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Bounce in their step

Young Gazans jump at parkour to escape dreary life

Academy teaching the obstacle-traversing sport opens in Al-Shati refugee camp with support from French sporting goods giant Decathlon

  • Mohamed Aliwa, a Palestinian youth whose leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was injured during clashes with the   Israeli army in violent protests along the border with Israel, shows off his parkour skills despite his disability and while on crutches in Gaza City on January 4, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    Mohamed Aliwa, a Palestinian youth whose leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was injured during clashes with the Israeli army in violent protests along the border with Israel, shows off his parkour skills despite his disability and while on crutches in Gaza City on January 4, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • Mohamed Aliwa, a Palestinian youth whose leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was injured during clashes with the Israeli army in violent protests along the border with Israel, shows off his parkour skills despite his disability in Gaza City on January 4, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    Mohamed Aliwa, a Palestinian youth whose leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was injured during clashes with the Israeli army in violent protests along the border with Israel, shows off his parkour skills despite his disability in Gaza City on January 4, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • Mohamed Aliwa, a Palestinian youth whose leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was injured during clashes with the   Israeli army in violent protests along the border with Israel, shows off his parkour skills despite his disability and while on crutches in Gaza City on January 4, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    Mohamed Aliwa, a Palestinian youth whose leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was injured during clashes with the Israeli army in violent protests along the border with Israel, shows off his parkour skills despite his disability and while on crutches in Gaza City on January 4, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • Palestinian youths train at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    Palestinian youths train at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • A coach trains Palestinian children at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    A coach trains Palestinian children at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • A coach trains Palestinian children at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    A coach trains Palestinian children at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • A Palestinian youth trains at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    A Palestinian youth trains at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • Palestinian Parkour enthusiasts exercise in a training facility in Gaza City, December 28, 2020. (AFP)
    Palestinian Parkour enthusiasts exercise in a training facility in Gaza City, December 28, 2020. (AFP)
  • A Palestinian youth trains at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020.(MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
    A Palestinian youth trains at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy's training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020.(MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
  • Palestinian youths practice parkour in Gaza City, on November 18, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)
    Palestinian youths practice parkour in Gaza City, on November 18, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

GAZA CITY — Using crutches, Palestinian Mohamed Aliwa leaps from one concrete slab to another, determined that his missing leg won’t stop him doing parkour, a sport that brings respite from grim reality in Gaza.

The Palestinian teen’s right leg was amputated near the knee in 2018 after he was hit by Israeli army fire during violent protests along the fortified border separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. Jerusalem said the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza and seeks Israel’s destruction, was spurring the unrest and using it for cover for attacks.

Along with his lower leg, he lost his dream of being a professional parkour athlete, he told AFP.

But watching his friends jumping from obstacle to obstacle, the 18-year-old, who now sometimes makes use of a prosthetic limb, decided that his disability shouldn’t bring his moves to an end.

“I asked my friends to help me walk, and little by little I came to move and jump almost like them,” he said, talking in a rehabilitation center that he visits at least once a week.

A coach trains Palestinian children at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy’s training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Parkour, an extreme sport also known as free-running, originated in France in the 1990s.

It involves navigating urban obstacles using a fast-paced mix of jumping, vaulting, running and rolling.

“Sometimes I feel frustrated,” says Aliwa. “But I told myself that if I could do that, then everything else in my life would be easy.”

He says the sport gives him “incredible energy.”

In Gaza, young people have been practicing parkour for years; bounding from ruin to ruin in an enclave pockmarked by three wars between Israel and the Islamist terror group Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

‘Resilience’

But even the easiest jump carries risks, and that is why Jihad Abu Sultan, 32, opened what he says is the “first parkour academy in the Palestinian territories,” with the support of French sporting goods giant Decathlon.

“I started doing parkour in 2005,” he said at his club in Al-Shati refugee camp, near Gaza City.

“At the time, we didn’t have a dedicated space, we trained in cemeteries and on the ruins of buildings destroyed by Israel.”

Abu Sultan says that the sport was practiced by individuals on an ad hoc basis until two months ago, when he came together with fellow enthusiasts to establish the club, which they call “Wallrunners.”

It teaches the sport “in a safe way, far from the dangers of the street,” he told AFP.

It has a modest budget but already has some 70 members, including seven girls, who can jump from one wooden block to another, perform somersaults and swing on parallel bars.

On the ground are rubber mats, to soften falls.

The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli blockade for more than a decade and unemployment is about 50 percent, rising to 65 percent among young people, according to the World Bank. Israel says the blockade, which is supported by Egypt, is necessary to stop Hamas and other terror groups from importing weapons to the enclave. Goods are shipped to Israel where they are inspected and then trucked into Gaza.

A Palestinian youth trains at the Wallrunners Parkour Academy’s training facility in Gaza City on December 28, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

For some, Parkour shines a ray of light into what is a dreary existence.

“For a generation of young Palestinians who have grown up in a flood of under-employment, it has become a method of self-expression, an escape, and a way of life,” says the Wallrunners website in English.

“Parkour is young, dynamic, and subversive. A sport that is perhaps custom fit for places like Gaza, and the energy, creativity and resilience of its youth.”

The club is due to hold the first parkour competition in Gaza in February, if restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic allow it.

Aliwa will not be able to compete, but will watch his fellow athletes.

“I wish I had my leg back, to resume a normal life, to work out in the gym and do parkour” to the levels that he achieved previously, he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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