Surfing the Strip

The beaches of Gaza will soon be in Palestinian hands. Donald Macintyre meets the surfers who will be forced to find new waves

Some deconstruction of this surfer's anthem is needed. For a start, it's sung in Hebrew. The "sea of green" is the Mediterranean, every bit as seductive here as it is on any of its European shores. But the "crossing" is the Kissufim checkpoint you pass before the heavily guarded, and in the past five years frequently fired at, roads that cut through the Palestinian territory of Gaza to this unspoilt coastal enclave which Jews have inhabited for no more than 30 years. The old and densely populated "three foreign towns" - Palestinian and therefore "foreign" only to the Israeli settlers who colonised much of the best of this territory after it was seized in the Six Day War in 1967 - are, from north to south, Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Rafah. For Barda, 21, and just out of military service, is one of the 8,500 Jewish settlers Ariel Sharon has ordered to be evacuated from Gaza next month, and his song is a lament for the sea and surf he will leave behind.

If the "painting in my imagination" mentioned in Barda's song had been executed on the day that we meet - when it is so hot the sand burns underfoot - it would have a busy, almost surreal quality. The white beach is as pristine as ever, the surf just as inviting, but the population is especially diverse. There's an orthodox Jew, enjoying a promenade in his counter-climatic garb of black coat and wide-brimmed hat; a circle of late-teen settlers lounging on the sand and sharing, for all the world like Arabs, a hubble-bubble of sweet apple-scented tobacco; a pair of armed and uniformed policemen patrolling the beach as they have ever since the army summarily evicted more than 100 extremist settlers a week earlier from the abandoned Palm Beach Hotel nearby; two off-duty soldiers reading newspapers in their swimming trunks, their M16s embedded in the sand and pointing upwards beside them; two or three midday surfers "lining up" 50-100 metres out to sea. The picture might not include the Israeli Defence Force post just above the beach, surrounded by razor wire, its radar antenna circling continually in a remorseless search for potential Palestinian attackers and Palestinian fishing boats rash enough to stray beyond the narrow strip of in-shore water to which they are restricted. But perhaps, in the foreground, here on the lifeguard hut raised on stilts, there would be Barda's friend, Meir Amshik, also a surfer, also a lifeguard, but unlike Barda, a deeply religious Yeshiva student, wrapped in a Chilean poncho, a white embroidered prayer shawl on one shoulder as he studies a large Torah while Barda sings. In the manner of narrative painting, the whole work might be entitled "Waiting for Disengagement".

Amshik, 27, isn't easy to make out at first. Quietly spoken and courteous, he says the young settlers from outside Gaza who had made the dilapidated and disused Palm Beach their stronghold until 30 June had been wrong, in the clashes that precipitated their eviction, to attack and critically wound a Palestinian from the adjacent Arab enclave of Mouassi, trapped within the Gush Katif Jewish settlement block. But while Barda has come to terms, albeit with great reluctance, with the evacuation and is already planning a world surfing tour from Australia to Costa Rica, Amshik is ready to resist. Because he spent his own military service as a sniper in an élite special forces unit in Lebanon, you have to take him seriously when he says, "I won't go easily," when the army comes for him around 15 August. Off the beach he carries, like many settlers, an M16. He is in favour of sabotaging military vehicles and equipment, though he is against any violence against the soldiers themselves. "Maybe I will try to stop their vehicles by lying down in front of them," he says. "I'll try to avoid being arrested, to resist in whatever way I can without getting violent with the soldiers."

