Under the occupation, Israeli authorities block many goods from being imported into Gaza. One surprising category of banned goods is swim gear, which means swimmers in Gaza cannot access accessories such as fins, goggles, and swimsuits. Moreover, the lack of dedicated swimming areas in the Gaza Sea means beachgoers must share the water with boats, which can be dangerous.
But this doesn’t stop a group of avid swimmers from enjoying a daily morning plunge in the sea, even in winter.
“With our swimming group, we share both happy moments, such as celebrating the New Year with a cake, and sad occasions,” said 34-year-old Fikri Faisal Fikri Abu Wardeh, a freelance graphic designer. “We also remember the group members who are no longer with us.”
“As Palestinians, we have a special relationship with the sea in our occupied lands,” explained Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a 56-year-old academic teacher and former Minister of Youth and Sports. “Our message is that by heading for the sea, we renew our relationship with our occupied lands.”
How a few swimmers grew into a movement
This idea of winter swimming in the Gaza Sea originated with Mohamed Mahra, a 42-year-old resident of Jabalia who wanted to encourage others to participate with him. His Facebook group, Swimming lovers and enthusiasts in Gaza, helps him coordinate swim times with groups along the coast, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.
“My morning habit of swimming in the Gaza Sea started over twenty years ago,” Mahra said. “We remained few until many people started joining us in the last two years.” Now, all along the coast, anywhere between 1,000-1,500 people join morning swim groups along the coast.
The group swims do not receive any support from outside organizations and are entirely funded by personal efforts. After dawn prayers, they arrive at the sea around 6:30 a.m. They receive instructions from the swim coaches, then eat three dates and drink warm ginger tea to raise their body temperature, followed by walking, jogging, and warm-up exercises—all before swimming.
As news spread of the swim groups, so did criticism and misunderstanding. The Gaza Sea is cold, especially in winter and in the early morning. In response to questions about why they choose to swim in such cold water, Captain Mohamed responded in videos and letters, with the message: “Instead of staying home and complaining, please come join us and experience our passion firsthand!” This only served to recruit even more swimmers to the groups.
The health benefits of swimming in cold water
While swimming is great exercise, the group imposes an age limit, mainly for safety reasons. Swimming in the winter is forbidden for people under age 15, as their bodies may not be able to withstand the cold. In addition, patients with heart conditions are advised not to swim if the water is too cold.
In the winter season, swimmers do not exceed 15 minutes in the water to preserve body temperature and reduce the chances of any adverse health effects. The air temperature fluctuates between 11-22 degrees Celsius, and the water temperature is approximately 18 degrees Celsius. Trainer Muhammad follows weather conditions closely and publishes them on his Facebook page. He tells everyone about the weather and sea temperature and if it is suitable for swimming or not.
“Our swimming began as a hobby, then evolved into a healthy habit that we now practice with conviction and awareness,” said Mr. Mahra. “We experience many health benefits from swimming in cold water.”
These benefits are both psychological and physical. Psychologically, swimming involves emptying and suppressing negative energy and converting it into positive energy, according to Mr. Mahra, who is also a doctor. Physically, it strengthens the immune system and revitalizes the body.
Mr. Abu Wardeh says that his morning swims, a habit he developed in 2018, boost his immune system. Al-Madhoun claims that swimming regularly from childhood has helped him manage his blood sugar and blood pressure.
“A day without swimming means a troubled psyche, so swimming daily is fundamental, as it increases my appetite for life, my positivity, and my levels of vigor and activity,” Al-Mahdoun told us. “As an academic, I give lectures and offer several training programs. Swimming daily improves my ability to solve problems.”
The group usually swims early in the morning to accommodate those from different backgrounds — doctors, teachers, professors, and others — who need to swim before work. This also allows people to get active in the early dawn hours, when strokes and heart attacks are most likely to occur due to long periods of inactivity during the night.
Dr. Adnan Al-Barsh, a consulting orthopedic surgeon and head of the orthopedic surgery department at Al Shifa Medical Hospital, explained the benefits of this activity for health: “First, [swimming] is a sport, and sports are essential to be healthy,” he said. “Swimming does not stress our body, since there is no pressure on the muscles, even if all muscles are actively engaged. “Second, cold water stimulates the muscles and blood circulation. Not to mention that swimming is a pleasure in itself, as swimmers can forget all of their worries in the sea.”
Despite the limitations of the occupation, many Gazans have found a sense of freedom and possibility by taking to the sea each morning. Swimming also helps them relieve the pressures they face and find a sense of peace. And it’s a practice that continues to draw interest and attention.