Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Thursday, 22 April 2010 10:01 UK

Gazan surfers brave the sewage


Boarder Mohammed Abu Jayab and Mafouz Caberetti, President of the Gaza Surf Club, explain the appeal of the surf

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza

Even on a beautiful sunny day with the waves crashing around you, the beach at Gaza city is not the most idyllic.

A few teenagers kick a football among the litter.

Behind them are the remains of some of the bombed-out buildings from last year's conflict with Israel that have still not been cleared.

It's therefore a somewhat surreal sight to see young men, clad in wetsuits, boards tucked under their arms, splashing into the water. These are the surfers of Gaza.

Dorian Paskowitz, surfer, 89, arrives with surfboards at Erez crossing, 2007
Mr Paskowitz brought 15 surfboards to the Erez crossing in 2007

"Surfing is beautiful," says Mohammed Abu Jayab, a slightly-built boarder who works as a part-time security guard.

"Life is difficult in Gaza but surfing makes me feel free," he says.

The Gaza Surf Club is far from flash: a dilapidated corrugated iron shack, about the size of an outside toilet.

But the group now has about 40 members.

"Palestinians are people like in any other country," says Mafouz Caberetti, the club's president.

"We love life. We like sport and surfing, but the problem is the media which portrays Palestinians as just terrorists and bad people but this is not true."

The waves can be bad though.

The sea around Gaza is heavily polluted with at least 60 million litres of raw and partially treated sewage being pumped into it every day.

"We have to choose the days carefully when we surf," says Mr Abu Jayab, "and some parts of the beaches are cleaner than others."

Gaza Surf Club members
Many of the Gazan surfers are unemployed

Most of the surfers are young men in their twenties and thirties.

Mr Caberetti says a lot of them are unemployed and have time on their hands.

The United Nations say unemployment is more than 40% in Gaza.

When they are not in the water, club members are often sitting around in the beachside club hut smoking water pipes and drinking tea while going over their latest moves.

The surfers come at all levels.

Some are still struggling to stand up on their boards, while others are happily riding 2m (6ft) high waves.

Gazan surfers
The surfers have to pick their way through litter on the beach, and choose days when there is less sewage pollution

The inspiration for the surf club came from overseas, thousands of kilometres away in California.

Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz is a surfing legend.

The 89-year-old has been surfing for more than 70 years and still surfs today.

Several years ago he read an article in the Los Angeles Times newspaper about a couple of men surfing in Gaza.

"I saw the picture of the two Arabs in the newspaper and they had one lousy beat-up board between them," he said in an interview with the BBC near his home in southern California. "And I said this simply won't do."

Board mission

Gaza has been under a tightened Israeli and Egyptian blockade for almost three years, with only limited humanitarian aid allowed in.

Israel says this is necessary to stop weapons being smuggled into Palestinian militants and to pressure the Islamic movement Hamas which controls the territory and refuses to renounce violence or recognise Israel.

Gaza surfer Mohammed Abu Jayab
Mohammed Abu Jayab says he dreams of surfing in Hawaii or Australia

But the blockade means it has been very difficult to get surfboards into Gaza.

Mr Paskowitz, who is Jewish himself, decided to personally hand deliver 15 new boards to Gaza in 2007.

But when he arrived at the Erez border crossing, the main Israeli checkpoint into Gaza, he was told by Israeli security officers he was not allowed to pass and the Gaza surfers were not permitted to cross the border to collect the boards.

 "I said to the Israeli soldier 'I came half way around the world, 12,000 miles, to deliver these boards. Would you let an old Jew fail?'", says Mr Paskowitz.

"I said to the guy, these guys are 50ft away. Are you going to let them come through here and get these boards?"

Mr Paskowitz describes how he leant over and kissed the Israeli border guard before the soldier eventually allowed the Palestinian surfers to come and collect the boards.

And on the beaches of Gaza, those boards, now a little worse for wear, are still being used today.

Fresh out of the water, shivering and clasping his board under his arm, Mohammed Abu Jayab says he has not left Gaza since 1996 because of Israeli restrictions on travelling.

But he dreams that some day he might get the chance to surf in Hawaii or Australia.

"Inshallah [God willing]," he says, looking to the skies.

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