The arrival of an Italian delegation carrying skateboards to the Gaza Strip through the Beit Hanoun/ Erez crossing may have been a somewhat unusual scene. The delegation members decided to carry the skateboards that will be used in the large public park to be built as part of the “Green Hopes Gaza” project in the North Gaza governorate. The project is funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation.
The Italian government had pledged to fund and execute a broad reconstruction and renovation program for houses destroyed during the 2014 Israeli war. The program included the building of a public park that is intended to include the only sports facility in the area.
The Israeli and Palestinian sides have coordinated to allow for the entry of the delegation members and the skateboards into the besieged enclave.
The Italian delegation, which included engineers and technicians, arrived in Gaza immediately after the end of the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas that ended with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire on May 21. It spent about 25 days in the coastal enclave to finish the skateboard track. The transfer of equipment needed to build the track began in February 2020, but the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic delayed the process.
The park project also includes a circus tent, the first in the Gaza Strip, and a multipurpose stadium built on an area of 2,800 square meters (0.7 acres). The project aims to support the sports and entertainment sector, which is constantly affected by Israel’s attacks. Several sports facilities have been destroyed across Gaza because of the Israeli bombing and siege, which has significantly affected the development of the project.
A large part of the Green Hopes Gaza project was carried out by the Italian Center for Cultural Exchange, which is affiliated with the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. The center was established after the killing of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza in 2011.
Sami Abu Omar, coordinator of the Italian Center for Cultural Exchange, told Al-Monitor the Green Hopes Gaza project was launched in August 2018, with the construction of a multipurpose building that includes a mental health center and a legal clinic. The building was built in cooperation with the Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization. The building also includes an agricultural nursery that is run in cooperation with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization.
Commenting on the recreational sports activities included in the project, Abu Omar said that the construction of the skateboard track has been completed, and it is perhaps the largest track in the Middle East, as it was built on an area of 900 square meters (0.2 acres).
Abd al-Salam Haniyeh, assistant secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that the park project will cover an area of 15 dunams (3.7 acres) in northern Gaza, surrounded by several marginalized areas, including al-Nada, al-Awda, al-Izba and the Bedouin village of Umm al-Nasr.
He said, “These border areas have suffered greatly due to their repeated targeting during the Israeli attacks on Gaza. They lack any recreational places or sports centers, and they are not subordinated to any municipality.”
Haniyeh noted, “The [park] project will be built on top of a huge landfill in order to turn it into a green area. The committees of the neighborhoods of al-Nada and al-Awda will be responsible for managing this green area.”
He stressed that the Gaza Strip is in dire need of projects in the sports and entertainment sector. “We hope for similar projects in every governorate in the Gaza Strip. About 1 million children and youths in the enclave are in dire need of an entertainment and sports environment.”
Abu Omar said the park project faced many challenges. “The first is the bureaucracy prevailing at the official institutions in Gaza, which caused the project to be delayed for a year. Removing large quantities of waste was arduous, and the coordination to allow the entry of Italians was repeatedly delayed or canceled by Israel. What’s more, the precautionary measures due to the spread of the coronavirus further delayed the project’s completion.”
He gave an example of what happened when the circus tent was imported. “It was shipped from Italy to the port of Ashdod in Israel to enter Gaza, but the tent was held in the port for 45 days. This made the project incur additional storage fees that increased expenses. Also, building materials were purchased from the Gaza market, but at a higher price due to the frequent Israeli closures of the crossings.”
Nelly al-Masry, journalist and researcher specializing in sports affairs, told Al-Monitor that this sports project is an important opportunity to discover and develop sports talents among children and youths in the Gaza Strip.
“Sports venues in Gaza are scarce and the existing ones lack the necessary resources and capacities or are located far from marginalized areas,” she noted.
Masry explained that poverty and the worsening siege in the Gaza Strip prevent children and youth from accessing commercial sports centers and clubs due to the inability of many families to pay the transportation fees.
The first phase of the Green Hopes Gaza project will be inaugurated in December. Italian delegations from several sports and entertainment fields are expected to arrive in the besieged enclave to participate in the opening and to oversee training sessions on many activities.