Ibrahim Arafat, a 24-year-old surfer, exited the Gaza Strip via Erez Crossing this morning. He will enter Jordan through the Allenby Crossing, and from there will travel to Hawaii to participate in a month-long workshop that will prepare him to launch the sport of surfing in Gaza. The flight, the workshop and his living expenses in Hawaii are being covered by an American not-for-profit organization called Explore Corps, which has run programs for young people in Gaza since 2008. The organization is also involved in building a community water sports center in the Gaza Strip, and in 2010 the organization donated 24 surfboards to surfers in Gaza.
Explore Corps invited Ibrahim to Hawaii back in September 2014, shortly after the terrible summer of Operation Protective Edge ended. Individuals traveling to the United States from Gaza who need a visa have to attend an in-person interview at the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Getting an exit permit for the visa interview turned out to be a complicated task in itself. After the hostilities, Israel announced that it would prioritize exit requests from war-wounded and medical patients, and so Ibrahim’s request to leave Gaza for the interview in Jerusalem was not reviewed until February 2015. He traveled to Jerusalem, was approved for a visa, and then went back to Gaza to wait for a response to yet another permit request to travel from Gaza to Hawaii.
On Monday, Gisha’s intake coordinator was surprised to receive a call from the army informing him that Ibrahim’s exit request had been approved. According to the criteria published by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, athletes from the Gaza Strip are eligible to apply for exit permits for travel abroad only if they belong to Palestinian national teams. The permit is good news but also highlights that the decision about who can and can’t travel from Gaza is rather arbitrary. Ibrahim’s professional training will, without a doubt, improve the lives of young people in the Gaza Strip but many other, equally as legitimate, requests are sweepingly rejected for not meeting the criteria.
Mohammed a-Riyashi, for instance, has been surfing off the Gaza coast for 10 years. He dreams of becoming a professional like his friend, Ibrahim, he told Gisha’s field coordinator Mohammed Azaiza, and traveling to international competitions so that he “can speak on behalf of the people of Gaza, especially athletes”.
Seventy-five percent of Gaza’s population is under age 30. With such a young population, it makes sense that more might be found surfing the coastline, and yet less than 30 people surf there regularly. Restrictions on movement also prevent surfers from developing their skills, which require travel abroad for learning, networking and participation in competitions. “In order to excite more young people about this sport we have to strengthen the base”, says a-Riyashi. “The Palestine Sport Federation does not invest in a sport that is not renowned internationally, and we don’t have funding bodies and clubs to train future surfers”. And if that were not enough, Israel also makes it difficult to get basic surfing equipment into Gaza, such as surfboards and wetsuits, and the person bringing in the equipment has to follow a special procedure via the committee which coordinates entrance of goods to Gaza.
In 2012, a-Riyashi traveled through the Rafah Crossing with one of his colleagues to a surfing workshop in Qatar. He says the Qataris were so impressed by their abilities that they decided to donate 10 boats to promote water sports in Gaza. Last year he tried to leave Gaza for a surfing workshop in Egypt, but he did not succeed in exiting through Rafah Crossing, which is closed most of the time. Travel, for him and for other young athletes, means making their personal and professional dreams come true. Everyone would reap the benefits.