For the near-two million people living in Gaza, the beach and ocean is one of the few places they can ‘safely’ enjoy. Under constant oppression by the Israeli government and plagued by military violence driven by Israel’s opposition to Hamas’ control on the region, there aren’t many activities the Palestinians of Gaza can do to escape the harsh realities of life. Mohamed Saleh and Hasan Alhabil however are two individuals from Gaza striving to give the region’s residents something to enjoy in a safer manner. These two men have lost dozens of friends and relatives to the violent conflict caused by occupation and they don’t want to lose any more to one of the places so many Gazans enjoy—the ocean.
“The beach is all we have, it’s the only recreation, the only entertainment for the Gazan people,” Hasan told The Guardian’s Ben Doherty. “But even there we have problems. Because there is no electricity and power, often raw sewage is pushed into the sea. So that means there is less space where it is safe for people to swim.”
Last Sunday, I spent the morning with Mohamed and Hasan down at Bondi Beach. The two, along with their interpreter, Shamikh Badra, had travelled from Manly for the day to visit Bondi Beach; not to tick the spot off a ‘bucket-list’ like most travellers, but to meet with the president, Brent Jackson, of Bondi’s surf lifesaving club—the first surf life saving club in the world.
Taking time out of a busy day organising the last of thousands of donations being sent to those in fire-affected regions, Brent gave Mohamed and Hasan a tour of the lifesaving club, some of their equipment, and gave advice on getting financial (and equipment) support from surf life savings’ international body.
On our walk through the life saving club, Brent showed Mohamed and Hasan a few images which connected Australian surf life saving to Palestine back in 1942. That year, stationed in Palestine under General Thomas Blamey, the 6th Division of the Australian Army held a surf carnival on the shores of Gaza beach, which was eventually won by Bill Grose, who hailed from a Northern Beaches surf club. During this time, many of the Australian soldiers also introduced the Gazans to surfing, a hobby which has maintained roots in the devastated strip to this day.
The overall goals of Mohamed and Hasan though were not a holiday or historical tour of Australia’s surf life saving clubs. They’re here to develop a surf life saving skillset in the hopes of establishing Palestine’s first accredited surf lifesaving club back at Gaza beach. After four years of back-and-forth negotiations between Australian, Israeli, and Palestinian authorities to obtain visas and finances for Mohamed and Hasan’s trip, they arrived in Australia at the end of 2019.
Since then, the two have undergone an intense, one month training camp at North Steyne’s club in Manly. Hasan already has significant ocean experience as one of Gaza’s few qualified lifeguards (employed by the local municipality to patrol the beach where possible). Mohamed however has significantly less experience with the ocean, but he does have strong roots in organising youth centres throughout Gaza. In late January, both Mohamed and Hasan will go for their bronze medallions—a requisite accreditation before you can start a surf life saving club—but this is only the first step towards their overall goals.
Chris Gibbs Stewart, the president of North Steyne surf club is one of the people who has helped organise Mohamed and Hasan’s training in Australia.
“We feel this is a hugely important project,” Chris told The Guardian. “Lifesaving is, of course, about keeping people safe on the beach, but it’s about more than that, it’s about building a community, building a sense of family. We are trying to teach that culture we have here.
“We want to stay in contact, and keep providing support, whether that is sending over equipment or training materials, or sending people over there to assist.” She continued. “We want to plant the seed that becomes the Gaza beach surf lifesaving club.”
In early February, Mohamed and Hasan will return to Gaza and hopefully begin the process of building the Gaza surf lifesaving club from a grassroots level. With Hasan’s lifesaving experience and Mohamed’s connections with youth groups, the two hope not just to bring greater safety to Gaza’s beaches via patrols, but to build a community with programs like nippers.
“We want to build a lifesaving club of our own, for Gazans, to keep people safe,” Mohamed told The Guardian. “Even though the sea is more gentle in Gaza than the ocean in Australia, unfortunately, still many people drown because they cannot swim safely. Last summer, in 2019, seven people died.
“But I want children in Gaza to learn to enjoy the beach, and to be safe when they swim. I want to establish a program like Nippers to teach children about lifesaving.”
Over a midday coffee at Bondi, speaking with Mohamed and Hasan (partially in English, partially through their interpreter) their positive outlook towards the situation back home was infectious. Not driven by personal interest, monetary gain, or even political aims, Mohamed and Hasan are purely driven by their hopes to bring the Gazan community and youth together with one of the few activities they have to enjoy.
While the lifesaving international body assists with equipment and funding for any group trying to establish a club, there are still fears this equipment may never make it to Gaza. It is possible the Israeli and Egyptian military will stymie any surf club equipment being sent into Gaza under the restrictions enacted since the blockade of Gaza strip. Historically, items as innocuous as notebooks and musical instruments have been banned from entering, but hopefully this does not happen as Mohamed and Hasan begin building the club from the roots up in Gaza.
The two aim to use the skills they’ve learned in Sydney over the past month to train others interested back home with hopes of eventually running a thriving surf life saving club on Gaza beach. The motto of ‘No Lives Lost’ adopted by all Surf Life Saving Clubs mightn’t ring true throughout war torn Gaza, but Mohamed and Hasan hope it can become reality on beaches at the very least.
The story of Hasan and Mohamed mightn’t be one which toes the high-performance surfing line of this publication, but it is one that rejuvenates, even if just within me, the sense of community and harmony that the ocean can provide. Whether that be through surfing, nippers, or even a casual afternoon swim to escape the heat, the ocean is something we should all be thankful for.
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