone; there is no precedent, and so there can be no predictions. Just as the future of its surfing depends on the good-willed and hard-working individuals from outside the city walls, so do the lives of its people play mercy to the tyrants who keep them inside. There is only one way out of this hell: imagining the horizon open, the surfer walks on water, glides through the dark sky, scorching his wings on the edge of freedom.
[‘Clipped Wings’ – featured in Vol 255.] Subscribe to Wavelength now for more in-depth investigations into the world’s lesser covered surf communities.