First time in the sea
Photo: Rian
Leftists take Palestinians to the beach
They have never met a jellyfish, felt saltwater or stepped on warm sand. Despite long and cumbersome process, two Israeli women go out of their way to bring Palestinian children to Bat Yam shore for first – and perhaps last – time in their life
On the maps, at least those hanging in war rooms, there is no linkage between the Bat Yam beach and the Palestinian Authority's territories. On the contrary, on these maps the separation lines and fences are painted in strong colors. They're there and we're here. No entry.


But there are other maps as well. For example, those of Tzvia Shapira and Rachel Afek of Ramat Hasharon, which include completely different lines: Lines leading from the Palestinian Authority to a beach in the central Israeli city of Bat Yam.


Groups of Palestinian children and their parents visit this beach twice a week during the summer. It's their first time at the beach, and perhaps also the last.


Wait, is it really their first time at the beach? Yes, it really is. It's inconceivable, but it is. Behind the separation fence there are people who have only seen the sea on television or on the internet. They have no idea what it feels like to step on golden and warm sand, they have never been stung by a jellyfish, they cannot imagine what it feels like to dive into salt water and how refreshing it is to leave everything behind, enter the water, let it soothe you, close your eyes and swim inside this blue serenity.


Shapira has been leading a group of five to six women, who are taking part in this project, for the past four years. She came up with the idea when one of her granddaughters celebrated her birthday.


"It was during the winter," she recalled this week, while waiting for a group of children and parents from villages in the South Mount Hebron area. "The entire family celebrated in Givat Chen, not far from Raanana. My son invited two families from the village of Anata, east of Jerusalem, to the event. We received permits for them and they came.


"In the middle of the celebration, the two fathers asked if we were far from the sea. At first we didn't understand, but then they explained that it was an opportunity for them to see it. We left everything and drove to the Herzliya beach. It was stormy that day and they were thrilled. They said they didn't realize how big the sea was until they got the chance to see it with their own eyes."


Toddler checked for bomb

The bus arrives at 11:15 am. We climb up the road to greet them. They stay inside for a few minutes for final instructions on how to behave. The meeting is quiet and moving. Many handshakes, broken words, confused smiles.


The children are the first to break free. First from their parents' grasp and then from the fear of the new place. They fill the grass and the adults' eyes are filled with tears. One cannot remain indifferent to the children's quick recognition of freedom.


Having fun at the beach (Photo: Rian)


They roll on the grass and within second, turn into a laughing pile of organs bent together. And they laugh with all their hearts. They don't hesitate. They all want to breathe these last precious moments, which may never return.


The parents point to the sea, reminding them that the great adventure is still ahead, and the children agree to join the large group heading to the sea.


One cannot stop staring at the women in the heavy clothing. Most of them will keep it on until the end of the visit. Some of them will decide, despite everything, not to miss out on the feeling and enter the sea with their clothes on, laughing happily over the permission they have given themselves.


"When we began bringing groups, we visited all beaches from Herzliya to Ashkelon. We chose this one because it has an excellent breakwater, which significantly reduces the chance of drowning.


"When we came here for the first time, we met Gabi the lifeguard. He nearly fainted when he saw the amount of people we brought. He asked if we were allowed to bring so many people. That's when we realized there was more bureaucracy.


"We've overcome it, but the interesting thing is that Gabi wasn't too enthusiastic about us brining Palestinians at first. He said he didn't like them. It was a process and in the end his heart opened up. Today he helps us take care of the equipment, waits for us and is thrilled to see happy children."


This natural simplicity conceals quite a few efforts led by Afek. She is in charge of obtaining the permits allowing the Palestinians to visit Israel for a few hours.


Can you tell us something about this process?


"I work with the Civil Administration. I submit the requests for permits to them. I try not to lose my patience, because the people sitting there have yet to decide on the policy themselves. They are government workers. We have a Palestinian coordinator who gives us the names.


"At the permit center, these names go through a selection process. If your name is marked by the Shin Bet you can't receive a permit. It's safe to say that almost all 15 to 30-year-olds will not receive a permit because they're considered most dangerous. It's a long and cumbersome process. Yesterday, for example, I was reprimanded for nagging by calling them all the time."


Is there a limited number of people you can bring each time?


"Not at all. I can submit as many names as I want to. If they receive the permit, they come. But receiving the permit is not the end of it. Passing through the border crossing is a project as well, and experience has taught us that we should have one of our women at the relevant border crossing in order to shorten the process. Once we had a children's bus delayed for several hours before the border crossing didn't know what to do with it."


There were some difficult incidents too. In one of the security checks, an 18-month-old baby was separated from his parents, put into a cell and marked with a laser in order to make sure that he was not carrying a bomb or anything of the kind. Imagine an 18-month-old baby standing with his hand up, without understanding what they want from him."


We look at the children in the water. In about an hour they will have to come out. They'll play on the beach for a while, build a small sand castle, have lunch at a youth center in Jaffa and go back home.


This beach day will be remembered in these children's personal pages of history, but will the memory lead to thoughts of happiness or of desperation and missed opportunities? Only time will tell.



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