GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Mohammed Abu Jayab feels alive while he’s surfing the waves off the Gaza Strip, relishing the brief sense of freedom from the harsh realities of life under siege.
Abu Jayab, a 38-year-old lifeguard, taught himself to surf when he was young while hanging out on the beach with his friends who used pieces of wood as a board, despite the dangers.
And 20 or so years later, he still harbours dreams of taking part in an international competition.
“Surfing has been a hobby of mine since I was little. I learned from watching TV and I fell in love with it, although no-one in Gaza knows about the international standards involved,” he told AFP.
“When I surf, I feel free because the sea is the only means of escape for people from Gaza, with its difficult life, unemployment, poverty and the siege,” he said, referring to the Israeli blockade which has been in place since 2007, holding around 1.5 million people prisoner inside the territory.
Abu Jayab says there are 40 surfers in the Gaza Strip, who share just 15 surfboards between them.
Together they belong to the Gaza Surf Club, which uses professional boards and wetsuits provided through the help of groups such as Surfing 4 Peace, Gaza Surf Relief and other donors.
Surfing hundreds of metres from the shore, Abu Jayab and three of his friends don't seem to care about the icy water nor the rushing of the wind on this wintry afternoon.
But they are always on alert for the Israelis, whose naval boats routinely patrol the seas off Gaza and have been known to open fire at anyone deemed suspicious.
“I adore surfing and riding the waves, even in the winter with high winds and waves,” enthuses 32-year-old Ahmad Abu Hasira.
“It’s a pleasure you can’t get from anything else. You live for the rush and the freedom.”
He also dreams of participating one day in an international surfing competition.
“We have made a lot of progress in recent years in spite of our difficult circumstances and the lack of resources,” he says.
“Unfortunately, everything here is difficult – travelling is hard and we can’t really train professionally as there are no instructors for this sport and no resources.”
Hatem Krazm, 23, says surfers in Gaza face a lot of problems, particularly if their boards get damaged.
“If I break the fin, we can’t get it repaired or change it because Israel prevents the entry of surfboards or spare parts into Gaza,” says Krazm, who has just recently begun working as a lifeguard.
Israel imposed a strict closure on Gaza when one of its soldiers was seized by militants in a deadly 2006 raid along the border and tightened it a year later when Hamas took over, saying it was needed to contain the Islamist movement.
But the siege has been significantly eased in recent months after Israel came under international pressure following a deadly May 31 raid on a flotilla of aid ships trying to breach the blockade.
There is also another rather unpleasant downside to riding the surf off the shores of Gaza – pollution.
Abu Jayab says he and his friends have suffered from a number of skin diseases as a result of the pollution caused by raw sewage which flows freely into the Mediterranean Sea.
“I have had a lot of skin diseases because of the sewage in the sea,” says this father-of-eight who takes home a monthly salary of 1,000 shekels (280 dollars, 210 euros) from his job as a lifeguard and a second job at the Gaza City municipality.
“The sea must be cleaned up,” he said. “People don’t go anywhere else in Gaza other than to parks or the sea, there is nowhere else to go.”
What they really want now is to feel just a bit less isolated, and are hoping that some international club or association would show some interest and help get them out to fulfil their long-held dream of participating in an international competition.