Words by Matt Olsen
Photos courtesy of Surfing 4 Peace

It’s hard to talk about surfing in a war zone without someone making a reference to the classic scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But here in the Middle East, things are a little different. In our world, Charlie does surf, and there’s nothing we want more than to share a few waves with him.

We’re in the Gaza Strip, the tiny, overcrowded piece of the Palestinian Territories nestled between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea, currently controlled by the militant group Hamas. And whenever the Israeli military and Hamas militants are gracious enough to refrain from lobbing missiles at each other, we’re Surfing 4 Peace.

The plan is simple. When governments can’t make peace between themselves, it is up to the regular citizens to build the personal ties on which peace is made and sustained. Surfing 4 Peace is not an organization—it’s a community of surfers and enthusiasts who reach out across cultural and political barriers to create friends out of enemies through surfing and beach culture, with an emphasis on coexistence, cross-cultural dialogue, and the shared surfing experience.

Founded in 2007 by Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and Israeli surf/skate kingpin Arthur Rashkovan, Surfing 4 Peace first made international headlines by donating a shipment of used boards from shops and individuals in Israel across the war-ravaged border to the small community of surfers in the Gaza Strip. In addition to continued cooperation with the surfers in Gaza, who are now united together in the Gaza Surf Club, Tel Aviv-based Surfing 4 Peace also aims to build ties between Arabs and Jews within Israel’s borders, two populations that rarely mix, even in Israel’s cultural capital. As the community grows, S4P plans to bring the message north to Lebanon and further south to Egypt.

Today, Surfing 4 Peace initiatives are run by a small group of dedicated enthusiasts, led by Arthur Rashkovan, with contributions of time, equipment, and expertise rolling in from supporters around the world. The recipe is the same: keep it simple, keep it focused on community, and watch it grow. We’re not trying to raise money, we’re trying to raise awareness and build a community that transcends borders. As we work to get badly needed equipment to our friends in Gaza, we don’t just do it to get them in the water, we do it to get them in the water with us.

We might not be paddling out while the napalm rains down, but Duvall’s line, “You either fight, or you surf,” still holds true. S4P does not exist in a bubble. Everyone in the S4P community has been touched by the Arab-Israeli conflict. On both sides of the border, former soldiers and victims of war are joining S4P and making the conscious choice to seek common ground, rather than fight over it. In Gaza, young men who might otherwise be training for conflict are instead learning how to duck dive, repair dings, and teach the next generation how to find peace in the sea and, at least for a while, feel free. Surfing 4 Peace is not going to bring peace to this troubled world by itself, but while our governments bicker, we will cross the lines that need to be crossed, rebuild the bridges that others destroy, and work for the day when we can prove that, in the words of Doc Paskowitz, “people who surf together, can live together.”

Matt Olsen is the Director of Explore Corps, a US-based non-profit that sponsors the Gaza Surf Club and provides 501c support and oversight for Surfing 4 Peace.