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Gaza surfers ride on wave of goodwill from Israel

By Mairi Mackay, CNN
  • Gaza's tiny surfing community has been surfing using makeshift boards
  • Economic embargoes only allow food and humanitarian supplies across border
  • Israel-based groups are sending equipment to extend the hand of friendship
  • Filmmaker Alex Klein covered latest mission in documentary "God Went Surfing with the Devil"

(CNN) -- In Gaza, a handful of Palestinian men have found a way to escape temporarily from the hardships of life in their conflict-wracked home. They go surfing.

Dirt poor and mainly from refugee camps, they find joy riding waves, often on makeshift boards, in the green waters off Gaza's beaches.

Over the past few years, a number of groups, some based in Israel, have made it their business to try to help the Gaza surfers.

Explore Corps and Jewish Surfing 4 Peace have sent surf boards and wetsuits to the 20 or so Palestinian wave riders, hoping to extend the hand of friendship across the bullet-pocked border.

U.S. filmmaker Alexander Klein managed to get in to Gaza to film the latest mission, the story of which he tells in documentary "God Went Surfing with the Devil."

They have a real community down there. It's really wonderful to go there and hang out.
--Matt Olsen on Gaza Surf Club
  • Gaza
  • Israel
  • Surfing

"It seemed like an important story to tell," he told CNN.

"So much of the Middle East narrative is a conflict narrative," said the former pro-skateboarder who first visited Israel in 2004. "Here was a story about young guys who could have been coming together to shoot at each other, but instead all they want to do is surf together."

Klein spent five days filming in Gaza, the tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea bordering Egypt and Southern Israel that forms part of the Palestinian territories.

He hung out with the surfers of the Gaza Surf Club and said everyone he met there was "peaceful" and "really kind" and "so excited to be surfing."

But the club is about more than just helping a few beach guys have a good time.

Matt Olsen, of Explore Corps, one of the founders of the surf club, believes small acts of friendship, like this, can help the peace process from the bottom up.

"We think that this is a great way to get people to connect and get people to talk," Olsen told CNN.

In Gaza, it is a social taboo to talk about Israel in public, except to condemn the country, he told CNN. Across the border, "in Israel," he said, "the attitude is a kind of 'ignorance is bliss.' People don't really know what is going on in Gaza," he said.

"I find that the people that are most positive about what we are doing ... are the people who have already had interaction."

Olsen is currently working with the Gaza Surf Club on building a clubhouse with a weights room, board repair room and somewhere to watch surfing videos, as the surfers don't have a place of their own.

Veterans of the tiny Gaza surf scene have been riding for many years, using anything from 100lb windsurfers with the sails taken off to old broken surfboards with pieces of plywood for fins.

Under an economic embargo enforced by the Israeli government, only basic foodstuffs and humanitarian supplies are allowed into Gaza, making it almost impossible for the surfers to get hold of equipment themselves.

Gaza Surf Club is situated on the beach at Sheikh Khazdein, a beach-front neighborhood in southern Gaza City. Long and golden, Gaza's beaches are the place to be on Friday and Saturday, according to Olsen.

Families descend bringing large homemade tents for the women to sit in. Vendors lead donkey and horse-drawn carts up and down the beaches hawking everything from fruit and nuts to inflatable toys smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels Video from Egypt.

They cannot get out of Gaza and I cannot get in. Hopefully, one day we will meet and go surfing together.
--Arthur Rashkovan, Surfers 4 Peace

Hamas' presence on the beach is minimal, he said, but modesty prevails. Men often swim in T-shirts and women wear long robes and keep their heads covered.

The crew of surfers who hang out at Sheikh Khazdein range in age from 15 to early 30s and many come from fishing families. They work as fishermen or lifeguards; some are unemployed or students.

There are also surfers further north at Al Deira beach, right under the Al Deira hotel, where many of Gaza's expatriate community live.

Surfers at this beach have to contend with extremely polluted water and the risk of hepatitis from untreated sewage being pumped into the sea.

Sheikh Khazdein beach tends to be cleaner, depending on weather, wind and currents.

"They have a real community down there," said Olsen. "It's really wonderful to go there and hang out."

The tiny Gazan surf community couldn't be more different from the scene in Israel.

Israeli surfer Arthur Rashkovan, one of the founders of Surfing 4 Peace estimates there are some 30,000 surfers in Israel, a tiny land of just over seven million people.

Despite working with the surfers of Gaza, Rashkovan has never met any of them. He has never been across the border.

"They cannot get out of Gaza and I cannot get in," said Tel Aviv-based Rashkovan. "Hopefully, one day we will meet and go surfing together."

More details on: "God Went Surfing With the Devil"