Beached ship restaurant fuels Gazans' longing for the sea

GAZA (Reuters) - For decades, Palestinians have dreamed of having their own port on the Mediterranean, from where they could sail the world. Instead, they are making do with a wooden ship run aground on a Gaza beach, which has become a popular restaurant.

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The “Lolo Rose” may not look like much, but its eight tables are in heavy demand, with Gazans queuing for a chance to eat fish in an unusual spot where they can hear the waves crashing on the sides, even if they can’t make it out to sea.

“It is a nice idea but it is a standstill, it does not move,” said Manar Shaqoura, 19, a law student who managed to snag a table at the front of the vessel. “We wish the ship could sail and take us to Turkey.”

In Roman times, Gaza was an important port on the Mediterranean, a stopover in the Middle East for merchants on the way between Asia Minor and north Africa. That status continued into the 20th century and World War One.

But recent decades have not been so good. After Israel seized Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war, the port was effectively put out of use. In the mid-1990s, under the Oslo accords, plans were drawn up for a much larger port for Gaza’s now 2 million people, but they never came to fruition.

Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but still controls entry and exit, access to the sea and the territory’s airspace. Locals feel trapped and frustrated.

Despite Palestinian and international efforts, Israel will not allow a new port to be built, citing security. The concern is that Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, will smuggle weapons into the territory.

Israel’s minister of intelligence and transport has been pushing the idea of building an artificial island off Gaza’s coast that would provide a port and other facilities, but that has so far failed to win the government’s backing.

So for now, the “Lolo Rose” is one place where Gazans can go to get a feel for the sea and imagine themselves on it.

The owners once used the vessel for fishing, but Israel’s tight restrictions on access to the sea -- fishermen can only go out 6-9 nautical miles, rather than the 20 miles agreed under the Oslo accords -- have made the industry unprofitable.

“We are under blockade, the idea is that you feel yourself inside the water,” said Thabet Tartouri, the ship’s owner.

“We hope one day, we will be allowed to have tourist ships that will go from Gaza to the whole world.”

Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Luke Baker and Matthew Mpoke Bigg