The sport was first introduced to Palestine by the British, who ruled the Mandate from 1917 to 1947. Clubs were set up in calm bodies of water, such as Lake Tiberias and the Bay of Haifa. 

After the 1948 war, however, rowing all but disappeared as an active sport.

Ghassan Haddad, a Palestinian American who took up rowing as a young adult, decided he wanted to change all that.  

After being plagued by recurrent injuries and giving up rowing full-time, he wanted to find a way to stay involved in the sport.

“I had this idea… I thought I’d row for Palestine,” said Haddad.

What started on a whim has grown into an unprecedented initiative.

Rowing for Palestine

The Palestinian Rowing Federation was officially founded in 1998. Haddad lobbied regional and international rowing federations vigorously to recognize the nascent organisation. 

Later that year, he received a letter from the International Rowing Federation saying he could represent Palestine in issues relating to rowing. 

Recognition by the Olympic Committee followed soon after.

He was then able to approach and convince two professional rowers to join the team, both Palestinian expatriates. 

He identified Palestinians already rowing in countries that have official programmes, like Paula al-Qalqili, a German citizen originally from the West Bank town of Qalqiyliah. 

Haddad now says that the Federation has gotten more recognition, Palestinian rowers living abroad are beginning to approach them, not the other way around.

Training development

“We realized we had to have a structure in place to support the interest of athletes like myself, particularly expatriates, who wanted to compete for Palestine”

Ghassan Haddad,
head of Palestinian Rowing Federation

Haddad then surveyed the sports scene in Palestine to see what capabilities were available for training and competition. 

He said he repeatedly heard the same thing: there were no structural foundations for athletics in Palestine, no ability to travel for competitions or training due to constant closures, and no money. 

“What wasn’t being told in interviews was that there was also almost no desire. This is probably a product of the occupation - people are just tired,” he said.

“We realized we had to have a structure in place to support the interest of athletes like myself, particularly expatriates, who wanted to compete for Palestine.” 

Facing problems

The status of professional Palestinian athletes is unique because their nation is not officially recognized and many do not carry Palestinian Authority passports.

“In many ways, this federation is being used as a test to see how to find a way where they get the right to represent their country despite not having a passport and investing in their country,” said Haddad.

In May 2004, al-Qalqili will compete in the Asian Olympics Qualifying Regatta. If she finishes in the top six, the Rowing Federation could be the first to qualify an athlete for the Olympics. 

So far, the athletes have been training in Germany, which has the most developed rowing programme in the world. Haddad hopes to eventually establish a rowing club in Gaza for the athletes to train in at least three months of the year.

Rowing refugees

Ten months ago, Haddad decided he wanted to embark on an even more ambitious project: bringing rowing to Palestine, and specifically to those least able to enjoy it.

“One of our mission statements is equal opportunity for the most disenfranchised sections of the Palestinian community.  We do not do work with upper class sports clubs.” 

With the help of the United Nations Development Programme, Ghassan developed a grassroots youth rowing programme in the Beach Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. 

“We feel rowing is a rich sport that can offer something really special to a group of kids in the [refugee] camps so used to seeing cement in their faces every day,” Haddad told Aljazeera.net.     

Limited resources

No doubt the first question that comes to mind is: where do they row? Gaza, after all, is not exactly a rower’s paradise.  There are no lakes or rivers here, and the only other body of water is the feisty Mediterranean Sea. 

Palestinian girls have shown a
particular aptitude for the sport

As it turns out, that is their only option. Special measures are being taken to accommodate the rowing needs of the young athletes in Gaza.   

“[We] are willing to assist Palestine in a practical way by offering specially made cheaper boats. Unfortunately, at this moment, what we cannot offer Palestine is water,” said FISA - the International Federation of Rowing Associations - Youth Commission Chairman Ingrid Dieterle at a recent press conference.

Six boats, made especially for coastal rowing, have been ordered through the Rowing in a Box Federation, which subsidises all purchases. 

But Israeli authorities have held up the boats for five months now. 

Rowers and coaches also faced the inevitable political challenges. Israeli restrictions on travel means that board members cannot meet and young athletes cannot practice elsewhere. The frequent shelling of Gaza has made for an unstable and unpredictable work environment.

“Sometimes we are forced to postpone our scheduled practices. I live in an area that is shelled quite often by the Israelis so I wouldn’t’ be able to come to work,” complained Rana al-Ajab, one of the female coaches.

Overcoming the odds

Despite all this, the youth programme has done remarkably well. According to Haddad, it has had a particularly positive effect on the girls, who have been told all their lives that “sports is a male thing” and have never been given the opportunity to become athletes.

The Federation held its first indoor rowing championship this week for the young athletes. 

Rowers competed on professional indoor rowing machines connected to a computer which tracked time and position, as is the standard for indoor rowing around the world. 

“We are very excited,” said a sweaty Marah Nasir, 11 years old, after the completion of her race. “I want to continue rowing and participate in competitions when I get older. This is a very good programme.”