Literally translated as “shaking off” from Arabic, a few dozen surfers in the Gaza strip and some unlikely friends from an Israeli non-profit are engaged in their own "intifada" defying a centuries old struggle between politically sworn enemies.
Up and coming director and Los Angeles local, Alex Klein, captured the culture of surfers in Gaza and Israel and their defiance of sociological forces that have ravaged the region for decades. His upcoming documentary curiously titled, “God Went Surfing With The Devil,” follows the efforts of American and Israeli surfers as they try to deliver 23 surfboards across the tightly sealed Erez Crossing to their less adequately equipped Palestinian counterparts.
Birth Of A Cause
In the late 1990’s, Ahmed Abu Hasiera brought back a cheap surfboard from Israel with which he learned to surf and shared with his friend Mohammed Abu Jayyab. Still sharing the same board in 2006, life as they knew it would further deteriorate when a fragmented Fatah movement loses a critical Palestinian election to a well organized Hamas resulting in the immediate closure of borders by the Israeli government. Although the rationale was to place siege on Hamas by choking its supply lines from the outside world, the move only served to harden the militias and make life miserable for Gazans like Ahmed and Mohammed. Direct action between Hamas militants and the Israeli military with civilians being caught in the crossfire became an inevitable part of daily life. Amid the mortar shelling and air strikes, Ahmed and Mohammed along with a small band of Gaza surfers would find refuge in the sea.
In 2007, Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times ran an article on Ahmed and Mohammed documenting their plight in the Gaza Strip. Famed Hawaiian-Israeli surfing patriarch, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, come across the article and within hours had mobilized an Israeli non-profit organization which he co-founded, Surfing 4 Peace, to help out the Gaza surfers. With assistance from other non-profits, Surfing 4 Peace, brought 14 surfboards to the tightly guarded Erez Crossing separating Israel and Gaza. After some haggling and in the face of overwhelming media presence from around the world, Paskowitz was ultimately allowed to hand over the surfboards to Ahmed and Mohammed.
While there were less than a handful of surfers in Gaza a decade ago, there are now a few dozen. These “conflict waterman” have even formed their own Gaza Surf Club. Along with Surfing 4 Peace, the Gaza Surf Relief non-profit organization shares the cause of getting better equipment and boards to the Gaza surfers.
Surfing With The Devil
More than a decade after the symbolic gesture, Surfing 4 Peace upped the ante in 2008 by proposing to transport 23 surfboards through the same Erez border crossing. However, unlike the original handoff, the situation in Gaza had become markedly worse. Alex, along with his crew of three cameramen and photographers Edward Chase, Danilo Parra, and Bryan Derballa, made it their mission to share the story of Israeli and Palestinian surfers and how organizations like Surfing 4 Peace and the Gaza Surf Relief are doing what politicians have failed to accomplish for decades. Bringing with them only the bare essentials of filming equipment and lacking any credentials, the crew set off for 50 days in the Middle East.
Ulupono Surf had the opportunity to spend time with Alex and hear directly of his experiences in creating GWS.
Ulupono Surf (US): You’ve known one of the co-founders of Surfing 4 Peace, Arthur Rashkovan, from your professional skating days. What was your initial reaction when you heard about the surfboard operation?
Alex Klein (AK): I thought it was fantastic. All the media ever covers is the violence in the region, so it was so inspiring and refreshing to hear about young males — who could ostensibly be picking up guns and shooting each other — instead coming together over surfing. It struck me as a really important story, one that needed to be told.
US: Why is it so difficult to get surfboards into Gaza? Do they happen to double as very effective makeshift pipe bombs?
AK: The Israeli government essentially shut down the border into Gaza, as a way to punish the territory for the rocket attacks and increased militancy against the Israelis. They allow some food, gasoline, and aid to go through, but nothing beyond that. The idea is that if they punish the civilian population enough, eventually the people will rise up and overthrow Hamas, and replace them with someone friendlier to the Israelis. This is a strategy that hasn’t worked so far. One consequence of that, is that anything “fun” that could possibly promote recreation or enjoyment is also banned from Gaza. At the time, the Israelis claimed that they were worried about terrorists infiltrating into Israel via surfboard, but this is a silly argument, as the militants have much more threatening weapons than surfboards, like cars, which they’ve repeatedly used as car bombs. The Israelis also couldn’t understand that the surfers there are really peaceful and stoked on life. They’re not trying to wage a jihad.
US: In your mind, what is the purpose of GWS? Is there a political statement, or any statement for that matter, to be made here?
AK: I’m not so interested in the politics, or arguing who’s right and who’s wrong. I think the lesson here is that peace is possible, that people can come together and have fun and coexist. I’m really tired of all the pessimism surrounding peace process. People focus on this narrow group of extremists, when really, the large majority of people are completely peaceful and opposed to violence.
US: The first thing that hit me about your documentary is the title. I’m assuming it’s based on a quote by Doc Paskowitz, “God will surf with the Devil if the waves are good.”
AK: Exactly! I thought it was a good quote. I like how it incorporates religion and morality and surfing in one. It’s also provocative, which is always a plus. People can read a lot into it.
US: What’s the deal with bringing no official credentials? Death wish or did you just forget?
AK: A little of both. No, we tried to get credentials, but no one would issue them to us. I can’t exactly blame them.
US: Can you briefly tell us about the cities you visited?
AK: We were mostly based in Tel Aviv, but we also explored Ashqelon and Sderot in the South of Israel, two places that have been getting hit with a lot of rockets fired from Gaza. Then we spent some time in Gaza itself.
