For Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank the rolling waves of the Mediterranean sea are but a distant dream, or a memory for those old enough to remember the days when Palestinian cities like Jaffa or Haifa were accessible. Distances from the Apartheid Wall to the coast are as small as 20-30 kilometres in some areas, yet many young Palestinian children growing up in the West Bank have never seen the sea. By contrast, for Palestinians trapped within the besieged Gaza Strip the sea is central to many aspects of life.
Only 40 kilometres long and up to 10 kilometres wide, the Gaza Strip is home to nearly 2 million Palestinians. Leaving Gaza, either via the crossings in to Egypt or today’s Israel is virtually impossible in all but the most exceptional cases amidst the current stage of enforced closure. Within this open air prison, the sea offers one of the few places of respite for children and families.
Gaza’s beaches are filled with families on Friday’s and daily from late afternoon well in to the night. With electricity supplies in Gaza restricted to between 2-8 hours a day in most areas, the coast’s cool breeze offers a place to escape the stifling summer heat in cramped apartments that can offer no cooling systems when the power is cut, except for those families who are in a financial position to buy generators and fuel.
The challenges and dangers of being a fisherman in Gaza have been well documented. Relics of boats lie marooned along the coast yet some do still leave Gaza city port to ply their trade despite the hugely restricted and highly dangerous waters in which Israeli gunboats patrol. Other fisherman today wade from the shores and fish with nets trying to earn a few shekels a day for their families. Many people without alternative employment opportunities are today reduced to selling balloons, camel rides or coffee for a shekel (20 pence) or two to families enjoying the evening breeze.
Physically, the coast shows the signs of war as does most of the Gaza Strip. In many areas harbour walls have been reinforced with rubble from buildings blown up by Israel during recent bombardments. In other areas the rubble has been used to build jetties stretching out in to the sea. In such a tiny area the sea offered one of the few places to which war rubble could be moved in order to begin the painstakingly slow rebuilding process which is still many years away from completion.
Despite the obvious scars, and the multitude of challenges and threats faced by Palestinians in Gaza the area’s coast still provides a place of respite, at least between Israel’s bombing campaigns. Young men practice parkour on the beaches and children smile as they play with sand or feel the power of the waves against their young bodies. The sound of music and laughter, or shrieks of children’s happiness are never too far away, yet as Israeli drones and fighter planes fly overhead no-one is ever sure when screams of a much more sinister nature will return.