GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – As wintry winds battered the Gaza Strip, sending many inside, two Palestinian men instead rushed for the breaking waves of the Mediterranean Sea.
Mohammed Abu Jayyab, 41, and his friend Ahmed Abu Hasira, 35, represent two of about two dozen surfers catching waves in the blockaded strip, which has endured three devastating wars with Israel in six years, the most recent this summer.
The Gaza Surf Club describes the sport as a way to "forget about the hardships of living in Gaza." But that's not really the case as the two men splash into water cold enough to take their breath away even in wetsuits. Raw or only partially treated sewage now churns into the waves.
"We take to the sea engulfed with fears of infection. In the past, the water was better," said Abu Jayyab, a father of five.
The sewage in the Mediterranean stems from long-standing electricity shortages linked to a border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. Rolling power cuts disrupt pumps handling sewage for the strip's 1.8 million people. Those cuts intensified after the summer's war, which the United Nations said killed some 2,200 Palestinians, along with 72 on the Israeli side.
When Abu Jayyab started out as an amateur in the 1990s, he used homemade wooden boards that injured him at least four times. Now, the clubs' boards bears the logos of world organizations that donated them, including Surfing 4 Peace, founded by American surfer Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, who died in November at age 93.
"God bless his soul," Abu Jayyab said.
For now, Abu Jayyab hasn't taken part in any international surfing competition, in part due to the sport not receiving official support in Gaza and because of frequent border closures. But he said he never misses a chance to get in the water.
"We have been surfing for 20 years and we did not lose any chance to surf," Abu Jayyab said recently before jumping into the water near Gaza City's fishing harbor. "This sport runs in our blood."