Israeli group gives young Palestinians their first taste of the beach

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A12

Mohammed Shawasha has spent his life in a West Bank village just 37 miles from the sea, but he has never been there. So when the opportunity to spend a day on the Mediterranean coast arose for the 12-year-old Palestinian, he jumped at it.

From hilltops across the landlocked West Bank, Palestinians can see the sea, but they can't get there because of Israeli restrictions.

Entry permits to Israel are hard to come by, reserved primarily for older Palestinians wishing to pray in Jerusalem, married men with children who hold a job in Israel and those with humanitarian needs.

The Gaza Strip's beaches aren't an option since Israel has largely prevented Palestinians from traveling between the two Palestinian territories, citing security concerns. Meanwhile, the Israeli military has prohibited Jewish Israelis from traveling to West Bank cities under Palestinian control.

The restrictions have left few opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to interact, contributing to a gulf in understanding that could present an added challenge for peace negotiators.

In this climate of limited interaction, a small group of Israeli women has decided to organize beach days. Twice a week between June and August, a busload of about 50 Palestinian kids, plus adult chaperones, from the West Bank arrives at the Bat Yam beach south of Tel Aviv.

Getting there is not easy. At 6:30 on a recent morning, Ziad Sabatin, the group leader, guided his car through the streets of the village of Husan, summoning children to board the bus. Shawasha, one of the few kids in the group who knew how to swim, carried bright green flippers.

"The idea is to have a day of fun without politics," Sabatin said.

Still, the political situation was always palpable. Husan is one of five villages in the Bethlehem area sandwiched in a kind of no-man's land between the 1967 demarcation line separating Israel from the West Bank, and a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian attacks. Even though the village is located on the Israeli side of the wall, the bus had to cut back into the West Bank so the group could be processed at the Bethlehem checkpoint.

The group arrived at 7:30. By 8:15, the kids were still waiting to go through the first turnstile. A frustrated Palestinian woman started screaming in Hebrew at the Israeli soldier in a nearby glass cubicle: "Let me through, already. I've been waiting here since 7 a.m. I need to get to work!"

Eventually the woman and the group from Husan were allowed to pass to the body scanners. Metal buttons on a Palestinian woman's cloak set off the detector and she was forced to remove it, even as an American woman also set off the machine but was waved through.

"She is a tourist," the female soldier said from behind the glass window, explaining why the American was given special treatment. "We are tourists, too," said Ziad Sabatin's brother, Eymad.

By 9 a.m., the group had boarded an Israeli bus bound for Bat Yam. The kids screamed with delight as the bus passed through a Jerusalem tunnel.

At 10 a.m., three hours after leaving Husan, the children arrived at the sea. About 30 volunteers greeted them with red sun caps, plastic balls and tubes of SPF-100 sunscreen.

Ayal Margolin, 27, an Israeli student who helped chaperon the trip, picked up a Frisbee and tossed it to a Palestinian boy in the shallow water.

Four years ago, Margolin was a soldier whose job was to shoo Palestinian kids away from a fence outside a Jewish settlement not far from Husan. The experience of policing Israel's occupation of the West Bank, he said, made him consider leaving Israel. Instead, he joined Combatants for Peace, a group that promotes coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The beach days were begun four summers ago, the brainchild of Tzvia Shapira, who for years has traveled to Israeli checkpoints to monitor the challenges Palestinians encounter there. She conceived of the beach idea after a Palestinian acquaintance asked how far the sea was, and if she could take him there.

"I suddenly realized that the sea that I so love, they can't go to," Shapira said.

The first summer, Shapira, her sister and a friend arranged the permits with Israeli authorities and covered the costs themselves. This summer, they raised $13,000 via Internet contributions; by Aug. 10, when the program ends, they will have brought about 1,000 kids to the beach this summer.

"It has to be without limits," Shapira said. "The sea belongs to everybody, not only to Israel."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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