GAZA CITY — The bell rings in a gloomy basement in the Gaza Strip and two teenage girls wearing headgear and gloves start circling each other in the ring.
Family and friends cheer them on, as they begin landing punches in the first female-only boxing tournament in the Palestinian enclave.
The thunderous voice of the commentator drowns out the small crowd that has defied the coronavirus pandemic to come and watch.
One of the young fighters, Farah Abu al-Qomsan, 15, says she had long followed boxing online before switching from the screen to the ropes.
“I used to watch boxers like Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, I love watching them fight,” she enthused.
“They are really good and often win their fights in the first round.”
Girls and women competed according to their weight categories at the tournament on Friday.
“Many people think what we are doing is wrong, that we are acting in defiance of morals and traditions,” said one fighter, Rita Abu Rahma, 20. “But for me, my family and friends, it is all normal, and they all support me.”
“Boxing doesn’t take anything away from my femininity, from being a woman,” said Abu Rahma, sporting long brown hair.
“Boys and girls have the right to practice the sport of their choice.”
The Gaza Strip is a densely populated Palestinian coastal territory of two million people, ruled for more than a decade by the Hamas terror group.
Its unemployment rate is around 50 percent, rising to 65% among young people.
“We are an Olympic boxing club, but we don’t have the resources” to provide gloves and headgear for all, said coach Oussama Ayoub, 35.
He said he was proud of organizing the tournament despite being cash-strapped, and hopes to soon be able to take the boxers out of Gaza for regional competitions.
“This is a first in Palestine, a women’s boxing tournament,” he said.
“We had 45 competitors today and the best will qualify” to represent the Palestinians at a championship in Kuwait in February, he said.
He expressed hope that Israel would let the athletes pass through the Erez crossing so they could travel to the Gulf state.
The team also hopes the pandemic will abate before then.
Having long been spared a large coronavirus caseload, the isolated enclave has been hit hard in recent weeks, recording 891 new cases on Saturday alone.