US: Granted that people get used to their surroundings, having to live in a city that is under constant rocket or artillery bombardment must effect you in some way. Did you see this effect in people either Israelis or Palestinians? Or has this sort of thing truly become normal course for them?
AK: It was eye-opening to meet Israelis who live under constant threat of rocket attacks. It’s a very stressful situation, and it takes a toll on them mentally. I imagine it’s also very traumatic for the children, psychologically speaking. Gaza is very much the same, but to a larger degree. There’s all kinds of infighting between the various Palestinian factions, as well as regular Israeli incursions. It’s very frightening to be a civilian, trying to live a normal life, in a place that is terribly dangerous. I have a lot of empathy for them.
US: That first air raid siren with people making a mad dash to the nearest bunker must have been a bit of a trip.
AK: Yeah, that was strange. That was in Sderot. At the time, there were anywhere from 5-10 rockets being fired at the town per day. So in going there, we knew there was a high chance we’d witness an attack. Sderot is only about 3 miles from Gaza, really close. Like if Brooklyn declared war on Manhattan. Israel has a giant blimp that sits above the border, monitoring for rockets. As soon as they see a vapor trail, an alarm goes off in the region, informing everyone they have 20 seconds or so to get in a bomb shelter. Everyone drops everything and runs, it’s bizarre to witness. Then the Israeli Air Force usually launches a quick counter attack, where they send out helicopters or F-16s, and try to hunt down and kill the militants, who are usually fleeing in pick-up trucks. It’s an intense situation.
US: Before making your way into Gaza in May, a rocket attack on Israel had the IDF on high alert looking for rockets launched from tripods not dissimilar in looks to the camera equipment you were carrying. Did you take any precautions perhaps labeling your equipment “NOT A ROCKET A LAUNCHER”?
AK: No, but that’s a good idea. Like you mentioned, we were warned not to use a camera on a tripod, because it can be mistaken for a rocket launcher, and the Israelis will call in an air strike. However, all that would occur from a helicopter or drone, so any writing would probably be overlooked.
US: What was your impression of the surfers in Israel? The surfers in Gaza?
AK: Everyone was great. They were all friendly, down to surf. Just like guys anywhere in the world. The Israelis are pretty with it, the guys in Gaza less so. They don’t really have any surf magazines or access to surf culture, so they kind of figure everything out as they go along. They all share boards, and of those boards, half of them are actually windsurf boards with the sail and mast removed. They have homemade leashes, homemade fins. Equipment-wise, it’s really primitive, but they love it so much.
US: Just before your final interviews in Gaza, you had a bit of a run in with Hamas security forces …
AK: Right, we were on our way to the beach, on our last day, when I noticed we were being followed. It turns out a Hamas operative had seen us taking photos from a car, and was concerned we were spies. When we stopped the car, we were quickly surrounded by all these guys with AK-47s, who wanted to know who we were, and what we were doing. I tried to talk my way out of it, but they weren’t having it, so we were hauled into jail, which was more of a military barracks type structure– huge jihadi murals, martyr posters, guys with rifles doing marching drills– that kind of thing. We were taken into this back room and interrogated. It was pretty uncomfortable. To make matters worse, we had a bottle of whiskey with us, and one of the guys, our driver, actually had a Torah on him. Pretty bad stuff to be caught with. Anyway, we were interrogated by this senior officer, and eventually he realized we were too moronic to be spies, so he apologized and let us go. He actually offered to take us out to dinner, this Hamas guy. It was very surreal. Instead we politely excused ourselves before he could change his mind and have us killed.
US: As if that wasn’t enough to grow hairs on your ankles, something happened on the way back across the border crossing … you didn’t call in advance.
AK: Yeah, this was probably the closest we came to serious danger in Gaza. We were trying to exit Gaza and cross the border, but we didn’t know protocol. We sort of just started walking across the no man’s land, towards Israel. We got about 30 feet, when something didn’t sit right with me, so I stopped, and we turned our crew — at that point Matthew Olson from S4P and Edward Chase the cameraman– around and headed back into Gaza. I just wanted to double check and make sure we were doing the right thing, since this other director, James Miller, got killed in very similar circumstances, when he was shot by an Israeli sniper while approaching a patrol at night. We walked around and finally found these German aid workers, and were like, “So, we just cross?” They were like, “Heavens no! You have to bring your passports over to that booth over there and they’ll radio ahead, otherwise you’ll be shot by snipers.” So that was fortunate. There’s a real shoot first, ask questions later, if at all mentality in Israel and Gaza. Furthermore, there’s no one briefing you on the do’s and don’ts of a war zone. You’re just sort of expected to know this stuff.
US: For those of us that might not have the balls to pack up and take the first flight out to one of the world’s most dangerous regions, what can we do to help out or raise awareness?
AK: I think it’s just good to question the mainstream media. They like to focus on conflict, since that’s what sells. But in giving all this attention to war, they often skew the facts. That’s not to say the situation in the Middle East isn’t difficult, because it is. But the situation is far from hopeless. I think if the governments on both sides were a bit more forgiving and a bit less heavy-handed, than the conflict would start to recede. The people on both sides want peace, it’s just a matter of allowing that to happen.
US: Where are you with GWS? When and where can we expect to see this great film?
AK: We’re sending it out to festivals now, so fingers crossed it will get a general release before too long.
US: I absolutely cannot wait to see this. Sure, I love watching surfers go balls out in Tea’hupoo as much as the next surfer. But documentaries like these really put our lives in perspective – both in and out of the water. Thank you for doing this.
AK: Thank you, Rob. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.