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From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue
By Matthew Olsen
GAZA—When Dorian Paskowitz came to Israel in 2007 on a mission to spread peace through surfing, he had a simple motto: “People who surf together can live together.” In Israel and Palestine, with near-constant conflict and some of the highest birth rates in the world, living together is becoming more important every day. Of course, this idea of living shoulder-to-shoulder in peace is not entirely welcomed by all the residents of the region. Bridging the divide that separates Israeli from Palestinian and Jew from Arab is essential to the region’s long-term stability, and surfing can unite people and create lasting friendships, not around politics or religion but around the joys of catching a wave.
This is a part of the world where peace projects, especially sport-based programs, are abundant. For three generations, the United Nations has operated recreational youth programming in the Palestinian territories. Private organizations have worked here for decades, so the market is close to saturated. With such large numbers of youths participating in these programs, most activities operate on a huge scale to maximize the number of participants and minimize the cost per child. So team sports with simple, low-cost equipment like soccer dominate the scene. But as places like the Gaza Strip become increasingly connected to the outside world via the Internet and the region’s extensive satellite TV network, interest is building for more specialized sports and activities that are not available through the standard channels.
In Gaza, Mediterranean beaches provide an essential public space and playground for such activities in an otherwise overcrowded piece of real estate. With a huge surfing population to the north in Israel and images of surfing trickling into Gaza from abroad, it was only a matter of time before a surfing community began to emerge in this corner of Palestine. But surfing equipment is both expensive and fragile, a combination that has, in many cases, doomed surfing to the list of unsustainable initiatives. So building a following is difficult, but not impossible.
Since 2005, Tel Aviv-based Surfing 4 Peace has been working to create a sustainable surfing community in Gaza through cross-border support without regard to religion, race, or politics. The goal of Surfing 4 Peace is not simply to support Gaza’s surfing community. That is just a means to an end. The goal is to use the sport to bridge political and cultural divisions with initiatives based around surfing, beach culture, and “the shared-surfing experience.”
Admittedly, Surfing 4 Peace fills a small niche in the peacemaking market. But the media-friendly notion of sharing waves with your enemies has allowed the Surfing 4 Peace message to spread far beyond the region. The sport itself requires extensive dialogue, sharing, and innovation, both in terms of improving surfing technique and maintaining the equipment that makes it all possible. In the Middle East, where access to resources and technical skills varies greatly from region to region, cross-border communication and cooperation are essential.
Palestinian surfers in Gaza flock to the sea for the same reason as their Israeli neighbors. Surfers claim that theirs is the most holistic sport on earth. It provides exercise, meditation, focus, adrenaline, solitude, and full-body health while promoting psychological healing and environmental awareness. You can surf with friends or alone. The only requirements are waves and a little help getting started. In Gaza, that support has come in the form of Surfing 4 Peace educational workshops and equipment donations, which have raised the number of surfboards in Gaza from three to 40 or more. Additional training and outreach have helped bring the Gaza surfers international attention, which they can now leverage to support their community as it develops under the difficult conditions of an Israeli-led embargo.
But the effort to support Gaza surfers has been far from easy. While the Hamas government has been mostly supportive of Gaza’s surfing community, local Palestinian non-profit sport groups, frustrated by their failure to acquire surfboards, have accused Gaza’s surfers of collaborating with Israel (a capital offense), despite the permission the surfers had from the Hamas government to receive donations that come from, or via, Israel. In addition, since 2010, Surfing 4 Peace has had to limit its activities in Gaza after the Hamas government banned all peace-building initiatives with Israel. Still, the seed was planted, and the cooperation and outreach with the international community continues through programming held outside of Gaza, online broadcasts, and personal relationships between surfers on both sides of the border.
Surfing 4 Peace initiatives are not limited to Gaza. In Israel, the organization runs free surfing workshops for Israeli youth living in the area around the southern city of Sderot, a frequent target for rockets launched from Gaza. In Jaffa, Surfing 4 Peace works to support the Israeli-Arab surfing community and is in talks with the municipality to open a surf club that will provide resources and activities designed to keep local youths off the streets and away from the gangs and violence that plague the city’s poorer neighborhoods. This summer, Surfing 4 Peace will also expand to the West Bank, where it will run a series of skateboarding workshops with Israeli and Palestinian youth designed to introduce downhill skateboarding to this hilly region and create new opportunities for cross-border cooperation and dialogue.
Still, the goal of these initiatives is not just to get young folks surfing, it’s to get them surfing together. In 2012, Surfing 4 Peace hopes to send a delegation of Israeli and Palestinian surfers to Hawaii, the capital of international surfing, to participate in the festivities surrounding the famous Triple Crown of Surfing and to spread the message of Surfing 4 Peace. As Surfing 4 Peace director Arthur Rashkovan says, “For seven years, we’ve been working to bring the spirit of Aloha to the heart of the Middle East. Now, it’s time to bring the spirit of the Middle East to the heart of Aloha.”
Given the ongoing political tensions in the Palestine region, the Surfing 4 Peace mission faces ongoing challenges. Cross-border cooperation and the exchange of goods and information are looked upon with great suspicion, especially as a result of new tensions that have arisen in the wake of the Arab Spring. The political environment is constantly shifting, and with the region’s varied leaderships on high alert, many members of our community live in areas where cross-border communication is now not only discouraged but illegal.
Still, Surfing 4 Peace is a community, not an organization, and as in any community, information is generated and shared, inevitably finding its way across cultural and political borders. This is the true value of games—to bring people together to share common skills, seek common goals, build understanding, and let information flow freely. And where information flows, understanding follows—and with it, peace.
Matthew Olsen is a member of the Surfing 4 Peace community and founder of the Gaza Surf Club. He is director of Explore Corps, a non-profit that provides administrative support and oversight to Surfing 4 Peace.
[Photo: Surfing 4 Peace]