But for all these scruples, Amshik, who spent more than a year in Hawaii surfing, reading philosophy and rethinking his religiousness - which had temporarily faltered during and after his military service - is no ideological moderate. Magisterially ignoring the view of even those Jewish biblical scholars who do not see Gaza, ancient land of the Philistines, as part of "Greater Israel", he speaks of Abraham's sojourn here and is utterly convinced that disengagement is in direct violation of God's promise of the land to the Jews. Equally impervious to the argument that he is simply being relocated to pre-1967 Israel, he declares: "It's like we are having to leave the land again. We are being ordered back into exile." On the Arabs' claim to this territory, he is dismissive, saying that their expulsion from the whole of the Holy Land would be "the best option", adding: "And maybe it will happen when the Messiah comes." In the mean time, however, the Arabs can share the land with the Jews, provided Israel uses its full military strength - as he believes it is not doing at present - to overcome Arab resistance to the occupation f (which will continue in the West Bank after disengagement in Gaza). Defying criticisms that Israeli troops fire all too easily on Palestinians, including unarmed ones, he says the rules of engagement are much too restrictive. "The Israeli government shows too much mercy to the Arabs," he says. "We consider too much the opinion of other nations. We are so merciful to others that we are cruel to ourselves. If you are merciful to cruel people, you are cruel to merciful people. That's what's happening."

When the army comes to evacuate Gaza won't it be carrying out the wishes of a democratically elected government? Well, he says, he is still "nuts about the army," but "the Torah is above the army". As for democracy, he says, in a reference to Sharon's refusal to hold a national referendum on disengagement, "a lot of what happened didn't happen in a very democratic way". And anyway, he says, "Democracy is not exactly the ideology of the Jewish people. It came from Greece and it was the Greeks who tried to kill us spiritually."

As with the waves, they say here, no surfer is the same as another, and Amshik is probably more religious than most and more ideological than some. Lior Barda, whose surfboard is painted with the Star of David, is a little more realistic and a little less dogmatic. He would, he says, be willing to agree with disengagement if it was the means of bringing a lasting peace and ending "all the killing and shit". He adds: "I don't mind that the Arabs will come down here when we leave. But I am always going to miss this place. I just hope there will be peace and I can come back here some day." And Oz Yahuda, 20, appeared to be posing more than a merely rhetorical question when he asked: "Look around you, breathe the air. Do you think that if we give all this up there will actually be peace and quiet?" But this (relatively) chilled out approach is unusual among the surfers at Gush Katif.

Elazar Elkayan, who is 21, and a Gaza settler, was allowed to stay in the Palm Beach after the wild "hilltop youth" from West Bank settlements were evicted in June. He is part of the social, mainly diver-dominated marijuana set who spend the evenings downstairs in the hotel passing the bong, drinking tea and eating home-baked biscuits to appease the munchies as a television set murmurs quietly in the background. Like Barda, he won't resist and expects to go to Nitzanim, the beautiful stretch of Israeli coast 25 miles to the north which Sharon has infuriated environmentalists by earmarking for several hundred of the Gaza settler families. Elkayan says, "I'll pack up my stuff and leave. But I've always been in love with this place. How can you leave somewhere you have been connected to since childhood?" Echoing the arguments on the right that disengagement is a surrender to Palestinian militancy, he adds, "I think it's a big mistake to get out of here. Terrorism will escalate."

Though they had doubted it before, Meir Amshik and Elazar Elkayan were both convinced by the June eviction that the government would indeed carry out disengagement. Others, such as Uriah Beitito, 18, still appear to be in denial. Israeli surfers maintain this is the best beach in the land and the national team occasionally visits here. Beitito, still dripping wet after surfing, says the waves aren't at their best today. But with more bravado than conviction he adds: "I will go on surfing here until I'm dead. Sharon's the guy who has 40 days to live." Fresh out of high school, Beitito, who says his main interests are "surfing, girls and quad-bikes", claims he will refuse to go into the army if disengagement does go ahead. "Why should I join an army that evacuates my family from their home?"

Just before we leave, as Barda is out in the water, his white T-shirt barely discernible against the surf, 13-year-old Nevo Anati marches down the beach with his board, impatient to join him. He, too, still doesn't think disengagement will happen. But what if it does? Where would he like to go? Perhaps it's too fantastic to draw hope from the fact that he doesn't mention any desire to return to occupied territory. "It has to be a religious place," he says unhesitatingly. "Not a city. And it must have a beach."

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