Swim team braves pollution to dive into Gaza waters

Adel Zaanoun
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Young members of a Palestinian swimming club excercise on a beach during a training session in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 4, 2018

On one of the world's most polluted coastlines, 30 young Palestinians dive head first into the sea off the Gaza Strip, their minds filled with dreams of Olympic glory.

Aged between 11 and 16, they make up a rare swimming club in the Palestinian enclave, and perhaps its only mixed-sex one.

Coach Amjad Tantish talks through a warm-up before they race from the trash-strewn beach into the sea as he continues to bark instructions.

Conditions are far from perfect; the waves make serious training difficult and they have little equipment.

But Tantish explained that there are no free public swimming pools in the Gaza Strip, so they had to brave the sea.

"We lack even the simplest equipment such as goggles and swimsuits," he said. "We don't have any funding."

The Mediterranean hugs the entire 40 kilometre (25 mile) western border of the Gaza Strip, but almost no one enters its waters.

The desperate shortage of energy and lack of sanitation infrastructure mean around 100 million litres of poorly treated sewage are pumped into the sea every day, according to the United Nations.

In the worst spots along the shore the sea is tinted brown.

More than 95 percent of tap water is polluted, and water-related diseases are the primary cause of child morbidity in Gaza, according to the World Health Organization.

- Olympic dreams -

The UN says the situation has come about mainly because of Israel's crippling land and sea blockade of Gaza, warning recently the enclave is "imploding".

Israel says the measures are necessary to isolate Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza and with which it has fought three wars since 2008.

It accuses the group of squandering international aid on arms and fortifications.

Israel has seized dozens of diving suits and other swimming aids it says Hamas was seeking to smuggle into Gaza for military purposes.

For those still willing to get wet, environmental experts say the water near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza has the lowest rates of pollution.

And so the team train there a few times a week, helping to fuel their dreams.

Tantish says the squad dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, though he knows that is improbable.

Even getting a visa to leave Gaza via Israel is an almost insurmountable hurdle.

"We have many opportunities to participate in outdoor training camps and in Arab competitions, but travel is a major obstacle," he said.

The Palestine Olympic Committee sent only six athletes to the 2016 Games.

Four of those, including the two swimmers, were invited to attend despite not meeting the minimum requirements.

But even they had regular access to pools and neither were based in Gaza.

Abdul Rahman, 15, said he hopes to become a "hero and achieve first place in international competitions".

- Social taboo -

Mixed-gender activities are rare in conservative Gaza, particularly in the sporting arena.

The girls mostly wear long black swim trousers and red blouses, with their heads largely uncovered.

Tantish, 42, said in the past it "was not an acceptable idea, we faced many difficulties and troubles."

Now, he said, attitudes have changed.

"Families drop their daughters off to practice swimming and the proportion of women reached 30 percent."

Rania, 32, was walking with her husband along the beach but stopped to watch the swimming.

"I don't think being religious stops our girls from being like other people or from having this beautiful ambition," she said.

Most of the girls joining this year decided to get involved at their own initiative, Tantish said.

Ruqiya, 14, said she loves the atmosphere at the club.

"I started learning to swim three years ago and recently I joined the team. My family supports me and I train and play with my friends in the sea."

She dreams of becoming a professional: "We want a large swimming pool especially to train for the Olympics."