Summer is a time for holidays, though not in the Gaza Strip. Vacation plans died here with the closure of the territory’s borders and Israel’s siege casting a shadow over the enclave’s land, sea and airspace. But along the western corniche of Gaza City, you can still find a life full of activity and enjoyment.
Children swing, vendors sell corn and drinks, seasonal fruit markets are bustling. People sit by the Mediterranean to escape their baking homes and, for many, the boredom of unemployment.
But the territory’s residents – about two million people – are turning away from the sea. The flow of raw sewage into Gaza’s waters, as electricity and fuel cuts at the hands of the Palestinian Authority close treatment plants, has left a lingering, sulphurous stench.
The formerly blue waters are a shade of brown and Gazans, holding their nose, are searching for other options to enjoy their forced staycations.
Instead, they are now booking out private chalets, choosing a cleaner environment, greater privacy and more freedom to swim at ease in the intense summer heat.
Ramzy Al Dahdouh’s chalet has been booked out all summer and will be occupied until the end of September, he says.
"People come to the chalet to swim because of the sea pollution," the 37-year-old private pool owner tells The National, who invested in the $150,000 [Dh551,000] project with his seven brothers.
“I do my best so the water of the swimming pools is healthy for the customers. I have spent a lot of money sterilising the water.”
The cost of one of Gaza’s 640 private chalets ranges from $110 to $275 for a 12-hour session. This is an expensive option compared to the free beach, but a healthier one. Medics in the strip say the seawater along Gaza’s 25 miles of coastline is around 70 per cent to 75 per cent polluted.
“It is so dangerous for people to swim in the sea because they will be directly affected,” Dr Ahmed Helees, a Gazan consultant in environmental sciences and public health, says. “It will cause ear and eye infections and skin diseases.”
He says the raw sewage has damaged the wider marine environment and contributed to declining fish stocks for Gaza’s anglers.
Yet the pools don’t always provide a cleaner sanctuary for those who swim in them, with some waters becoming unsanitary if not supervised correctly.
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Some Gazans seem to care little about unclean pool water, however. With loud music playing, his hair wet and bare chest on show, 27-year-old Mohammed Khader says he rents a chalet with his friends twice a summer.
“I like to go with my friends to a private swimming pool as we can dance and sing freely without caring about other things,” he says. “The seawater is not clean and you can find all kinds of people there [at the beach], people who will not understand some of my behaviours.”
For the women of Gaza, the chalets offer the comfort of privacy in a conservative society under the rule of Hamas.
“I feel more comfortable when I go to a private swimming pools, I can wear whatever I want without being annoyed by the looks of others,” says 38-year-old mother of four Ola Emad, who is spending her weekend with her family in a chalet in Tal Alhawa neighborhood in Gaza city.
"My son got sick last year from the pollution. He got a skin disease and he took a long time to recover,” Ola adds during a break from swimming at the chalet. “After that, I stopped allowing my sons to swim in the sea.”
Most chalets are designed with two pools and come with a shallow one for children, so parents can be assured of their safety.
That peace of mind is one thing Gaza’s coastal waters seemingly cannot offer. The upshot for chalet owners is that they will not be searching for clientele anytime soon.