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The Palestinian territory of Gaza isn’t well known for its beaches. Its association with the Australian Surf Life Saving movement, however, dates back to World War II and two Gazan surf lifesavers are determined to set up a new Gaza Beach Surf Lifesaving Club - with the assistance of North Steyne SLSC in Manly and the Gaza Surf Project.

Gaza is a city ringed by fortifications. It runs regularly without power, has few cinemas or sporting clubs and a handful of parks where children can play. However, Gaza has a 45km stretch of beach on the Mediterranean Sea which offers its residents one of the few places they can relax, swim and socialise.

Hasan Alhabil is one of a handful of lifeguards who were employed by the municipality to patrol Gaza beach - after drownings on the beach reached an horrific 44 during one particularly bad summer.

Thanks to the work of the Gaza lifeguards, the average number of drownings is now down to seven a year. However, Hasan and fellow lifesaver Mohammed Saleh are determined to reduce the number of fatalities on the beach even further.

“We want to build a lifesaving club of our own, for Gazans, to keep people safe. Even though the sea is more gentle in Gaza than in Australia, unfortunately, still many people drown because they cannot swim safely,” Hasan told the Guardian in a recent interview.

Last month, Hasan Alhabil and Mohammed Saleh were in Sydney as guests of the Gaza Surf Project and North Steyne Surf Life Saving Club, training to be Gaza’s first qualified lifesavers. They aim to return to Palestine to establish its first surf club: The Gaza Beach Surf Lifesaving Club.

Hasan Alhabil and Mohammed Saleh - Photo Courtesy Mike Bowers/Guardian Australia

The Sydney-based Northern Beaches Committee for Palestine group, organised and funded the Gaza Surf Project. It took nearly four years for them to take the project from concept to reality. They held fundraising events to pay for airfares for Saleh and Alhabil and then began the complex process of arranging visas and passage out of Gaza, through Egypt, to Australia.

In addition to gaining surf life saving skills, Saleh and Alhabil are passionate about replicating the strong community culture that exists within Australian surf clubs and also Surf Life Saving’s successful Nippers program - to encourage and train the next generation of Gazan lifesavers.

“I want children in Gaza to learn to enjoy the beach and to be safe when they swim. I want to establish a program like Nippers to teach children about lifesaving,” Saleh said in an interview with the Guardian.

“We want to re-create a system like [that] here in Australia, that involves the whole society. Everyone working together to make it a safe place to share,” Saleh said.

In a territory with 60% youth unemployment, a surf club can serve as a place of community and an outlet for physical activity is important for young Palestinians.

Hasan Alhabil, a former refugee, was taught to swim by an older brother, and as a teenager became one of a handful of lifeguards employed by the municipality to patrol Gaza beach.

Hasan Alhabil - Photo Courtesy Mike Bowers/Guardian Australia

“The beach is all we have, it’s the only recreation, the only entertainment for the Gazan people,” Alhabil says. “But even there we have problems. Because there is no electricity and power often, raw sewage is pushed into the sea. So that means there is less space where it is safe for people to swim.

“Here in Australia, the beach is very safe, it’s very clean and well-organised. The facilities you have here, we don’t have in Gaza.”

Saleh and Alhabil spent last month with North Steyne SLSC, on Sydney’s Manly Beach. They completed their Bronze Medallion and Surf Rescue Certificates - the fundamental Australian lifesaving qualifications. They also met with several other clubs to learn about establishing Nippers programs.

The president of the North Steyne Surf Life Saving Club, Chris Gibbs Stewart, says it was an important project to support and the club plans to continue assisting Saleh and Alhabil to establish the Gaza Beach Surf Life Saving Club.

“Lifesaving is, of course, about keeping people safe on the beach, but it’s about more than that, it’s about building a community, building a sense of family. We are trying to teach that culture we have here,” said Chris.

“We want to stay in contact and keep providing support, whether that is sending over equipment or training materials, or sending people over there to assist. We want to plant the seed that becomes the Gaza Beach Surf Lifesaving club.”

Hasan Alhabil and Mohammed Saleh - Photo Courtesy Mike Bowers/Guardian Australia

Now that Saleh and Hasan’s Surf Life Saving training is complete and they have returned home to Gaza, the Northern Beaches Committee for Palestine is now turning its attention to fundraising for equipment and facilities for the new Gaza Beach Surf Club.

“We’d like to be able to fund the purchase of a caravan so club members have a place to change and a patrol tent for the beach. We’d also like to arrange for Australian Surf Life Saving training materials to be translated from English into Arabic,” said Sonja Sedmak from the Gaza Surf Project.

As Australian surf lifesavers know, surf clubs are important and vibrant community hubs and have a culture of support and inclusivity. Surf Life Saving NSW wishes Saleh and Alhabil well with their project to replicate the successful Australian Surf Life Saving club model in Gaza.

If you would like more information on how you can support the Gaza Surf Project, please contact Sonja Sedmack on 0405 843 306.

The photographs in this article are courtesy of photograhper Mike Bowers and Guardian Australia.

Hasan Alhabil and Mohammed Saleh - North Steyne SLSC - Photo Courtesy Mike Bowers/Guardian Australia