Skip to main content

The young men and the sea: Gaza's displaced take to the waves

Palestinians flock to Deir el-Balah beach in the central Gaza Strip, taking advantage of a pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas to bathe or fish
— Deir el-Balah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

With the rising of the sun, dozens of people flock to the Mediterranean beaches of the devastated Gaza Strip.

Some come out of necessity, to bathe or fish for food, while others simply hope to take advantage of a brief pause in fighting with a dip in the sea after nearly eight weeks of war between Israel and Hamas.

For Walid Sultan, fishing is at the core of his identity.

A self-described "fisherman from a family of fishermen", the 22-year-old fled his home in a fishing village in Beit Lahia, in the heavily bombed north of the Gaza Strip, moving south down the coast to Deir el-Balah.

No longer able to bear being away from the water, pacing in circles around the UN-run school where he has found shelter, he borrowed a friend's boat and went fishing.

"We go out to sea even if the Israeli navy vessels shoot over us, because we want to bring some fish back to our families and to sell for a little money," he said.

Even before the current war, the fifth in 15 years, Sultan's profession could be risky.

Palestinian children help fishermen untangle nets on Deir el-Balah beach, during a truce in Gaza between Israel and Hamas

Under a strict blockade imposed when Hamas took power in Gaza, Israel sharply reduced the zone permitted for fishing off Gaza's coast, altering its size periodically to punish or reward Gaza's Islamist rulers.

Sometimes, the fishermen say, they would come under fire well inside the permitted limits.

For Wael Ahmed, 48, the current truce coming to an end has become an ever-present fear.

"We just want to get back to our lives, and for our kids to live in peace," he said.

Nearby, dozens of people swam, splashed and laughed.

Samia gathered her whole family and set off for the beach on Thursday. As the children enjoyed themselves nearby, the thirtysomething -- also from Beit Lahia -- got to work washing their clothes.

"Maybe the truce won't be extended," said Samia, who declined to give her last name, as she rushed to wash everything in a bucket of seawater.

- 'Life, death' -

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched the deadliest attack in Israel's history, killing 1,200 people in cross-border raids, most of them civilians, Israeli officials say.

In response, Israel went to war against Hamas, relentlessly pounding the Gaza Strip for weeks with air strikes and a ground incursion that have killed more than 15,000 people, also mostly civilians, according to the territory's Hamas-run government.

A truce that went into effect nearly a week ago has largely silenced the guns on both sides, but unless an agreement is reached on an extension, it is due to expire on Friday morning.

The war has already displaced more than 1.7 million people in the Gaza Strip -- Samia and her family among them -- who now face acute shortages of food and drinking water, according to the United Nations.

Under the truce, the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza has increased, but the UN children's agency (UNICEF) has warned it is not nearly enough.

Samia said she spent the last week trying to stock up on food and cooking gas.

Palestinian women hang out their laundry to dry on the beach in Deir el-Balah. They make do with seawater as drinking water is far too scare to use for washing.

"We can barely find water to drink, so I have already washed my kids in the sea, and now I'm doing the laundry," Samia told AFP as she watched her daughter Noha playing on a tractor tyre from the corner of her eye.

The Israeli military continues to warn fishermen, in Arabic-language videos posted online, that "it is forbidden to go into the sea".

On Thursday, the army said it had again fired warning shots at Palestinian boats accused of violating security restrictions.

Now, fishing from Deir al-Balah, Sultan says he has not ventured more than 10 nautical miles out.

Back home in Beit Lahia, "I had a fishing net, a boat, a motor -- everything was destroyed," he said.

Now "life has no more meaning. Life, death, it's the same."