Friday, December 9

Compete in the sea with Gaza bars

If you look at a map, the Gaza Strip it is discreet. Its 365 square kilometers are housed in the bend of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Directing your gaze to the horizon is the only freedom of movement that the residents of the coastal enclave have. It is the only sea ​​with “bars” that exists, surrounded by limits by the iron blockade that the area has suffered for 15 years.

However, the inhabitants of Gaza are not resigned to losing that mirage of freedom that the sea gives them and are determined to take advantage of the few kilometers of sea that Israel allows them to enjoy. Recently, the Palestinian Sailing and Rowing Federation has held the first official championship in its history. Far from the media spotlight, the water sports industry is making its way and slowly evolving in a context of total isolation, without the influence of the global industry.

The organization had four kayaks for 57 participants. The lack of optimal equipment due to the entry restrictions of the enclave prolonged the duration of the first official championship more than expected but did not prevent it. “The kayaks are more than 15 years old. It is catastrophic shortage of tools we have for water sports,” says Khaldoun Isleem, director of the Palestinian Sailing and Rowing Federation.

The lack of materials is not the only obstacle they face. The UN predicted that by 2020 Gaza would be uninhabitable. In 2022 the population survives with a unstable electrical system which causes failures in wastewater treatment facilities. Nearly 3/4 of the coastline is considered unsuitable for swimming as a result of sewage flowing into the sea; less than 4% of fresh water is drinkable and on land the situation is no better with the 80% of the population depending on humanitarian aid to survive.

Besan Zahra, 18, is one of the participants. When she walks on the beach she enjoys the fresh breeze and the smell of the sea, which helps to relax her exhausted mind from the latest israeli offensive on the coastal enclave last August.

The young Palestinian is studying sports pedagogy and has been practicing rowing since 2015 in the Federation. Despite being number one in recent local competitions, she has only been able to participate in the United Arab Emirates rowing tournament in Dubai. International competitions for now are just a dream.

The movement restrictions in the Gaza Strip are not only applied to the material, but the people are the ones who suffer the most. I know This reduces their chances of personal and professional development. to a minimum, including opportunities for medical treatment of serious and chronic illnesses.

“They prevent us from free movement. Despite the shortage of materials and the limited space we have for swimming, fishing and water sports, we insist that we have to continue our work because the people of Gaza deserve to live with all the rights that the Israeli occupation has given them. Stolen. We all hope that, in the coming season, the entry of teams to Gaza will be facilitated by international federations”, says Khaldoun Isleem.

Hala Elsammak, a 17-year-old refugee from Palestine, is also passionate about the sea. The young Palestinian started rowing seven years ago and since then she has practiced it whenever she can. “I am passionate about the smell, the sand of the beach and the salt water. I feel that I have a special connection with the sea. That’s why I decided to try water sports.” Hala she joined the Rowing and Sailing Federation in 2020 where she managed to gather other talented people to professionalize the union while “we practice together, exercise and motivate each other”.

“I admit that when I started I faced a lot of negative comments, because of a traditional topic. But I did not pay attention and this is one of the most important things that I have learned that is necessary to make what you are after come true. My family has always supported me and that has always made me feel stronger,” says Hala.

The horror of residing in a place where far from living you survive, does not prevent the youth of Gaza from pursuing a unlikely passion. “The competition we have held is a turning point in the future of Palestinian water sports in Gaza, we have committed young people who are determined to qualify for international championships,” says Khaldoun Isleem.

This first generation of aquatics athletes fly their minds and bodies through sport to escape occupation and political gridlock. They have created a new avenue of escape beyond the reality of violence, conflict, blockade and poverty that dominate their lives.