DEIR EL BALAH // The idea of pulling a 12-tonne bus seems a crazy one, and Mohammed Baraka takes a few minutes to prepare himself with his family and friends.
Only 20 years old, Mohammed is far from a professional muscleman – in fact he is a second-year student in tourism and hotels at the Palestine Technical College in Deir Al Balah, his hometown in the Gaza Strip.
But he has become something of a local hero, with his feats posted on Facebook and shared widely among Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere.
Mohammed now dreams of leaving the blockaded territory and becoming a global star.
His strength has earned him the nickname “Gaza’s Samson”, after the Biblical hero given supernatural force by God to fight his enemies and perform daring feats – including one where he ripped off the city gates of Gaza.
But Mohammed prefers to be called “Gaza’s Jason” after his favourite movie star, British action film hero Jason Statham.
For his trick, the 20-year-old uses his teeth while strapped into a harness to heave at a 20-person bus until it moves. Next he pulls a 50-seater bus.
The bus driver, Mahmud, looks astounded. “I thought he was joking, this is madness,” he says. “Had I not seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t believe it.”
Mohammed, however, is more modest in his appraisal.
“I am very happy as I managed to pull the big bus and brought joy to the children,” he says.
He accepts that many think he is strange, but “if an idea comes to my mind, even if it is crazy, then I do it immediately”.
From an early age it was clear Mohammed was different. He first stood out when he jumped through fire in a school performance. Soon after he pulled a motorbike with his teeth.
For his first major test, he says he pulled a 13-tonne bulldozer with his arms.
Among his other hobbies are walking on nails and cracking bricks on his chest and back.
He admits he has had no formal training except watching videos on YouTube and, of course, the action scenes of Jason Statham.
Mohammed dreams of travelling the globe to compete in international competitions.
But in Gaza that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
The Palestinian enclave has been under a blockade by Israel since 2006, with severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods.
The strip’s border with Egypt, is also closed for the vast majority of the time, and Gazans are largely blocked from leaving.
In the territory, unemployment has reached nearly 45 per cent, according to the United Nations, with a senior UN official recently warning that Gaza was on a “disastrous trajectory”.
But while Mohammed’s chances of leaving Gaza any time soon are limited, this only makes his story more important, according to Mohammed Al Faleet, a friend who volunteers to help run the strong man’s social media accounts.
“We have thousands of admirers,” Mr Al Faleet says.
He sees his friend as a symbol of what young Palestinians can achieve. “Gazans have the ability, the talent and the creativity to compete at world championships,” he says.
However there are few clubs or organisations sponsoring such activities in the territory, which suffers from a lack of investment in sport as much as other sectors.
Kamal, Mohammed’s 55-year-old father who works at a local school, says there isn’t enough equipment for those wanting to improve and calls on the West Bank-based Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to back his son’s campaign.
“Mohammed can raise the name of Palestine high,” Kamal says. His case “highlights that the youth of Gaza are banned from travel and deprived of any chance of making a better future”.
Mohammed agrees with his father. “Young people in Gaza have the creativity,” he says. “But we need liberty and freedom of movement.”
* Agence France-Presse