Board meeting

Observations on Gaza

"Ten toes on the nose", "hang ten" were not expressions heard in Gaza until recently. But 87-year-old Jewish physician, Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, a surfer for 75 years and founder of Surfing for Peace (SFP), wants to hear them a lot more.

The beaches of Israel and Gaza with their wild waves and temperate climate make one of the best surfing venues in the world. Texas-born Paskowitz, who emigrated to Israel in 1956, introduced surfing to the Jewish population after being denied entry into the Israeli Defence Forces. He mesmerised the beachgoers of Tel Aviv and created an entire new industry before returning to the US to start a surfing school near San Diego.

But in 2000, he read an article in an American magazine showing two Gazan surfers who shared the same second-hand board. He knew what he had to do - get these young men decent boards.

With Arthur Rashkovan, a Tel Aviv-based surfing activist, he convinced an Israeli company to donate 15 boards for use by surfers in Gaza. Then, with one of his sons and a few SFP volunteers he flew to Tel Aviv. But a problem remained. The Israeli authorities banned the young surfers from meeting Paskowitz in Jerusalem. The doctor had to get the surfboards to where they were needed.

"I started surfing nine years ago on an old surfboard I bought from a second-hand shop in Israel," explains 28-year-old Abu Haserah, as he sat on the shore, whistle around his neck surveying the ocean for anyone in distress. Out on the water, a solitary figure glides effortlessly atop silver waves, disappearing and remerging as the waves crashed on the sands. An audience of veiled and unveiled women, men and children follow his journey.

Slinging his board under his arm, 33-year-old Mohammed Abu Jayyab exits the water, the first surfer many of the Gaza audience have ever seen. Abu Jayyab saunters up to his lifeguard friend, followed by adoring children. Both men are self-taught and over the past nine years have shared a board.

"I've been looking for my own board," explains Abu Jayyab. "Surfboards are available in Israel, but they're expensive."

Like most men in Gaza, Abu Jayyab is unemployed. With his wife and three children he ekes out a living in Gaza's most crowded refugee camp, al-Shati. More than a tool of amusement, the shared board is also used to fish for his family's meal.

"Surfing allows me to taste real freedom," he says. "We live in Gaza. It's a big prison. We endure sieges, occupations, electricity shortages, poverty. Surfing lets me breathe, forget worries and pain."

When Paskowitz and SFP volunteers arrived at the Eretz border crossing with 15 boards, they came face to face with Israeli bureaucracy. As the surfing diplomats attempted to pass, an Israeli soldier informed Paskowitz, "You cannot go in."

Paskowitz refused to take no for an answer. "I came 12,500 kilometres from the US to Gaza's border," he recalls saying. "You're not going to keep me from seeing those men when I'm only 15 metres away from them!" The soldier remained unimpressed. "So, I grabbed him," Paskowitz tells me, "and kissed him! 'Don't hug me! Don't hug me! I'm a soldier!' "

But the threat of friendliness unlocked the soldier's heart and thus the gate. After two hours Paskowitz finally found Abu Haserah and Abu Jayyab waiting patiently on the other side.

"We feel privileged to have met such a man," says Abu Jayyab.

A half-century after the Doc's arrival in Israel, a passion for riding giants has taken a political twist: "If guys can surf together, they can live together," he tells me.

Mohammed Omer

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies