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Lior Barda, a former soldier in the Israeli army, stood on lifeguard duty recently in Gush Katif, near a Jewish settlement. The 21-year-old says he opposes the pullout.
Lior Barda, a former soldier in the Israeli army, stood on lifeguard duty recently in Gush Katif, near a Jewish settlement. The 21-year-old says he opposes the pullout. (Globe Photo / Ronen Zvulun)

For Gaza surfer, evacuations mean an idyllic lifestyle lost

MAOZ YAM, Gaza Strip -- It's not religion or politics that makes Lior Barda want to stay in the Jewish settlement where he grew up. His motivation is the search for the perfect wave.

Barda, 21, spends his days on an unspoiled beach: clear green water, steady waves, and empty sand stretching in every direction.

He makes a living as a lifeguard on the shore of Gush Katif, the main bloc of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

''It's paradise," he said as he strummed his guitar one recent afternoon. ''It's the best life ever. You just sit and they pay you."

But his employer, the Israeli government, is sending the army on Wednesday to begin evacuating the settlements, unilaterally handing the territory occupied in 1967 back to Palestinians and forcing the 8,500 settlers to move.

Barda's more religious surfer friends listen to recordings of the Psalms as they steel themselves to defy the army. His parents complain of political betrayal by a government that until recently encouraged Jews to move to the settlements.

But Barda refuses to be drawn into anything other than savoring the last few days in the only home he has known.

While his friends plan to hole up in a synagogue and wait for soldiers to carry them out, he says he just wants to document the scene on video.

And last month, when they headed off to confront police at a protest in the inland town of Ofakim, he opted out.

''I'd rather spend an extra day here," he said, gazing out at the water from the elevated wooden shack that's as much a clubhouse as a lifeguard stand.

Wearing baggy red-and-black shorts and rainbow flip-flops and shaking a mane of sun-streaked ringlets, Barda has the look of the international beach bum.

Citing the Doors, Tracy Chapman, and Deep Purple as his main influences, he sticks out among the many teenagers who have plastered their cars and clothing with anti-pullout slogans.

Still, beneath his simple credo lies the heart of the dispute over Gaza: He's against the pullout, he said, because never again will he be able to afford to live so close to such a beautiful beach.

''In Tel Aviv it's very crowded. The air here, it's 100 percent clean air," he said. ''If you want to live on the sea in Israel it costs a lot of money. But here it's very cheap."

That sums up why most Israelis support the pullout -- many feel the army's resources are being drained to protect settlers who have benefited from tax breaks and inexpensive land.

And it's why Palestinians resent the settlements, which occupy some of the few unspoiled areas of the crowded Gaza Strip.

After the pullout, Barda says he wants to leave Israel for a while and go surfing -- in California or Hawaii if he can get a US visa; if not, he will head for South America.

But he's not going to bring his surfboard emblazoned with the Star of David. He has heard that people outside the country don't like Israelis.

His parents moved from Ashkelon, just past Gaza's northern border, when he was a baby.

They emigrated from Morocco, whose Jews were expelled after the formation of Israel. With his dark complexion, he jokes that he can pass for an Arab.

He says he would support the pullout if it would mean ''no more killing, if we could live like New Zealand."

But he doubts it. While serving in the army, he was wounded in a Palestinian attack on the camp. Two of his friends were killed. More recently, he was driving directly behind two Israelis who were shot to death by Palestinian gunmen on the fenced road out of the settlements. A bullet struck his car's engine block.

''You're just going to a party and you get shot at -- what the hell?" he said.

The beach is divided in two by a screen to separate the men's side from the women's.

Many religious women bathe fully clothed -- like their Muslim counterparts up the coast on Gaza City's beaches. Sometimes, though, women come up to visit the lifeguards, some in long clothes, others in more daring surfer gear.

Now, with the strip closed to everyone but residents and their relatives, there are only a handful of people on each beach. A boy in earlocks plays on a boogie board while a group of men, protesters from the West Bank, gather to pray.

On the last day, Barda said, ''I'm going to cry."

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