Ayman Mohyeldin | Al Jazeera
20 May 2009
Every day, as the sun sets on the coast of Gaza, people make their way to the coffee shop-lined beaches and the pot-holed streets that run parallel to its coastline.
On the terrace of the famed Al Deira Hotel, patrons jostle for position, sipping sweet Arabic coffee as the sounds of legendary Arab musicians delicately waft through the air, mingling with the aroma of flavoured tobacco.
They all share one aim – to gaze out into the Mediterranean Sea as its turquoise waters transform into blue, then purple and then disappear into the moonlit night.
Another day has passed in Gaza.
For the few minutes where the sun and water meet and the sky glows warm, people here are moved by a deep beauty and for those few minutes, the beaming smiles of children frolicking in the sand, the laughter of friends and the line of fishermen setting out into the horizon suspend Gaza’s seemingly eternal suffering.
It is that time of year again, when temperatures rise and where the coast of Gaza takes on a whole new different meaning.
In this tiny territory caged in by Israel on two sides, north and east, and by Egypt to the south, Gaza’s west coast becomes its gateway to a world of possibilities and a painful reminder of its limited realities.
Gaza’s shoreline is a deceptive one. Its long, white sandy beaches are the ideal location for luxury hotels, trendy cafes, a vibrant nightlife, boutique shops, a palm-tree lined promenade for the health-conscious jogger, the inspired artist seeking to capture its beauty or the local street vendor selling traditional Palestinian handicrafts.
With its year-round, perfect Mediterranean weather, rich history at the crossroads of continents and civilisations and Arab hospitality, Gaza should be a tourist haven and entrepreneur’s dream.
Businesses, corporations and financial towers should be vying for this prime real estate.
Instead, today its 41km-long poorly paved corniche road is marked with potholes. Sections of it have been destroyed by Israeli air raids over the years.
A journey from its northern border to the south can take hours to travel, as you zig-zag through the destroyed stretches of road and the rubble of buildings levelled during Israel’s recent war.
All along the coastal stretch, crowded and dirty refugee camps edge closer to the water, squeezing every inhabitable inch available.
The drive along the coast is marked by the smell of raw sewage spewing out into the sea at various points. The coast’s most underdeveloped stretches are the scars from where Israel maintained its military outposts and illegal settlements that were a chokehold on the Gaza Strip.
When the Israeli military and settlers pulled out in 2005, they left behind the land and the coast but left Gaza in ruins, caged in and cut off from the outside world.
Since 2006, when Hamas won democratic elections that were recognised by international observers as free and fair, Israel has imposed an increasingly stifling siege on Gaza, restricting everything that comes in and out of the strip.
The vast majority of the 1.5 million Palestinians living here have not been allowed to leave this territory, which is approximately 360sq km in size.
Every facet of life in Gaza has been restricted beyond imagination by Israel, crippling the economy and increasing the psychological pressure on the territory’s people.
Nowhere else in Gaza is the economy more visibly in tatters then along its coast. Its hotels, once buzzing with vacationing Palestinians from the diaspora and the sounds of wedding parties during the summer, are a faint echo of their past.
A pyramid-shaped building on Gaza’s northern shore was supposed to be the Movenpick Hotel. But it, like Gaza, never realised its full potential. Today it stands nearly complete but hollow, scarred by war yet towering over the pristine sands of the sea.
For centuries, generations of Gaza’s fishermen set sail from its port cities, earning a livelihood for their families, feeding hundreds of local restaurants and giving the territory a distinct fish flavour to its food.
In Rafah, fishermen annually prepared for the sardine harvest this time of the year. This would have been peak season for them. Today, these fishermen are not allowed to exceed three nautical miles off the coast, far short from what is legally permissible by international law.
When they do try to fish beyond the imposed limits, they are harassed, shot at and detained by the Israeli navy, which patrols Gaza coast ferociously.
Gaza City’s fish market was known for its colourful array of seafood, from crabs to shrimps, sharks to local catches. The fish market at the port was so renowned that it was the preferred market for Israeli Jews, whose own coast dwarfs the length of Gaza’s.
Back then, as it is today, Gaza was under Israeli military control but unlike now, Palestinians and Israelis were allowed to move freely between the two territories.
Gaza’s gateway to the world was through its port. The blueprints had been already drawn up. The Gaza City Port was to be transformed into a modern day commercial trading hub, bringing cargo vessels from Europe, Africa and Asia across the Mediterranean Sea.
But that, too, never materialised. Today, empty vessels and rusted and decrepit dinner-boats encrust the port.
Besides the economic potential – or lack thereof – the coast has also come to symbolise something immeasurable.
At a time when the Palestinian people are under a siege that has prevented them from exercising their most basic rights and freedoms, the Gaza coast has become an important psychological tool.
It has become a vehicle to escape their daily struggles.
Anyone who approaches the coast and stares aimlessly out at the horizon is forced to dream. Dream about what, it’s up to them, but they find themselves thinking about what lies beyond their immediate physical limitations.
One simply cannot look at its beautiful waters and not imagine what lies beyond. Your brain begins to race with endless possibilities about the rest of the world. You immediately ask yourself “what if”?
What if Gaza was not under siege? What if I could take a ferry to Cyprus? What if Gaza was free to pursue its economic potential?
A few minutes staring at the coast and one suddenly realises the people are thinking about everything and anything that has nothing to do with Gaza. When people are thinking about Gaza – it is not about Gaza as it is, but what it could or should be.
As a good friend of mine who regularly frequents the Al Deira Hotel terrace put it: “Typical of the melancholy and pride of living in Gaza, its sea not only inspires unending spirit and wonder but it also, often times, instills a sense of sorrow as one sees this great symbol of freedom one is unable to touch.
But Gaza’s sea will continue to inspire freedom no matter the circumstances.”
So it is that, as the sun sets on its shores and the light merges with nightfall, days become weeks and months become years, Gaza’s besieged coast becomes an outlet to nothing but hope for its people.